Jan. 2017

“From the Sidelines to the Pulpit: Presbyterian Women Step Up”

For nearly 2000 years, women were hard to find in prominent church positions. By the 20th century, Protestant denominations were opening their doors. The Presbyterian Church (USA) ordained its first female elder in 1930 and minister in 1956. Brick Church began appointing women as officers and clergy in the 1970s. But Brick Church women have always been highly visible philanthropists and volunteers. Here is a very small sample:

18th century widow’s mite. When John Rodgers was raising money to build the first Brick Church, he called as a courtesy on a poor widow whose daughter had died. She donated the money saved for her daughter’s dowry to the church. In 1788, Elizabeth Thompson bequeathed $900 for a Charity School that served poor children until 1810.

Summer escapes and significant philanthropies. As New York, the economy and Brick Church all grew, so did gifts from women. Mrs. John Crosby Brown donated her summer home as a fresh air vacation site for city girls in the early 1900s. Among many other gifts, Louise Whitfield Carnegie gave a $100,000 matching grant for our parish house. More recently, Helen Watson Buckner, Mary French Rockefeller (who also regularly sent a large roast turkey to the Fair Snack Bar) and Elita Cason Wadmond have given notable gifts.

Helping the poor. In the mid-1800s, the Dorcas Society made clothes for the poor, but evolved into an Employment Society that hired poor women to make the clothes instead. This group also focused on living conditions in the slums and employed a lay bible reader in the 1870s, Miss Margaret Griffiths, who visited workers in their homes.

25¢ lunches for working women. In the 1930s, our Fifth Avenue neighborhood attracted department stores that employed young women at modest pay. The Neighborhood Lunch Club, the brain child of Emma Miller, organized by Helen V.K. Devens  and staffed by hundreds of volunteers, provided economical meals (25 cents for lunch). In its 20-year life, it served more than one million meals.

Women’s Association in action. In 1947, the formidable Geneva McIlvaine arrived to take over women’s work including the Women’s Association. She oversaw more than 30 WA committees and led bible studies. Mrs. McIlvaine, who attended worship services dressed in cap and robe, retired after 26 years of service.Carol Ann Mercer celebrated her 25th anniversary as Women’s Association Coordinator in 2014. The WA continues to attract hundreds of women for fellowship and service. Its marquee event, the Brick Church Fair,raised nearly $350,000 in 2015.

Historic officers and clergy. Brick Church’s “firsts” began in 1971 with the election of our first woman Elders: Eleanor Nash Starkey and Isabel Cunningham. They were followed in 1972 by Deacon Charlotte Terry Miller, in 1978 by Trustee Helen Watson Buckner and in 1979 by Assistant Minister Leslie Merlin. Since 2000, approximately 50%of our officers have been women along with five female clergy members.


The Rev. Leslie Merlin

The Record asked Leslie Merlin, Associate Minister of The Brick Church,December 1979 – August 1997, to answer this question:

 What Was It Like Being First?

“When I went to seminary, in 1972, male counterparts repeatedly asked me whether I thought I would ever get a job. I had no idea. I had never met a woman minister.

People used to say, “You’re the first lady minister I’ve ever met,” or, “You’re too pretty to be a rabbi,” or, “Are you, like, a nun?” They don’t say any of those things anymore. Progress.

If anyone at Brick chafed at my presence I didn’t know it. This is a very polite group. The younger women seemed encouraged by my presence, and reached out in friendship right away. When I married, then brought forth three babies in five years, I noticed a distinct rise in temperature from the older ladies. That seemed understandable; my mother reacted the same way.

I started as the Christian Education/Youth Minister, an acceptable spot for a female on staff. After a few years I worked my way into the Pastoral position, which meant that I advised the Deacons! What a great group! In the 1980’s every social ill was on our doorstep and the Deacons took the bait every time. They launched outreach ministries in every direction. It was exciting and fulfilling for all of us.

 The world was new. It always is.”