From the time I stumbled into writing biographies many decades ago, this accidental calling has been a matter of faith for all concerned. It all began with the papers left to our school by the newspaperman Edward Meeman. This treasure contained the anomalous gem of a memoir by someone named Mary Collson, a woman whom Meeman had known when he was a young cub reporter in Indiana.
Meeman went on to do well for himself, later coming to Tennessee and eventually taking the helm of the Memphis Press-Scimitar. But while he moved up in the world, Collson, his senior by 20 years, faded from memory long before she was gone.
When she died at the age of 82 in 1953, there was not a single obituary printed to signal that someone noticed. Crueler still, the certificate of her death, the only acknowledgment that she had lived, officially wiped out everything she had aspired to and attained.
The deceased, the document stated, had spent her life “doing housework at home,” when in fact, the manuscript Meeman had saved disputed this vigorously.
The real story was that in the late 1800s, Collson had earned a college degree, attended a good theological school, and been installed as a Unitarian pastor in Iowa. She then went to Hull House and served as its liaison with the nation’s first juvenile court until the overload of demands short-circuited her emotionally.
This breakdown caused her to drift from her rational humanistic faith to a popular mind-cure religion that offered a programmatic escape by denying that human problems really existed.
This movement also gave Collson attractive leadership roles in the church and a steady, well-paying career as metaphysical therapist. But the aftershocks of the seismic shift of her theological ground kept her from finding a healthier home for her spirit.
It took 30 years for the disillusioned Collson to pull herself out of the rubble and try to salvage her high ideals by writing about her experiences. She hoped her honest, unsparing account would help others avoid her mistakes. At the publishing houses, however, this dream of a second chance was dead on arrival, rejected by men as the sniveling of a female who’d wasted her life.
Yet the copy that Collson entrusted to Meeman “just for safe keeping” was put in good hands. Passed on to me a half-century later, its plea for an audience left me no choice but to turn Collson’s story into a full-scale biography, “Healer In Harm’s Way.”
The unanswered question of how the young Collson had managed to enter the ministry extended the path Meeman’s papers had opened and led to her mentors’ story.
In writing “Prophetic Sisterhood,” I discovered that women of faith had been ordained in the 1880s, shepherded grateful congregations, and groomed younger sisters to join their ranks only to have their denomination start changing the locks to keep females out. Evicted but never defeated, these full-throated women founded secular ministries working for suffrage, urban renewal, prison reform and global peace.
And a century after their ordinations, their story of struggle and triumph inspired a new generation of women to answer a call that has transformed the ministry.
But the story of Collson’s mentors left a larger question unanswered: “What of the unordained women such as those who lived in the parsonages? The wives, mothers and daughters whose labors kept overworked pastors and teetering churches from toppling?” I suspected that these amphibians — neither certified clergy nor regular laywomen — also had struggled to speak and to get a fair hearing.
This was confirmed by the paper trails that radiated out from the St. Louis family of Abby and Rev. William Eliot, the sprawling Unitarian clan into which T.S. Eliot had been born. Ironically for a family crowded with preachers and public speakers, the manly motto engraved on the Eliot coat of arms was “Tace Et Face,” translated roughly as “Talk less and get back to work!”
The men whose optimistic sermons skirted the problems folks brought to the pews recited this code of silence at home whenever the women worried aloud. For three generations, this wrenching collision between the reality preached and what experience told them was true tested the mettle of Eliot women who quietly customized their faith.
Unable to stifle their anguish when numerous infants and children died, when infertility crippled their hopes of being parents at all, when their husbands’ Christian charity depleted their household allowance, and when protecting the minister’s privacy left them with no friends in whom to confide, these women, like Collson, would have last word.
For these were faithful correspondents who gave their side of story in letters and trusted their children and children’s children to read them and pass them on.
Cynthia Grant Tucker is an English professor at the University of Memphis. She received the Women of Achievement Award for Vision in 2011. Her biographies include “No Silent Witness: The Eliot Parsonage Women and Their Unitarian World” and “Healer In Harm’s Way: Mary Collson, A Clergywoman in Christian Science.”