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Womens’ Empowerment and Colonial Evangelism Converge at 11 East 12th Street

When doing research on buildings in our area, you never know what you may find. We try to exhume and bring to light all the history we find — the good, the bad, and the ugly — because there are always important lessons to be learned.

One such case is 11 East 12th Street, a ca. 1840 rowhouse that the City has recently identified as “of no historic significance” and ripe for demolition and replacement by an office tower, even though our research shows that the great artists Reginald Marsh and J. Alden Weir both lived and worked here.

But we found some other interesting residents here too, attached to some other surprising history that sheds a lot of light on life in America in the 19th century. According to our research, in 1873 and 1874, a “Mrs. Mills” and a “Miss E. McVickar” both lived at 11 East 12th Street. Though little is known about these women today, at the time both were actively involved in something called “the Niobrara League of New York,” which was part of a larger network of missionary organizations seeking to evangelize and “civilize” Native American communities across the nation. The League was also a branch of the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions of the Protestant Episcopal Church, which transformed the role of women in the Church and gave them unprecedented authority in the institution’s missionary efforts.

11 East 12th Street, 2019.

In 1871, after nearly a decade’s worth of discussion about how to organize the women of the Protestant Episcopal Church, a Board of Missions committee proposed forming a woman’s society to assist its mission goals. By January of the following year, Mary Abbot Emery was appointed the general secretary of the new Woman’s Auxiliary, and entrusted with coordinating women’s missionary work and devising other roles for women within the church. Seeking to serve as a resource for, and develop a robust network with, existing missionary organizations, Emery welcomed these groups into the Woman’s Auxiliary, while making a concerted effort to respect their individual autonomy. As such, a number of associations declared themselves part of the Woman’s Auxiliary, including the Niobrara League of New York in 1872.

Over the next quarter-century, the Woman’s Auxiliary became less and less auxiliary, evolving into a critical component of the otherwise male-dominated administrative structure of the Episcopal Church. The members of the Auxiliary raised money, recruited workers, trained teachers, and developed mission education programs. Despite lacking any seats on the Board of Missions, the members of the Auxiliary shaped the Church’s strategy from the periphery, and the church’s missionary program especially became dependent on the association, and the women within it.

Mary Abbot Emery. Photo courtesy of “Zealous Evangelists: the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions” by Mary Sudman Donovan.

The Niobrara League, beneath this umbrella organization, specifically focused on missionary efforts in Native American communities. Charlotte Augusta Astor served as the president for the organization, which, according to its Second Annual Report in 1873-1874, held regular meetings on the second Thursday of each month, November through May, in the Sunday-school room of the Church of the Transfiguration, located at 1 East 29th Street (the church received NYC Individual Landmark designation in 1967). That year, the membership of the League grew to twenty-seven churches, each represented by two or more delegates. The organization provided care to the sick and wounded, secured scholarships for schooling, published a Dakota Prayer Book, and received donations including “a melodeon, an office-desk, a washing machine, bedding and house linen of all kinds, clothing both half-worn and new, materials for sewing-schools, books, pictures, toys, canned fruit and milk and vegetables, [and] hospital stores.”

Charlotte Augusta Astor, 1860. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The League’s work was also aimed at “civilizing” Native Americans, especially women and mothers. As stated in the Annual Report, the association’s participants were responsible for “ministering to the Indian women in their homes, helping them to-overcome old and uncleanly habits, giving to the wives and mothers their first understanding of what is meant by decency and good order in the family, imparting to all the knowledge of the SAVIOUR and of His Kingdom on earth.” Despite the League’s efforts to provide charitable, educational, and religious support to Native Americans, the text of the Annual Report showcases the League’s profoundly questionable intent to impose Eurocentric values, beliefs, and roles – particularly for women – upon Native Americans families.

(l.) St. George’s Church on Rutherford Place and 16th Street (extant); (r.) Church of the Holy Trinity in Harlem at Fifth Avenue and 125th Street (long since demolsihed)

According to the report, 25,000 individuals were “served” by the Mission, which included eleven missionaries and eighteen ministering women. Mary Abbot Emery herself presided as Treasurer of the organization, and among those involved were these two residents of 11 East 12th Street: Mrs. Mills, a delegate from the Holy Trinity Church in Harlem, and Miss E. McVickar, a delegate from St. George’s Church.

“Map of Indian Reservations” from the Second Annual Report of the Niobrara League of New York, 1873-1874. Photo courtesy of the Episcopal Diocese of New York, 2008.

11 East 12th Street residents Mrs. Mills and Miss E. McVickar played a role in a deeply problematic colonialist efforts to evangelize and “civilize” Native Americans – especially women – while at the same time working to secure a much more prominent and influential voice for white Protestant women in the otherwise patriarchal structure of the church. Such are the ways that currents in history frequently cross, in sometimes surprising combinations.

11 East 12th Street sits within the area that would be affected by the City’s recently proposed hotel special permit requirement, which, if adopted, would encourage the development of office towers, as opposed to hotels, as is currently encouraged by the zoning in this area south of Union Square. The special permit requirement, though packaged by the City as a response to community concerns regarding extreme development pressures facing this neighborhood, will only facilitate the continued expansion of what is being called “Midtown South” and “Silicon Alley.”

To learn more about the research Village Preservation has uncovered about the area affected by the proposed hotel special permit click here. We also encourage you to send a letter to City officials saying this scheme offers zero protections for Greenwich Village and the East Village, and we demand more be done.


“Zealous Evangelists: the Woman’s Auxiliary to the Board of Missions” by Mary Sudman Donovan
Second Annual Report of the Niobrara League of New York
Appletons’ Cyclopaedia of American Biography, Volume 7

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