The Putnam Alliance was a core group of women church members who supported the church from the 1860s until the group dissolved in 2013. The following is excerpted from the sermon given at a service to honor the Putnam Alliance on May 5, 2013.
In the 1840s, Winchendon Unitarians held their meetings in the old school on the Common on School Street. In 1848, they began meeting in the Winchendon Town Hall, under the leadership of a gifted and charismatic young minister, the Reverend Israel Alden Putnam. Rev. Putnam served another community as well and preached three services every Sunday. He organized a women’s group called the “Dorcas” after the woman of that name in Scripture. Tragically, Rev. Putnam became ill and died at a young age. The Winchendon women’s group renamed itself the Putnam Benevolent Society in his honor.
In 1866 construction began on this church building, which was dedicated in November, 1867. It was entirely financed by subscriptions, donations and fundraising. As part of this effort, The Putnam Benevolent Society held the very first Flea Market and Fair in this hall, before the pews had been installed. The entire space was piled high with harness, high-button shoes, handcrafted candles, baked goods, tools and building materials left over from the construction. People traveled to the Fair from all around north central Massachusetts and southern New Hampshire, some of them via the Cheshire railroad of which church Trustee Captain Ephraim Murdock was President. The Flea Market and Fair raised more than $900—that’s 1867 dollars—which went toward the purchase of the Elias and George G. Hook pipe organ.
At that time, women could not even be official voting members of the church. The Putnam Benevolent Society was strictly an auxiliary unit. Only in 1888 did they finally receive equal rights with men in the congregation.
In 1923 the Society became federated with the National Alliance of Unitarian and other Liberal Christian Women, wrote a new constitution, and began calling itself the Putnam Alliance, although it used the older name as well for several more decades. By 1930, the Alliance had adopted this mission statement: “To quicken religious life and promote fellowship in our churches, to aid in extending the Unitarian faith, to keep in touch with all denominational matters of interest, to lend a helping hand, first to our own church, secondly to other churches and worthy causes, and to further the intellectual and spiritual growth of our members.”
The Flea Market and Fair continued to be an annual event at the Winchendon Unitarian church, and remains its biggest fundraiser to this day. During the decades of the 20th century, the Alliance built up its financial base, running annual events such as the summer Flea Market and Fair, a November Fair, potluck suppers and family dinners, a supper for the Fire Wardens, sales of items such as dishcloths, cutlery and a cookbook, hosting musical performances in the church, and various smaller events. Their monthly meetings included a detailed Treasurer’s Report and a great deal of discussion about the use of their funds.
The Alliance kept the church kitchen stocked with supplies, outfitted with cooking implements and appliances, and in good repair—in 1971 they purchased a new refrigerator. They purchased flowers for Easter and Christmas services, which were then distributed to shut-ins and invalid members of the congregation. Flowers and cards were sent to the bereaved and to families with new babies. Members of the Alliance served as greeters on Sunday mornings and hostesses at coffee hour. In the 1950s and 60s, they fielded many outside requests: donations to charities and foundations, a few dollars to send children to summer camp. They sent boxes of clothing to the Unitarian Service Committee. They donated up to $1000 of the summer Flea Market proceeds to the church almost every year.
By the 1990s, their financial support of the church was becoming even more substantial. They paid for repairs to the organ in 1994. In 1997, the Putnam Alliance drew on money it held in various trusts and contributed $27,500 toward the remodeling of the church’s Equal Access Entryway. The Alliance financially supported the RE program. In 2004, they hosted a small catered luncheon and a reception for more than 100 people after the ordination of Reverend Jennie Barrington, and gave Rev. Jennie a custom-made stole. In the Alliance’s 1991-1992 annual report, Bertha Bryant wrote, “We met all of our benevolent obligations, and continue to be a force to be reckoned with in the life of the Church of the Unity, which our members wholeheartedly support with our money and our energies.”
It wasn’t all about the money, of course. The Alliance’s monthly meetings were also social occasions, often starting with a prayer or inspirational reading, and ending with tea and refreshments. Several times a year they had a guest speaker come in to talk about topics ranging from the history of church music to travels in foreign countries to memorabilia collections. The annual business meeting was always a luncheon, held at a local restaurant. In 2010, the Alliance extended its membership to include men who wished to join, and stated that “all members of the Unitarian-Universalist Church of Winchendon are members of the Putnam Alliance.”
But active membership slowly dwindled after the turn of the 21st century. Some of the longest standing and most devoted members, such as Mary White, Nancy Hildreth, and Kay Nicholson, passed away. Others left the church, or had to prioritize other things. Fewer people have the time and ability to volunteer nowadays than was the case decades ago. Although some of the Alliance’s traditions, such as the summer Flea Market, will continue, by 2012 the church had to concede that the Putnam Alliance could no longer sustain itself as an independent entity.
That doesn’t mean it will never return—perhaps as the Putnam Alliance, perhaps by another name. At a meeting in 1956, Mrs. Rosamund C. Reynolds said, “A duty is to be an active worker in church and home for world understanding and world peace. One of the hardest things to accomplish is to set up goals and purposes and…be able to carry them out… We must have a foundation to build upon, not just to stand upon…it is good to have one’s head in the clouds but one’s feet must be firmly planted on the ground. It takes courage to work with vision.”