Joyous celebration of Frances Perkins’ feast day from Maine to D.C.

By Christiana Adams
Posted May 14, 2014
The new Frances Perkins icon, written by Iconographer Suzanne Schleck, is displayed May 13 on the altar at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle, Maine. Photo; Heidi Shott

The new Frances Perkins icon, written by Iconographer Suzanne Schleck, is displayed May 13 on the altar at St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle, Maine. Photo: Heidi Shott

[Episcopal News Service] In her many different roles as public servant but especially as secretary of labor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet, Frances Perkins exemplified these words, working steadfastly and ceaselessly to ensure that the poor and needy in our land “be maintained in health and decency.”

“Like Jesus who fed the multitudes rather than turning them away,” the Rev. Lu-Anne Conner of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle, Maine said, “when Frances Perkins saw the breadlines during the Great Depression, she understood that her work was to ‘go and do likewise.’” And she did – by helping to create Social Security, secure a minimum wage, shorten the work day and end child labor.

“Celebrating the [May 13] feast day of Frances Perkins,” said Conner, “is particularly meaningful at St. Andrew’s because Frances Perkins worshiped here for 60 years.

“This year our celebration was made even more memorable by the dedication of an icon, a gift of the Rev. Amelia Hagen,”added Perkins’ grandson, Tomlin Coggeshall, who is a St. Andrew’s parishioner and lives at The Brick House in Newcastle – the family home where his grandmother spent so much time.

“My grandmother would be both thrilled and humbled. The icon is absolutely beautiful. I feel that my grandmother’s persona will inhabit it more and more over time.”

Frances Perkins Center Executive Director Michael Chaney, who attended the dedication, said: “The Frances Perkins icon is a moving image that reminds us of how she placed her secular work in the context of working for God and for the greater good of all people.”

In 1905 Frances Perkins joined the Episcopal Church. For the next 60 years, she derived inspiration, solace, and courage from worship and contemplation to carry out her work and to face her personal struggles. During regular weekend retreats at the All Saints Convent in Catonsville, Maryland, she “spent hours pondering spiritual issues and how to lead a godly life in a secular world…. The nuns found her in the early morning hours in the chapel, praying on her hands and knees for guidance,” according to Kirsten Downey in her book about Perkins, The Woman Behind the New Deal.  In Washington, she often attended early morning services during the week at the Parish of Saint James (now Saint Monica and Saint James).

Icons as invitation to contemplation and action
Upon seen the Perkins icon for the first time, Heidi Shott, canon for communications and social justice for the Diocese in Maine, said it “gave me tender pause. This beautifully written icon is a tangible object to remind me of what is possible when we use our gifts for God.”

And that is exactly what their purpose is, according to iconographer Suzanne Schleck, who wrote the icon.

“Icons,” said Schleck, “are an invitation to enter into relationship with God.”

Creating them involves artistry and inspiration. The process allows the “icons to come through our hands. As layer upon layer of light is added, a face emerges from the darkness. In both form and content an icon is a parable of hope, and faith in the redeeming love of our God,” Schleck wrote on her website.

Creating the icon of Frances Perkins, Schleck found inspiration in the fact that Perkins “put her beliefs and faith into action so effectively.”

“Taking care of others,” said Schleck, “is her message to us. when I look at it, it makes me laugh! Yes! It’s possible. You can live that way!”

The Rev. Amelia Hagen, left, gives the Frances Perkins icon to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle, Maine. The Rev. Lu-Anne Conner, St. Andrew’s rector, and Tomlin Coggeshall, Perkins’ grandson, accept the gift. Photo: Heidi Shott

The Rev. Amelia Hagen, right, gives the Frances Perkins icon to St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle, Maine. The Rev. Lu-Anne Conner, St. Andrew’s rector, and Tomlin Coggeshall, Perkins’ grandson, accept the gift. Photo: Heidi Shott

Biographer Downey said “It is fitting that Frances Perkins has been immortalized in an icon. She was a profoundly spiritual woman who constantly sought God’s guidance to help give every person in America, as she said, ‘the best possible life.’”

The Rev. Charles Hoffacker, a member of the Frances Perkins Center board of directors, commented that “it’s great to see an inspiring icon of this twentieth century saint.”

“Her apparel in the icon recalls what she characteristically wore, including her famous hat. The scroll features words with which she described her mission as United States labor secretary and as a Christian called to public service at a time of national crisis.

“Saints are reminders to us of how the reign of God is manifest in many times and places. A saint from our society, who lived not so long ago, is a challenge for us to realize God’s mercy is among us now and we are to live in accord with that mercy.”

A personal glimpse
Christopher Breiseth knew Frances Perkins well. They met when she was a visiting professor at Cornell University and a grandmother.

Breiseth, who chairs the Frances Perkins Center board of directors, was a graduate student and president of the Telluride House at Cornell.

He and his housemates invited Perkins to live with them at Telluride. Perkins gladly accepted, remarking to friends, “Do you know what those boys have done? I feel like a bride on her wedding night!” Breiseth said here.

Breiseth added that Perkins treated everyone with respect, even very tough political and labor leaders. There was an inner confidence combined with humility that reduced barriers, he said. She did not wear her spirituality on her sleeve but one knew in watching her day after day how profoundly religious she was.

The celebration of Perkins’ feast day continued down the East Coast on the route she so often traveled by train from Maine to Washington. Speaking at the Episcopal Chaplaincy Mass at Princeton University Chapel, Donn Mitchell, author of “Frances Perkins: Architect of a Gracious Society”, remarked, “The icon signals that the work and witness of Frances Perkins continues to bless us. I hope that it will also inspire us to emulate her steadfast love of the community.”

In Washington, D.C., Tomlin Coggeshall delivered the homily at an evening service on May 13 at the Parish of Saint Monica and Saint James, where his grandmother worshiped when in Washington.

Coggeshall also met with Secretary of Labor Thomas E. Perez. A portrait of Perkins hangs behind Secretary Perez’s desk. She is, he told Coggeshall, a “gold standard for labor secretaries.”

“Her portrait hangs over my desk, so that every day I can be inspired by the example she set and the legacy she left for the department,” Perez said in a statement later released by his office. “She is one of the most extraordinary women in American history, and a guiding light for us as we work to expand opportunity for all.”

— Christiana Adams, a parishioner at St. Andrew’s, is a communications consultant and ed


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Comments (12)

  1. John F. Smith says:

    Is it possible to find a copy of the Perkins icon?

    1. John, you can contact me at the above e-mail. Suzanne

    2. Good morning. The icon is now at St. Andrew’s Church. I will check with the rector. Another idea is for you to talk with Suzanne Schleck. Her website is http://www.schleckicons.com/

      I will talk to Lu-Anne Conner this weekend and get back to you about this.

      Blessings,
      Christiana

  2. Josh Thomas says:

    Thanks be to God for this woman, her icon and this story, which fills in many blanks left by secular accounts of her career. The Episcopal Church of today is largely Frances Perkins’ church in spirit; socially liberal, theologically conservative in the best sense. I doubt there’s a current discussion she couldn’t contribute to. And how wonderful to have her grandson and others who knew her present for this celebration. Thank you, Christiana Adams and ENS.

    1. Thank you! I will send your comments on to Tomlin and others who may not see this.

  3. Frances Perkins was, without doubt one of America’s greatest women.It’s only when one reads their life stories that one becomes aware that something or somebody influenced the path they took on life’s journey. Frances witnessed the terrible Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire,it changed her life and so began the mission.Harry Hopkins mother was a devout Christian with social leanings,Harry worked in deprived areas,saw the terrible conditions,and so began his mission.Finally FDR’s school teacher Endicott Peabody preached that should one go into politics,it should be to do good for all the people.The school boy began to give food parcels to poor families,the seed was planted. I like one of Harry’s quotes when he was attacked for “wasting” money “Hunger’s not debatable”replied Harry. Perhaps the greatest trio in American political & social history,FDR, Frances Perkins and Harry Hopkins.

    1. Here is a quote for you from another press release:

      Newcastle, Maine, May 5, 2014 – “Charity,” wrote Saint Augustine, “is no substitute for justice withheld.”
      Frances Perkins (1880 – 1965) lived out these words, having witnessed injustice in the treatment of working men, women, and children in factories and workplaces and in the squalid tenements they called “home.” Inspired by her faith in God, she labored tirelessly throughout her life to ensure justice for all. As she once wrote, “Social justice is part of the implication of loving your neighbor.”
      “Frances Perkins’ work as secretary of labor in Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s cabinet and her many other accomplishments,” says the Reverend Lu-Anne Conner, Rector of St. Andrew’s Episcopal Church in Newcastle, “are living reminders that faith combined with perseverance can accomplish great things. I believe that her legacy and her call to us today would be to acknowledge and use our God-given gifts – whatever they may be – to serve Christ by serving others.
      “In the Episcopal Church, icons help us to see into the heart of God. They are reminders of the living presence of the Holy Spirit – both through the person represented and in our own lives. We are grateful for the gift of the icon of Frances Perkins, who worshiped at St. Andrew’s for 60 years. We hope that it will help both St. Andrew’s and the broader community to see and understand what God can do through ordinary, everyday people.”
      The Reverend Amelia Hagen of Damariscotta, who is a parishioner at St. Andrew’s and is making this gift, agrees. Long fascinated by Frances Perkins’ remarkable life as both “ordinary woman” and “Holy Woman,” the Reverend Ms. Hagen explains, “It seems as if I’ve always had a connection with her. Before I was ordained, I worked in the field of industrial health and protection as of course she also did.” The horrifying tragedy of the 1911 Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in New York City in which 146 garment workers perished created an even deeper bond. Frances Perkins was an eyewitness: “The Triangle factory fire inspired Frances Perkins to take on the cause of worker protection and safety. This connected me to her on a very personal level. My grandmother worked in the [textile] mills.”
      Hagen continues, “When I was participating in an iconography workshop in 2013, iconographer Suzanne Schleck and I were talking about Frances Perkins. We had both been thinking of an icon. We decided it was time for Frances Perkins to be recognized.”
      Ms. Schleck then created the icon and the Reverend Ms. Hagen purchased it as a gift for St. Andrew’s. “Our hope is that when people look at the icon closely, they will find relevance for our times. As the woman who brought us Social Security and other social programs, she would have a lot to say about the working poor today.” Hagen concludes, “Perhaps when people reflect upon the icon, they will understand in a new way that we really need to work to build up our safety nets again. And that in Christ’s Kingdom all are invited to the table and our job is to make that happen now.”

  4. Congratulations for the well deserved recognition of Francis Perkins.
    Social Security epitomizes her love of all citizens of this great country and fulfilling a major need without bias.

    1. Thank you.

      I personally am very moved by her work to end child labor. Witness photographs by Lewis Hine.

      Blessings,
      Christiana

  5. The Reverend Dr. Alla Renée Bozarth writes:

    A fitting tribute to all involved in honoring our saint for all people~ complete in her gentle firebrand’s habit of hat and pearls~ herself a Pearl of humanity who did not hesitate to irritate those who did not want to hear, by speaking out in behalf of the needs of the poor, in order to create justice and dignity for all workers of America, following the precepts of Christ to care for those in need and support those seeking to improve conditions and fulfill their human potential for education, meaningful work and the enrichment of society through enlightened conscience and consciousness. Alleluia! Christ lives in the legacy of Frances Perkins!

  6. Erna Lund says:

    Although this is a somewhat belated reply(I’ve been traveling) Frances Perkins was/is a Hero(ine) of mine early on in my educational/professional life starting in the ’60s when I would tell my classmates that I plan to be Secretary of Labor like Frances Perkins…yes, dream on, but in young minds that’s what life is all about. In our dynamic changing society, my focus became adjusted accordingly with more immediate concerns, goals …
    Nevertheless Thank you so much St. Andrews and the Perkins Family, Please know how greatly so many of us throughout American greatlly appreciate the leadership of President Franklin Roosevelt and his compassionate transformative vision for America in appointing Secretary of Labor Frances Perkins and his international diplomacy for peace and humanitarian outreach(Marshall Plan, etc.) despite all his personal handicaps and political obstacles.

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