Walking with the Saints
Julia Chester Emery: Putting Episcopal Women on the Map
I have often wondered how and when the turning point was for lay women of the church to be recognized, seen and heard, and I think I found my starting point.
Julia Chester Emery was born in September of 1852 into an Episcopal family, of whom were all involved in the Episcopal church. Julia’s two brothers were Episcopal priests and Julia’s sister and mother was heavily involved in their church as well as the Women’s Auxiliary. Julia served 40 years as secretary of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions of the Domestic and Foreign Missionary Society. Surrounded and supported by family, friends, and clergy, she was one of the beloved early leaders and role models of laywomen in the Church. In 1997, Julia Chester Emery was honored by the entire Church and is now remembered in the Liturgical Calendar on January 9.
Although Julia was recognized for her work with the Auxiliary, she was not the first woman appointed to the post of Women’s Auxiliary secretary. The 30th General Convention in 1871 had given the Board of Missions permission to organize a women’s society, and on January 1, 1872, her sister Mary Abbott Emery began as the first corresponding secretary, serving until she married in 1876. Julia then picked up Mary’s work of writing letters to clergy and the “Women’s Work” monthly column in The Spirit of Missions and all the other responsibilities of administration and education, including travel, for the Auxiliary. Letters from bishops and clergy to Mary and Julia tell of the many missions, churches, and schools made possible by the work of the Auxiliary in the United States and throughout the world.
By 1886, a significant amount of funds for missions was coming from the Women’s Auxiliary. Ida Soule, a devoted churchwoman and friend of the Emery sisters, counted the offering after the Triennial Meeting Communion Service, and the total was only $82.71. She suggested that the membership would give more if they knew how the money was to be spent. Julia encouraged Ida to write about it in a letter to print in the “Women’s Work” column. Ida wrote it, suggesting it would be “our Thanksgiving Offering,” and the letter was printed. In 1889, money was designated to be raised for a church in Alaska and a year’s salary for a missionary in Japan; the offering was $2,188.64, enough for both. By 1913, the Thanksgiving Offering was $303,496.66, supporting 175 women workers and providing $20,000 for buildings. The 45th anniversary of the Women’s Auxiliary was celebrated at the Triennial Meeting in 1916. For four decades, Julia had been “the glue” that held it all together. She exemplified faithfulness as a follower of Jesus!
Let us all pay tribute to Julia for the countless efforts made throughout her lifetime. Women like Julia are to thank for igniting the way for lay women across the country, providing the stepping stones for women to make roots within their own places of worship, and encouraging all women to push forward into greatness.