WINSLOW — The women of Winslow’s Ye Female Society for the Support of the Gospel have a hard time articulating exactly what makes their group and its annual June meeting so special.

What keeps these members coming back each year, some said, might have a little to do with tradition or family connection to the society; it might be the feeling they have when they’re all together; and it just seems important for some hard-to-define reason.

Partly, members said, the society’s significance lies in its longevity – the fact that last Tuesday they held their 200th meeting at the same church where the group was founded. But what seems most remarkable is that over the last 200 years, very little about the group has changed.

It all began in 1819 when a group of 17 women, who were part of an agrarian society, got together with the goal of hiring a minister for their Protestant Christian church. Back then, when Maine was still a part of Massachusetts, it was a legal requirement to have a pastor in order to be recognized as a church. The group already had a building for services – now known as the Winslow Congregational Church on Lithgow Street. The group just needed a preacher.

Esther Mae Smith, left, a longtime member of Ye Female Society for the Support of the Gospel, receives a rose from President Emily Rowden Fournier during the 200th annual meeting. Smith, 89, has been a member since she was 5 years old. Some attend the meeting in period attire, such as Fournier, who is wearing a pink, rose-patterned Regency-era dress, embellished with lace on the neckline and sleeves. The Regency era in America is from 1811 to 1820.

At their first meeting, men and children played games outside while the women got down to business in the parlor of the church, drawing up a constitution for the newly founded Ye Female Society. The constitution stated that the group would meet once a year on the third Tuesday of June at 2 p.m., but more importantly for their purpose at the time, each member would pay 25 cents in dues annually as a way to pay for a minister.

“Twenty-five cents was a whole lot of money to people back in 1819, and it isn’t much for us,” Lyn Rowden, a member and former president of the society, said as part of her retelling of the society’s history at the 200th meeting where 27 other members gathered. Not only has the price of the dues remained the same, she noted, but the society’s constitution has never been amended.

The society still meets on the third Tuesday of June every year, and each meeting begins with readings from the Bible and the singing of hymns. They still read the society’s constitution, followed by a reading of last year’s minutes and an in memoriam presentation to honor any members who may have died since the last meeting.

A few years after its founding, the group decided to hold a program after the meeting. In years past, the women have heard about raising chickens, listened to tales of others’ travels to the Holy Land and even put on a fashion show. This year, Pearly LaChance gave a presentation about gold star mothers of World War I.

“They maintained these traditions all this time, and it gives you this constant line to our foremothers. I find that really beautiful,” Rowden said. “When I first came in the ’90s, I was so impressed by that continuity of history.”

Members of Ye Female Society for the Support of the Gospel sing hymns during the 200th annual meeting of the organization Tuesday at the Winslow Congregational Church in Winslow. Each member pays 25 cents in annual dues.

At this year’s meeting, the women honored the 17 founding mothers of the society during the in memoriam by reading their names aloud.

“We are built like a house on a foundation of some of the most powerful women in our community’s history,” Emily Rowden Fournier, who is the society’s current president and the daughter of Lyn Rowden, said during the service. Fournier, who joined several other members in donning period attire, wore a pink, rose-patterned Regency-era dress, embellished with lace on the neckline and sleeves.

Joyce Rushton, who grew up on Garland Road in Winslow, has been in the society for 82 years. Her mother, her three aunts and their stepmother were all a part of the society.

“When I was growing up, because I was young, June meeting was always very important because it was such a nice affair,” Rushton said. “You would need to get dressed up and you had to be on your best behavior. I learned social protocols from the ladies in this association – even if I’m up to no good now.”

Back when she was growing up, she said the June meeting was the social event of the year.

Esther Mae Smith, 89, who has been a member since she was 5 years old, agreed with Rushton, saying the scale of the event when she was young was much larger.

“I would come with my mother and grandmother when I was a little girl,” Smith said. “I was just in awe of the whole thing.”

When she was a teenager, the program that the society put on was a mock wedding. She couldn’t remember why the society put on the wedding, but she did know she played the bride. “I was the only one who could fit in the wedding gown,” she said. “The 104 pounds of me.”

“It meant a lot to be a member, it still does,” Smith said. “I didn’t know if I’d be able to go this year, but I’m here.”

While still steeped in 200 years of tradition, Fournier proposed that the society adopt one radical change.

The group’s president suggested the women change the date of the meeting to better accommodate the schedule of the modern woman. She said a Tuesday afternoon isn’t ideal for working mothers.

Members didn’t discuss the matter long, but there was hesitation on their faces. It would be the first time the group made a change to its historic constitution.

Fournier said they could all think about it.

If the date changes or remains, she said, “it is a moment in our year when we are transported to 1819.”

 

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