Saturday, April 13, 2024
Barnum's Bridgeport, Churches and Synagogues, Social Justice, Women

Olympia Brown

By Mary K. Witkowski

Birth:  January 5, 1835, Prarie Ronde, Michigan
Died:  October 23, 1926, Baltimore, Maryland

August 18th, 1920.  Olympia Brown smiled to herself with satisfaction.  After working diligently for the rights of women since she was young, she could at last take a deep breath.  She was now 85 years old. The 19th amendment passed, giving women the right to vote!  She had stood in the past with Lucy Stone, Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.  Reverend Brown had marched alongside women throughout her life, steadfast in her vision.  Women had rights too!
Olympia looked back at the stepping stones in her life.  Growing up in Prarie Ronde, Michigan, just south of Kalamazoo, her parents impressed on her the value of a good education. Olympia went to Mount Holyoke Female Seminary in South Hadley Massachusetts, but switched to Antioch College, in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

In 1874, Bridgeport, Connecticut became the center of women’s rights movement. The Hartford Courant published this notice in the news of the state.

Persons visiting Bridgeport for the purpose of attending the women’s suffrage convention are requested to report to the Rev. Olympia Brown, Golden Hill, and they will have entertainment provided for them. Elizabeth Cady Stanton and other good speakers are to be present. The convention is to take place in Templar’s Hall on Tuesday evening.

Mrs. Elizabeth Cady Stanton was not able to attend the evening meeting due to an illness in her family. However, other prominent citizens throughout State of Connecticut did. The Hon. Joseph Sheldon of New Haven delivered an address on the “women’s need for a ballot”. He held the audience for an hour and a quarter on the whole subject of women’s suffrage.

At the conclusion of the meeting, the choir sang “America” with the whole audience joining in. A meeting was announced for the next day. The Rev. Olympia Brown made remarks of the condition of the Suffrage Society and that there was growing interest in the cause of women’s suffrage.

After graduating from Antioch College in Yellow Springs Ohio, in 1860, Olympia attended St. Lawrence University in Canton, New York.  In July, 1863, the Universalist Church of America gave her the accreditation as the first fully ordained woman minister.

Reverend Brown’s first job as a minister was in 1864 in Weymouth Landing, Massachusetts.  She was successful in Massachusetts.  Her congregation took on new tasks and they became used to her methods of asking the congregation to be active participants.  Olympia continued her vocal campaign, supporting women’s suffrage organizations.

In 1870, the Universalist Church of Bridgeport, Connecticut asked her to take on the ministry of the church in the city.  Olympia was excited about moving, and being part of a new church. P.T. Barnum, the museum founder and showman, was a Universalist himself and was friends with clergymen in New York.

One of Olympia’s Weymouth Landing parishioners, John Henry Willis, moved to Bridgeport. He opened up a grocery store on Main Street.  John and Olympia became married in Rhode Island in 1874.  Unusual for the time, Olympia kept her maiden name, using Mrs. John Willis in more formal settings.

Olympia was active in the New England Women’s Suffrage Association, and her husband, John, was treasurer.  Olympia did not hide her feelings about woman’s rights, and had even invited many prominent suffragists to speak at the church.

The Hartford Courant reported that on January 11, 1875, “The filed injunction against the trustees, Universalist church in Bridgeport, has been modified as to enable them to hire a pastor.  But said pastor must be male-which Olympia Brown must step down and out.”

On the Board of Trustees was James Staples, a prominent businessman who lead the effort to hire a male minister.  In 1875, Olympia stepped down from her position.  The Reverend John Lyon was elected minister instead.  After she was removed from her position, Olympia and her family first stayed in Bridgeport until she moved her family to Racine, Wisconsin.  There, she continued her work for women’s rights, associating with Susan B. Anthony, Lucy Stone and Elizabeth Cady Stanton.

The Universalist church Brown had left behind in Bridgeport had a strong connection to famous city resident, P.T. Barnum.  Barnum became an official member of Bridgeport’s Universal church in April 1879, although he had been active in church affairs much earlier.  In the Universalist Church of Bridgeport was the pew where P.T Barnum worshipped. The pew became the best-known feature of the Bridgeport church, which stood at 262 Fairfield Ave.  The pew was near the front of the church, and Barnum used to drop notes to Olympia with comments about her sermons.

In 1940, the church steeple was demolished because of damage from a 1938 hurricane. In 1957, the church left its home of 113 years and moved to a new building in Stratford, Connecticut.

Mary Witkowski
Mary K. Witkowski is the former Bridgeport City Historian and the Department Head of the Bridgeport History Center, Emeritus. She is the author of Bridgeport at Work, and the co-author with Bruce Williams of Bridgeport on the Sound. Mary has had a newspaper column in the Bridgeport News, a blog for the Connecticut Post, and a weekly spot on WICC. She continues to be involved in many community based activities and initiatives on local history and historic preservation.