NewburyportNews.com, Newburyport, MA

Opinion

June 30, 2014

Women on a mission

In 19th-century Newburyport, local lasses preferred a mission of mercy over homemaking. These gals knew bigger fish could be fried out in the world rather than in their kitchens. A call for missionary work was on the rise and the Port women willingly signed on.

John D. Parsons affirmed the value of these daring dames: “No town has been more honorably distinguished by special provision as for the education of its daughters; and nobly have its daughters responded to their opportunities” (Old Newbury Historical Society, 1885).

Mary Coombs Greenleaf, known for her “strong constitution,” opted to leave the comforts of her High Street home “to endure hardship as a soldier of Christ.” The Wanpanucka Female Manual Labor School needed missionaries and she “had an earnest desire to do service.”

Mary was assigned to the Chickasaw tribe in Oklahoma. The trip was far from a luxury liner and took almost two months. Mother Nature dealt some fierce weather conditions that would prove challenging to any pioneering spirit. Despite a cyclone, sand gust, extreme heat and violent storms, her memoir states: “we got along without any trouble worth naming.”

Mary’s adventurous spirit was not like the stereotypical missionary; she “was more invested in the well being of the school than the spiritual condition of her charges” (J Null). Additionally, her letters demonstrate an intention to cultivate “a livelier sense of the soul’s inestimable value,” rather than purge “heathen practices.”

Susan Greenleaf also chose to dodge a privileged life and became a “home missionary” in the South. In 1892 the Kalamazoo Gazette ran an article about the circulated syndicate letters on her good works. With a “firmness of purpose” Susan ventured on foot with a large basket harboring an inexhaustible supply of medicine, food and good reads.

With a pure labor of love, Susan gave advice on nutrition and hygiene. She showed the girls how to brew a good cup of java and dress a wound. Many children learned to read and write under her instruction.

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