Episcopalians Remember Emily Malbone Morgan on February 25th
Episcopalians Remember Emily Malbone Morgan February 25th
This formidable woman was barely out of her teens when she began to follow the Way of the Cross and she still brings us along with her today.
On February 8, Alinda Stanley, past Companion-in-Charge, and I attended the Morning Prayer service at the Berkeley Center, home for Episcopal students attending Yale Divinity School in New Haven. We had received an invitation to preach about the founder of the Companions, Emily Malbone Morgan, who is celebrated February 25 in the Episcopal Church’s liturgical calendar.
There were about 25 in the congregation, mostly students in their 20s and 30s. Alinda and I were very happy to spread the news about Emily, and about Companions!
The church liturgical people call Emily “Lay Leader and Contemplative” in the calendar, but to me those titles sell her short. She was a prodigious leader—an organizer, a corraller, a prod for the reluctant and a comfort for those who worked too hard, someone who pulled together disparate people within one sheltering community. She prayed daily, but I would consider her far more of an active pray-er than a contemplative one. This formidable woman who was barely out of her teens when she began to follow the Way of the Cross still brings us along with her today.
This is the text of my homily delivered at Berkeley Chapel.
If you read between the lines of letters and papers that some New Englanders wrote after the Civil War, you pick up a sense of dis-ease. They had exchanged the rigors of Puritanism for the more commodious pews of the Episcopal Church, but some worried that perhaps they had too much money. Some of them feared, like the rich man in today’s parable, that all this money might prevent them from inheriting eternal life.
Emily Malbone Morgan of Hartford was one of those worried post-Puritan Protestants. Some young women her age were headed off to college but she was of the social class that did not believe in an academic education for their daughters. Well-to-do young women were readied to take their position in society as wives and mothers.
Think of Edith Wharton, whose main characters chafed at the strictures of class and privilege, whose intelligence and abilities were constricted as tightly as their corset stays. Edith Wharton and Emily Malbone Morgan, whose feast we celebrate today, were exactly the same age – both born in 1862, both died in 1937. Both broke the mold of what young women in their social class were supposed to do.
Two concerns pressed heavily on young Emily. One concern was intercessory prayer. Within Emily’s close circle of friends was a bed-ridden invalid, Adelyn Howard. These young women, in their late teens and early 20s, would gather at Adelyn’s bed to visit and talk, and to pray. As Adelyn grew frail and near death, she urged her friends to stay together, to dedicate themselves to intercessory prayer for the needs of the world. She made them pledge to do this in remembrance of her.
So Emily did. In 1884 she and her friends started the Society of the Companions of the Holy Cross. Within 30 years there were so many Companions that they began to build a summer retreat house—Adelynrood—named for their first dear Companion, and the house is still going strong.
But another concern also nagged at young Emily: her own wealth and privilege. The growing distance between rich and poor. The girls her age who worked six days a week in mills and factories while she and her friends could socialize and travel. She began to open summer vacation homes for factory girls, places where they could rest and eat good food and take in the fresh air of the country. Emily used her own money to open a series of summer homes in Connecticut, and gave them names like “Heart’s Ease” and “Beulahland.”
It was not long before other young women, feeling similar burdens of wealth and privilege, joined her. In particular, a handful of women right out of college—the first generation of American women to graduate college—found Emily and became Companions. And then they got to work and recruited their friends to start the College Settlement Association. They raised their own funds and opened the Rivington Street Settlement House in New York City in 1889, just a few months before Jane Addams and Ellen Gates Starr opened the doors of Hull-House in Chicago.
The settlements provided service to their poor neighbors, yes. But college women and Companions lived in the settlements and supported them with wages they earned. The settlements were laboratories where these young women tried to figure out how to make the world a better place. They applied their brand-new educations. They learned to organize. They developed a profound solidarity with working people, labor leaders, immigrants who didn’t speak English, who ate strange food, who were Jews and Catholics and Syrians.
And because they were Companions, they connected Emily Morgan’s two passions: prayer and social concern. They honed a practice of intercessory prayer that tied them in solidarity with the sufferings of the world, with the struggles of the working class, with the cause of peace and reconciliation.
Emily Morgan’s leadership lives on today. You can come to Adelynrood as a place of rest and renewal. You can find a group of like-minded Companions who pray daily for social justice and peace, who try to lead lives of simplicity and service. You can re-tool, like Companions and our comrades have done for over 100 years, and then get back out there and do the work God calls you to do.
Featured photo, bust of Emily Morgan in the Common Room at Adelynrood, by Lois Blood Bennett