Unitarian and Universalist women have a history of creating important organizations of their own. Some of these organizations came to play a role in supporting the work of Unitarians and Universalists in places beyond their own country's borders.
In 1869, the Women's Centenary Aid Association was founded by American Universalist women to help raise funds to support denominational efforts at the hundredth anniversary celebration of Universalism in the U.S. Through the years, the organization changed its name and funding priorities several times. Some of its projects included missionary work in Japan and the British Isles; "supporting schools for African American children in the American South;" providing financial support for floundering parishes, ministerial students, disabled ministers, and ministers' widows and orphans; and publishing and distributing denominational literature.
American Unitarian women founded The Women's Auxiliary Conference in 1880. It, too, changed its name and its focus through the years. It supported leadership training and religious education, and offering financial support to congregations.
In 1908, British Unitarian women founded the British League of Unitarian and Other Liberal Christian Women (also known as the Women's League), and initially focused their efforts on publications and correspondence.
At the end of the 19th century, the Women's Centenary Association, descendant of the Women's Centenary Aid Association, became active in missionary work in Japan. Its primary project was the Blackmer Girl's Home in Tokyo. The project's history was recounted by the Rev. G. F. Keirn, Superintendent of Nippon Dojin Kirisuto Kyokai (nee-PONE doe-JIN kee-DEE-stoe kee-oh-KAI), in "Twenty-Five Years of the Universalist Japan Mission, 1890-1915:"
At a meeting held Feb. 17, 1896, in Miss Osborn's residence No. 4 Daimachi, Koishikawa [dah-ee-MAH-chee koe-EE-shee-kah-wah], Tokyo, Miss Osborn presented a proposition to establish a girl's home. The proposition was approved, and it was voted that she might use the surplus of mission funds, about forty yen per month, for this purpose. She also reported that there were three girls now ready to enter and it was confidently expected that more would apply soon. Though one of the three girls had for some time been living with Miss Osborn, this was the first official beginning of what is now known as The 'Blackmer Universalist Girl's Home.' When Miss Osborn was on her next furlough in America, she saw Mr. Lucian Blackmer, of St. Louis Mo, who then was, and continued to the end of his life to be, an ardent supporter of the Mission. On hearing from her the needs of the Home, he was moved to give money sufficient to buy land and erect a building for its use. In recognition of this generous gift the Home bears his name... Though English and music are taught, this is not a school, neither is it a rescue home as some have erroneously supposed. It is simply a Christian home where girls may live under its helpful influence while attending school. It is estimated that at least one hundred and ten girls have had residence of different duration in the Home since its founding.
There was a Sunday School and kindergarten connected to the Blackmer Home, with the resident girls apparently serving as teachers, or teachers-in-training.
Interestingly, several more modern sources mention the Blackmer project, and though they all agree on the Universalist women's support for the project, and that the project served girls, they vary in some key details. One account reports that its "mission was the rescue of Japanese girls whose families would otherwise sell them into domestic slavery or to brothels (not to be confused with girls who trained to be Geisha). Rescued girls in the Blackmer School were educated and trained to become good Japanese wives; the school helped arrange marriages for older students." Another account elaborates on the source of funding: "By 1913, the women were entirely supporting the work at Blackmer, releasing the General Convention's money for other aspects of the mission project." Yet another source reports that Blackmer House was "where orphans and the poor could be trained in English, homemaking, and kindergarten teaching skills."
The ultimate demise of the Blackmer Girl's Home is also reported in different ways. It is clear that the Home was destroyed in the World War II bombing of Tokyo. But some accounts report that, before that fateful end, the Americans who ran the churches and missions had been ousted by the war, leaving a very few Japanese trained ministers to keep the project going as best they could. Another account relates that, in 1942, "salaries to several Universalist women from the United States who were employed at the Blackmer School had been discontinued, since they had not been heard from since December 1941... " Later accounts indicate that "the women survived the war in internment camps but that one of them had gone over to the Catholics."
Though accounts clearly disagree, it seems clear that the Universalist women's organization was involved, from beginning to end, in a project that served girls in a country that most of its members would never visit. It is curious that time has erased so many details, and that no one can completely agree on either the purpose or the population served.
Another example of a women-to-women project is the work of Margaret Barr. Barr was born in 1899 in Yorkshire, England. Her family was Methodist, but when Barr attended college in Cambridge, she discovered Unitarianism. After qualifying as a teacher, Barr studied for the ministry at Manchester College, Oxford. While serving a Unitarian church in Rotherham, Barr attended a British General Assembly and heard about the work of Hajom Kissor Singh and the Unitarians of Khasi Hills, India. Already drawn to Gandhi's work, Barr sought a ministerial appointment to India. She was denied, however, as the General Assembly was unwilling to send a single woman to work in such a remote location.
Undaunted, Barr secured a teaching position in Calcutta, and from there, worked her way to the Khasi Hills in 1936. The British General Assembly eventually granted her a one-year exploratory commission for her work, and the (British) Women's League contributed funding, an effort they would sustain for nearly 30 years. From Barr's base in Shillong, she assisted local Unitarian communities in opening schools and orphanages. After ten years, convinced that those institutions were sufficiently established, she moved to remote Kharang and established a rural center with a residential school. At the same time, she maintained her position as Superintendent for the Unitarian Union of the Khasi and Jaintia Hills.
Barr resisted any label that implied that she was a "missionary." Instead, she considered herself a bridge-builder between religions and peoples. In 1963, she was awarded the UUA's Award for Distinguished Service. She died as she lived, at work in her adopted homeland of India, in 1973.
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Last updated on Wednesday, October 26, 2011.
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