The incredible success of Frances Perkins in Lent Madness has had the Episcopal Blogosphere talking the last two weeks. Derek Olsen and the Crusty Old Dean have done some in-depth reflection. Much of the debate has to do with modern vs. older saints, and how modern saints seem to do better. Some have put forth a preference for the more hagiographic saints of the past. The problem probably has more to do with how we write history than the saints themselves. The difference between Perkins and, say St. Brigid, is an issue of cultural norms of story telling rather than content. The chroniclers of St. Brigid lived in a culture where resurrection of livestock was considered quite possible, if fantastic. But what Perkins and Brigid accomplished economically was in many ways very similar. Brigid seems more “Numinous” due to the way the Irish wove her story and her historical distance. But while we can certainly debate how we should go about “making saints” and what the criteria should be, I think “the ”numinosity" is in the eye of the beholder. For me, Frances Perkins is pretty numinous.
When I was a seminarian at Virginia Theological Seminary, I did my field education under Fr. Richard Downing at St. James Capitol Hill (Now St. Monica and St. James). SMSJ is an old “Gin and Lace” Anglo-Catholic parish that has always considered itself socially progressive. It puts itself in the tradition of the Anglo-Catholic “Slum Priests” of victorian England and has old ties to St. Boltoph’s, Aldgate. One evening when we were having dinner in the rectory, Fr. Downing related, “You know, Social Security was designed at the very table you’re sitting at.” He then related the story of Frances Perkins.
I’ll let former secretary of Labor Hilda Solis describe her experience at SMSJ. This is from a Labor Day speech she delivered in 2011. She first talks about her experience growing up admiring St. Bernadette. Then she continues:
More recently, another saint came into my life.
On a weekend shortly after I became the nation’s 25th secretary of labor, I was exploring my new Capitol Hill neighborhood. I came upon a small Episcopal church, St. Monica and St. James, just a few blocks from my home. I decided to check it out.
I liked the services very much. The music was beautiful. The sermons were thought-provoking. The congregation was engaged and friendly. I felt very much at home.
On my third visit, as the service ended, one of the ushers introduced himself and took my hand. He smiled warmly and said, “We know who you are. We’re so glad you are here. We knew you’d come.” I was taken aback. I had no idea what he was talking about. And then he explained.
It turns out, back when it was just called St. James, the church was the spiritual home of my predecessor and the most influential labor secretary in U.S. history, Frances Perkins. Appointed by Franklin Roosevelt, she was the first woman to serve in a president’s cabinet. During her 12-year tenure, she was the heart and soul of the New Deal. She led the effort to create Social Security (some say she wrote the legislation in the St. James rectory). Unemployment insurance, minimum wage and overtime pay are just a few examples of her legacy. The federal building where I work is named after her, and her portrait hangs outside my office. She was a woman of great accomplishments, and of great faith—a pioneer in what we now commonly refer to as social justice.
But most extraordinary: Frances Perkins is a saint in the Episcopal Church, welcomed into the calendar of lesser feasts and fasts in 2009. Her commemoration (or day) is May 13.
Frances Perkins knew the power the faith community had in making a difference in the lives of working people, and enlisted their support and involvement during the Great Depression. I think she would be very pleased to see how her department is working with that community today.
For the people of St. Monica and St. James, Frances Perkins is not just a New Deal bureaucrat, but is a living, breathing saint who worshipped with their predecessors and put the incarnational theology of their Anglo-Catholic liturgy into concrete social action. She is the very embodiment of all that our Anglo-Catholic tradition teaches. I’ve never forgotten that night when I heard of liturgy and action meeting in one person. While Frances Perkins certainly did not make the Golden Halo in my bracket, I think of her as numinous as Brigid, or Julian, or Margaret of Scotland. I will not find it amiss if she makes it all the way, and one parish in DC will celebrate their local girl who does well.