The Anglican Examiner, Copyright by Donn Mitchell, 2010.
Mary Simkhovitch was also a close associate of the Rev. Charles K. Gilbert, who staffed the diocesan
Social Service Commission, which led the Episcopal Church nationally in the development of legislative
programs in housing, child welfare, and labor issues. It would be Gilbert’s counsel Perkins would seek
twenty-three years later when she would be offered the appointment in the Presidential Cabinet.
Upon graduation from Columbia, Perkins was hired by the National Consumers League and became their
chief lobbyist in Albany, where she was instrumental in obtaining passage of the 54-hour bill, a landmark
piece of labor legislation prohibiting women of any age and boys under 18 from working more than 54
hours in a single week.
Then on a fateful Saturday afternoon in 1911, Perkins was having tea with a friend near Washington
Square when they heard the clamor of horse-drawn fire trucks rushing to the east side of the square.
The eighth, ninth, and tenth floors of the Asch Building were ablaze. The floors were home to the
Triangle Shirtwaist Company, manufacturers of the famous “Gibson Girl” blouses. Despite eight fires in
nine years of operation, the owners had refused to hold fire drills. Successful in their efforts to defeat
unionization, the fire exits had been chained shut to keep workers in and organizers out.
Now the Triangle was on fire again—for the last time. In all, 146 died and an untold number were
injured. Forty-seven workers, some with flaming hair and clothing, jumped from the windows. Firemen
tried to break their fall with nets and blankets, but the bodies hit with such force that the firemen
somersaulted, the horses stampeded, and bodies crashed right through the sidewalks.
An outraged citizenry formed the Committee on Safety. With the blessing of the Consumer’s League,
Perkins accepted an assignment as the executive secretary. The Committee, in turn, “lent” her to the
state legislature’s newly created Factory Investigating Commission, organized by Al Smith.
In this work, her belief in experiential learning and her preference for liturgy combined. Preaching to the
legislators about the problem was not enough. She would take these overweight, cigar-chomping
politicians on surprise visits to factories at five o’clock in the morning, take them over to the window
and point to the ice-covered wooden ladder propped against the wall, and say, “There, gentlemen.
That’s your fire escape.” And out the window and down the slippery ladder they went.
The result was that New York state, which accounted for one-third of the Gross National Product at this
time, also led the nation in factory safety legislation.
She got away with these exercises, she later said, because she had learned early on that her trademark
tricorne hat reminded these men of their mothers. (This “liturgy” included vestments!) As she put it, “I
said to myself, ‘That’s the way to get things done. So behave, so dress, so comport yourself that you
subconsciously remind them of their mothers.’”
At the age of 33, Perkins married Paul C. Wilson in the Chantry of Grace Church, Broadway, retaining
her family name for professional reasons. It was a decision she was forced to defend for the rest of her
life, incurring resistance ranging from her alma mater all the way up to the State Department. But she
and Wilson both thought it was a good idea. She had already made a national name for herself as a fire
safety expert. He was an official in the mayoral administration of John Purroy Mitchel. Separate
surnames for the public advocate and the public official seemed to make sense.
Two years after her marriage, Perkins bore a child who died shortly after birth. Perkins contracted
septicemia and suffered a long illness. This development led her to join with friends in founding New
York’s first Maternity Center to promote healthy pregnancies and well babies. The concept was
expanded city-wide, and Perkins eventually became the executive secretary of the Maternity Center
Association. About eighteen months later, she gave birth to her daughter, Susanna, who would be the
couple’s only child.
Within a year, Mayor Mitchel was turned out of office in a humiliating defeat. Wilson not only lost his
job, but he also lost a substantial portion of his wealth speculating in gold stocks. Work was no longer a
matter of choice for Perkins. Within a few years, Wilson had developed a mental illness eventually
requiring institutionalization. From that point on, Perkins was the breadwinner for her family.
When Al Smith was elected governor in 1918, he told Perkins he wanted to appoint her Industrial
Commissioner, the position that preceded the formation of the state Department of Labor. She was
flattered but also reluctant to make the transition from advocate to official, but Smith persuaded her that
good people had to take responsibility for change. They could not just advocate it from afar. Advising
her to join the Democratic Party, Smith became her political mentor and the closest thing she ever had to
Perkins admired Smith because he was an Irish-American tough guy who loved his mother and survived
the mean streets with his heart of gold in tact. His mother, Perkins said, “was a good Roman Catholic
woman who had never heard the name of John Calvin.” His devoted assistant, Belle Moskowitz, with
whom Perkins would work very closely, completed this microcosm of the Anglican-Catholic-Jewish
alliance already described.
Steeped more in Thomas Aquinas than in the giants of the Protestant Social Gospel, Perkins was a
student of the social encyclicals emanating from the papacy, beginning with Rerum Novarum in 1891.
During the 1920s, she toured New York state with a Roman Catholic priest in an effort to educate the
public about the content of these encyclicals.
|The New York Anglicans: Twenty Who Shaped the Twentieth Century
(continued from page two)
|While a student at Mt. Holyoke College,
a course with Professor Annah May Soule
sent Perkins and her classmates into the
factories of Holyoke to make surveys of
Born in 1880 and descended from Revolutionary War hero James Otis, little Fannie Coralie Perkins was of solid Yankee
stock, baptized in the Plymouth Congregational Church in Worcester, Massachusetts. Yet it seems this humanistic,
Word-centered, iconoclastic tradition had limited capacity to speak to a young girl with a passion for the visual arts and a
zest for nature. First the daughter and later the mother of professional artists, she herself sketched, published articles on
historic preservation, and was an avid museum-goer. And at Mt. Holyoke College, where she graduated as President of
the Class of 1902, she majored in the natural sciences.
While a student at Mt. Holyoke, Perkins was deeply influenced by the social
justice classic, How the Other Half Lives by Jacob Riis, who would later serve
the Episcopal Church as a member of its national Commission on the Relations of
Capital and Labor. She was moved to action when the dynamic Florence Kelley
of the National Consumers League lectured at the college.
Then a course with Professor Annah May Soule sent Perkins and her classmates
into the factories of Holyoke to make surveys of working conditions. Perkins’
biographer George Martin said the course gave Perkins “the opportunity to use
her scientific training to test and build conclusions in a humanistic field. She
discovered that one serious accident—say the loss of a man’s hand—could drive
a steady, sober working family into penury. Factory work, she learned, was so
irregular that savings were continually exhausted. Avoiding poverty therefore
was not a question of simply liquor or laziness but also of safety devices on
machines and of regularity of employment.”
Is it any wonder Perkins lost patience with those religious perspectives that emphasized personal responsibility and moral improvement when the
problems so often were mechanical or systemic? Her enthusiasm for the laboratory and the field investigation may also have fostered a desire for the
more experiential approach to truth found in liturgical traditions rich in art, drama, and nature imagery.
Fannie Perkins was determined to go into social work when she graduated from Mt. Holyoke, but necessity required her to take a series of teaching
jobs, the last being at Ferry Hall in staunchly Presbyterian Lake Forest, Illinois. She hated the job, partly because it was not what she wanted to do, but
possibly also because she found herself unwilling to be a handmaiden of Calvinist pedagogy.
She addressed the first part of the dilemma by working weekends at Hull House, the famous Chicago settlement founded by Jane Addams and the
devout Anglo-Catholic, Ellen Gates Starr. Although usually cited as an example of Protestant voluntarism, Hull House was actually modeled on Toynbee
Hall, a Church of England mission that embodied the state church tradition to which the Episcopal Church was heir.
In the spring of 1905, Perkins resolved the other part of
her dilemma by presenting herself for confirmation at the
Church of the Holy Spirit, then a fledgling Anglo-Catholic
beacon in Lake Forest. Following ancient Catholic
practice, she took a new name at confirmation and would
henceforth be known to the world as Frances Perkins.
These efforts apparently did the trick. By the fall of 1907,
Perkins was on the trajectory that would guide the rest of
her life—working for social justice in close association
with the Episcopal Church. As executive secretary of the
Philadelphia Research and Protective Association, an
interfaith venture incubated by the Episcopal Diocese of
Pennsylvania, she obtained passage of landmark legislation
regulating rooming houses.
|In the spring of 1905, Perkins was confirmed at the
Church of the Holy Spirit, then a fledgling
Anglo-Catholic beacon in Lake Forest, Illinois.
Evidence suggests that Perkins worshipped at St. Clement’s at Twentieth and Cherry Streets, another Anglo-Catholic beacon, and may have begun her
lifelong relationship with All Saints’ Sisters of the Poor at that time. The sisters had built a small hospital across the street from the church and carried
on an active ministry in the parish. The hospital building is now a dormitory for Moore College of Art, and the sisters still operate a home for aged
In addition to her monthly retreats at the All Saints’ Convent during
her years in the cabinet, she became a lay associate of the order and
made regular retreats for the rest of her life, the last one being just
three weeks before she died in May of 1965.
Although Perkins was in Philadelphia for only two years, she was
very busy. She joined the Socialist Party and taught classes in
sociology and economics at the diocesan headquarters while taking
courses at the University of Pennsylvania under the legendary social
work theorist, Simon Patten.
On his recommendation, she went to New York in 1909 to pursue a
master’s in political science at Columbia University, whose
president from 1902 to 1948 was the prominent churchman,
Nicholas Murray Butler. Butler was FDR’s colleague on the boards
of trustees of both the cathedral and St. Stephen’s (now Bard)
College. In 1931, he would share the Nobel Peace Prize with Jane
While at Columbia, Perkins resided at Greenwich House, a
settlement headed by Mary Kingsbury Simkhovitch. Like Perkins,
Simkhovitch had been raised a New England Congregationalist but
had converted to Anglo-Catholicism when she was in college. She
was also schooled in socialist thought, having attended the Second
International in 1889. Her husband, Vladimir Simkhovitch, was a
professor at Columbia and a convert to Anglo-Catholicism.
|St. Clement's, Philadelphia
|“The New Deal was born on March 25, 1911,” Perkins would later say.
|“I said to myself,
‘That’s the way to get
So behave, so dress,
so comport yourself
that you subconsciously
remind them of their
was on fire again
—for the last time.