Worcester's Own Saint Frances

by Ann Marie Shea, PhD
Frances Perkins
Frances Perkins

If there is among you anyone in need, a member of your community in any of your towns within the land that the Lord your God is giving you, do not be hard-hearted or tight-fisted towards your needy neighbour. You should rather open your hand, willingly lending enough to meet the need, whatever it may be. - Deuteronomy 15, 7-8

With the recent accession of Pope Francis I as head of the Roman Catholic Church, the name of Assisi’s compassionate saint is enjoying renewed popularity. But how many people are aware that Worcester has its own Saint Frances? (That’s “Frances,” with an “e,” the feminine version of the name.)

The saint is a twentieth century career woman, wife and mother, Frances Perkins, Secretary of Labor in the administration of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, first woman ever to serve in a presidential cabinet, and architect of Social Security. In 2009, the Episcopal Church officially recognized her as a holy woman, or saint, and assigned the date May 13 as her feast day, as listed in the church’s calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts. (The passage from Deuteronomy, above, is recommended reading for her feast day.)

Born in Boston in 1880, Fannie Coralie Perkins (as her parents christened her) was brought to Worcester as a toddler when her father opened a stationery business in the city. After graduating from Classical High School, Fannie earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Mount Holyoke College. Thanks to her American History teacher, Annah May Soule, who conducted field trips into the local industries, her middle-class consciousness was confronted with the plight of the working classes.

While teaching science at a girls’ school in Illinois, Frances (as she then called herself) was drawn to the Episcopal Church. Abandoning the Congregational faith that she had been raised in (her family worshipped at Pilgrim Congregational Church), she was confirmed in the brand new Church of the Holy Spirit in Lake Forest, Illinois, in June 1905. As her biographer, Kirsten Downey points out, although her religious conversion was sincere, it just also happened to place her in “the most upscale social milieu” and gave her “a ready social stepladder.” In the years to come, the common religious bond would ease social -- and political-- access to such important people as Winston Churchill and, of course, the Roosevelts.

Yet, at this same period of her life when her religious conversion opened doors to the socially elite and wealthy, Frances discovered Hull House, Jane Addams’ community center that dealt with the most crushing conditions of working class Chicago. Eventually she took up residency at Hull House and engaged fully in the day-to-day routine of improving the lot of the unemployed, underemployed, underpaid, underfed denizens of Chicago. Inspired by Upton Sinclair and the writings of Jacob Riis, she moved to Philadelphia, as general secretary of the Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, investigating women’s working and living conditions, including sexual slavery.

Sharpening her financial acumen at Wharton School of Business and Finance, she then went on to Columbia University for a degree in social work. Serving as the New York State Secretary of Labor in the administration of Al Smith, and later Governor Roosevelt, she answered the call when the newly elected President Roosevelt invited her into his cabinet as Secretary of Labor.

“I came to Washington to serve God, FDR, and the poor working man,” she is quoted as saying. The creation of the Social Security Act in 1935 was perhaps the most dramatic highlight of her career, combining her financial skills, her concern for the needy, and her dedication to working people. During the darkest days of her service, when the House Un-American Activities Committee was calling for her impeachment, she attended mass daily, attempting to pray for her enemies, but unable to utter their names—Congressmen Martin Dies and J. Parnell Thomas, among others. According to Downey, Frances phrased her prayers to bless “those who make false accusations.”

During this period, she continued her practice of spending weekends at All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Maryland, a semi-cloistered community of religious women, whose vows included that of silence. The garrulous Frances somehow managed to observe this condition, with the exception of guidance sessions with the mother superior, wrestling with the challenge of how to honor God in a worldly career. She eventually joined the order as a lay member, and continued to visit up until shortly be-fore her death in 1965.

Frances chose many of her battles. She pursued a career, rather than the middle-class domesticity her parents had envisioned for her. She chose to change her name, her religion. She chose to enter the man’s world of politics and bureaucracy in order to realize her social vision. What she did not choose—what was thrust upon her—was to struggle with mental illness in her husband, and eventually, her daughter. With her deep Yankee roots (she had ancestors who had fought in the Revolution), her establishment religion, and her fame, it may appear that Frances had access to an easy life. But it should not be overlooked that for most of her married life, her husband’s illness made her the breadwinner in the family. Her appreciation of the struggles of workers, especially women, was framed in part by her own experience.

Like Saint Francis of Assisi, who famously rejected the privileged life of his merchant father, Saint Frances from Worcester abandoned the comforts her station in life promised. Rather, she followed her belief, in the words of the Episcopal readings for her feast day, “that the special vocation of the laity is to conduct the secular affairs of society that all may be maintained in health and decency.”

For a detailed account of Frances Perkins’ spiritual journey, read Donn Mitchell’s article in the Anglican Examiner -- Frances Perkins. Kirsten Downey’s The Woman Behind the New Deal; Frances Perkins, FDR’s Secretary of Labor and His Moral Conscience provides a comprehensive biography.

Published Date: 
February 18, 2014