PORTLAND – These days few people are familiar with the work and goals of the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union.

But in the late 1800s, at the height of the temperance movement, there were 298 local unions across Maine, and thousands more across the nation, all working to put saloon keepers, liquor distillers and beer brewers out of business.

The number of unions across the country has dropped drastically in the decades since national Prohibition went into effect in 1920 and was repealed 13 years later. Maine’s last local chapters, in Portland and Bangor, disbanded over the summer for lack of membership, leaving only the skeleton of a state chapter, headquartered at the historic Neal Dow House at 714 Congress St.

Now, a Saco couple has stepped forward to rebuild the volunteer organization in Maine and fine-tune its mission for a modern audience. The Rev. David Perkins and his wife, Janet, who lead the Living Hope Church on Portland Street, have made sobriety a focus of their lives for decades. They believe the union is still needed today.

“We want to put a fresh face on the organization and update the message for a new generation,” Janet Perkins said. “Both of us come from families who have alcoholics, and David was an alcoholic, so we’ve seen the devastation it can bring to people’s lives.”

The Maine chapter is long past the days when women in long skirts carried banners trumpeting the evils of alcohol and calling for legislation against liquor production and sales.

Its goal today is “to educate all peoples, with the help of God, to choose total abstinence from alcohol, illegal drugs and tobacco as a way of life.” Members pledge to “abstain from all distilled, fermented and malt liquors, including wine, beer and hard cider, and to employ all proper means to discourage the use of and traffic in the same.”

The union remains overtly Christian, though nondenominational, which is why it claims to be the oldest nonsectarian women’s organization in the world.

Nationally, the group opposes gambling, pornography, abortion, gay marriage and sex outside of marriage, according to its website. It defines temperance as “the moderate use of all things good, and total abstinence from all things questionable or harmful.”

The union’s efforts center on raising public awareness of the downfalls of alcohol and drug abuse through pamphlets, meetings and educational programs, especially for children. But activism and membership have waned as understanding of addiction has grown and nonreligious public and private agencies have stepped in to address the problem.

The Portland chapter disbanded in June, and the Bangor chapter disbanded in August. Before calling it quits, the Portland chapter had four female members and three honorary male members. There are about 20 union members in Maine, who are now considered members of the state chapter.

The national organization, based in Evanston, Ill., didn’t respond to inquiries about overall membership. Its website indicates that other chapters exist in California, Illinois, Maryland, Michigan, Oregon, Rhode Island and Wisconsin, as well as affiliates in Australia, Germany, Korea and Norway.

Absent a large membership, the Maine chapter has turned down the volume on the founding tenet of “agitate, educate, legislate” and plans to focus on providing education about and support for substance abuse.

“We want to educate people more about what these substances do to you and show them what it’s like to live a joyful life without substances,” David Perkins said.

David and Janet Perkins have been union members for about a decade. They agreed to try to revive the state and Portland chapters after Mae Billingslea, 80, of Old Orchard Beach, stepped down as secretary of the organization, a job she held for more than 20 years. David Perkins, 61, is the new office manager. Janet Perkins, 53, is the new bookkeeper.

A father of four, David Perkins is a former chef who has been sober for 29 years. He has operated several Christian-based group homes for recovering addicts. Their church is in Portland’s Bayside neighborhood, which is home to several shelters and agencies that serve homeless people.

“Our church attracts people from all walks of life,” David Perkins said, “but in that neighborhood, we minister to a lot of people who are struggling with addiction.”

The Perkinses will hold the first meeting of a new Portland chapter at 7:30 p.m. Nov. 16 at the Neal Dow House. Anyone interested in learning more about union is welcome to attend. Annual membership dues are $10 for women and $8 for men.

Mae Billingslea hopes the Perkinses are able to breathe new life into an organization that has worked to better the lives of Mainers for more than 135 years.

“We’re expecting good things,” Billingslea said. “They’re going to start up a new union and maybe get other communities to start their own. Modernizing our message might be something good to explore because we don’t seem to be reaching people as it is.”

Staff Writer Kelley Bouchard can be contacted at 791-6328 or at:

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