Original Article may be found here: Celebrate Women’s History Month
Care for the stranger is one of the strongest Biblical mandates. It is expected. In the late nineteenth century, hundreds of thousands of strangers came to the docks of New York City. They were poor, friendless, lost and alone. The words of Jesus found in Matthew 25:37-40 were sufficient for Alma Mathews to welcome the stranger to New York City from the 1880s into the 1920s. Today the Alma Mathews House in New York City continues to remind persons of the remarkable ministry of this woman.
The 1880s saw the beginning of the last great wave of immigration to the Western Hemisphere. The Atlantic Seaboard of the United States saw the greatest share of this movement of peoples and New York City was often its focal point. The cities often seemed to be overwhelmed by the influx of immigrants. The immigrants often seemed overwhelmed as well. As they came ashore and encountered this new world they realized that they were indeed strangers in a strange land. We should realize that the dangers were real to these new arrivals. All too often there were people ready to victimize the immigrant. Young single women were especially vulnerable. The Methodists were one of the first to attempt to make the arrival experience of the immigrant as positive as possible.
In 1885, Mrs. Helen A. Mathews, a member of the recently formed Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, began meeting the arriving ships and assisting single women, who were often alone, through the confusing maze of the immigration process, providing them safe lodging, and then helping them to their final destination. The ministry she started became the Immigrant Girl’s Home of New York and would be carried on by her and then her sister-in-law, Miss Alma Mathews, for almost the next 40 years.
The Immigrant Girl’s Home began as the project of the local New York Chapter of the WHMS. In 1887, the work of the Home was transferred to the entire Society under the newly created Bureau of Immigrant work. In the previous year, work in Boston and Philadelphia had begun. Within a few years there would a similar Home in San Francisco for the Angel Island immigration station. Looking back from 1928 to the beginnings of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society, Mrs. Seymour Eaton, Secretary, wrote in the 47th Annual Report, 1927-1928,
The problems of immigration are not lessening in the United States of America. The vital concern of the situation is emphasized in the minds of all thinking people by the fact that each political party has found it necessary to insert a plank dealing with the question in its campaign platform. About the time the Federal Government began to deal with this problem seriously, The Woman’s Home Missionary Society came into existence and, in its very early days, undertook the task of helpful service to the strangers entering our gates. That same service is needed to-day–though the number if aliens entering the land is limited, the opportunity of service is unlimited. People are perplexed, are sick, are needing material help–comfort, advice, and guiding–as they have always needed it (194).
A few excerpts from the annual reports of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society gives a glimpse of this work. From the 6th Annual report, 1886-1887 on page 38:
Mission at Castle Garden. A year ago, the Society entered upon Mission work at Castle Garden. Previous to that time there had been no Protestant Missionary at this place to attend to the wants of the English speaking emigrants. The field for such a work is very great. Eighty-four large steamships arrive at the port every month bringing passengers. Thirty-two of these are from Great Britain and Ireland. Without any organized cooperation our Missionary, Mrs. Mathews, has already commenced successfully a work of this character.
From the 9th Annual Report 1889-1890, page 87:
Our efficient and devoted missionary, Mrs. Helen A. Matthews, aided by our excellent Matron, Miss Alma Matthews, and Miss Annie Lindahl, a Swedish helper, have met the immigrant girls and women from day to day with untiring patience and unfailing help and cheer. The Home is a model of neatness and order. Although we have but sixteen beds, we have yet been able, by the aid of cots and extra bedding, to shelter as many as forty-three in a single night . . . . We deeply feel the increasing need of Home which shall be our very own . . . . 3,000 girls have been sheltered and care for, 7,800 meals, [and} 700 girls assisted in finding places . . . .
From the 13th Annual Report, 1893-1894, page 92:
In the early fall of last year, Mrs. M. Butler resigned from the mission work at Ellis Island, and Miss Alma Matthews, a former worker of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society, was appointed in her place. Miss Mathews loves mission work, and has most faithfully and conscientiously discharged the laborious duties connected with island work. She watches for the helpless women and children that land from the different steamers, speaking words of comfort and encouragement to them, takes them to the home for rest and refreshment, provides for their transportation to friends, and attends to the many small details of island work that cannot be understood or appreciated unless one spends a day with here at this place.
From the 15th Annual Report, page 152:
The work of our Immigrant Girl’s Home is one of enlightened patriotism, and its blessed influences are carried to every State in the Union by the girls who bear with them the impression of good received here. The arduous work of administering the many duties of the Home is ably discharged by our consecrated and faithful missionary, Miss Mathews, who is loved alike by the officers of our Society and by the girls to whom she ministers so tenderly in Christ’s name.
From the 47th Annual Report, 1927-1928, page 195:
In June, our beloved Miss Alma Mathews was retired from active service, but not from the hearts of those she has won in all ranks of life. It was trial to her to sever official relation in the home at Ellis Island and in the organization. She is continuing to give of herself in her public addresses in the interest of the work, is always a welcome visitor at the island, and will always find a welcome in the home . . . . [T]he old name, Immigrant Girls’ Home, is to be replaced by the new and more inclusive one, Alma Mathews House. It is a joy to report honor being paid to this friend of humanity, who during forty faithful years has given of herself so freely. In every corner of our country and in all corners of the world, men women, and children delight to honor her because of her “just being kind,” to quote her own definition of her work.
The retirement notice for Alma Mathews appeared in Woman’s Home Missions 45.8 (August, 1928), page 14 and her Obituary in Woman’s Home Missions 51.3 (March, 1934), page 11. Ephesians 2:19 reminds us, “So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are citizens with the saints and also members of the household of God.” The lonely girl in New York was no longer a stranger for she was a citizen with the saint, Alma Mathews. The Immigrant Girls’ Home was place of welcome indeed. We can give thanks to God in this Women’s History Month for Alma Mathews and for the work of the Woman’s Home Missionary Society.