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Around 1900, a joke was making the rounds in Unitarian circles in lowa: “What do the Catholics and the Unitarians have in common?” Answer: “They both worship the virgin Mary.” Mary Safford was the reason for this joke, as she was nearly worshipped by the Unitarians in Iowa.
Mary Augusta Safford was one of three women from the town of Hamilton, Illinois, who entered the Unitarian ministry and became part of the Iowa Sisterhood. Mary’s family moved to Hamilton in 1855. She grew to womanhood under difficult pioneer circumstances, which prepared her for some of the hardships she would encounter later. Although in somewhat fragile health, she was full of life. Her friends said she always cherished those beautiful ideals that make strong men and women.
Although Mary’s family strongly objected to her becoming a minister, as well as a Unitarian, she persisted. Under the Reverend Clute’s tutelage, she began preaching in Oakwood and in the town hall in Hamilton; she also organized a Unitarian church there in 1878, the first of many she would organize, serve, or revitalize. In 1880, she was ordained at the meeting of the lowa Unitarian Association in Humboldt, Iowa, and invited to become minister of the Humboldt church, while also serving a small group in Algona. Her friend Eleanor Gordon accompanied her and served as the high school principal in Humboldt in addition to performing many duties in the two churches.
Over the next five years, the Humboldt church was built into a large and successful congregation. Mary and Eleanor moved on to Sioux City, where a group of business people were starting a church. Again, the church was soon in a new building, with a large and enthusiastic congregation and many social, literary, educational, service, and philanthropic activities. Jenkin Lloyd Jones called it “the best pastored church in the West” in 1893. Eleanor left in 1897, and two years later, Mary Safford and her new assistant, Marie Jenney, moved to Des Moines. There, Mary divided her time between the then-struggling Des Moines church and the Iowa Unitarian Association, for which she was field secretary and editor of its publication Old & New. She served as president of the lowa Unitarian Association for seven years and as field secretary (missionary) for six. She was also a director of the Western Unitarian Conference and the American Unitarian Association.
Throughout her life, Mary Safford was a suffragist. Her approach to this, as well as other social justice issues, was to educate and inspire others so they would become involved, rather than to remain in the spotlight herself (although she did lobby Congress for the Women’s Suffrage Amendment). She also served for a time as president of both the Iowa and the Florida Equal Suffrage Associations and was on the board of directors of the National American Suffrage Association.
Mary’s death was probably hastened by a serious fall, which fractured her hip and confined her to a wheelchair. Her last public appearance was at the dedication of the high school auditorium in Hamilton, Illinois, which she financed and donated to the town in memory of her mother and all pioneer women. Two weeks later, she died in Orlando. Her body was removed to the home of the Reverend Eleanor Gordon, who had then retired in Hamilton, and a memorial service in her honor was held in the new school auditorium. Mary left her home in Orlando to the city to be used as an art museum.
— By Sarah Oelberg, from Standing Before Us: Unitarian Universalist Women and Social Reform, edited by Dorothy May Emerson (Boston: Skinner House Books, 2000.)