Strolling through Safeway earlier this week, I spotted a new edition of Life magazine detailing the 100 women who made a difference in the world. On the cover were portraits of those living like Oprah Winfrey and Queen Elizabeth and those who are part of history. Although I just glanced at the cover, I doubt that it included any of our strong female leaders from St. Helena: Linda Reiff, Jennifer Phillips, Marylou Wilson or Jackie Rubin. Nor did it include a woman close to my heart: my mom.
One of my first vivid memories of Nancy Hibbard Brown Stoneberg was when we lived in Bloomington, Illinois, in 1960 when I was 5. It was a blizzard on that snowy winter day and I was walking home from school, unaccountably alone — where was my older brother, Bill, who was always my protector — when mom came walking down the sidewalk, found me and took me home.
Beyond the many family and personal memories of mom — my two brothers and I miss her terribly since her death three years ago — one of her great accomplishments was saving a historic, country Gothic church in the late 1960s. It is worth recounting.
St. John’s Episcopal Church was just about 100 years old and the congregation was outgrowing the sanctuary when the church leaders decided a new church was needed. St. John’s was located in Naperville, Illinois, a suburb of Chicago, which is where I grew up. The church owned some property a mile or two out of town and the leadership’s plans were to tear down the church and sell the vacant property to help pay for the construction of a new church facility.
That wasn’t what happened.
St. John’s was first organized in 1838 and land was donated in 1864 for a proper church building. St. John’s Episcopal Church was a beautiful wooden church with lovely stained glass windows. It was built and consecrated by a group of people, mostly dairy farmers and their families, in 1865, including my ancestors, William Briggs Greene and his bride, Harriet Elizabeth Meeker, married in 1845. They built our family home: Oak Cottage in 1850.
My great-aunt, Laura Belvedera Greene Wheeler, writes about St. John’s in a family genealogy published in 1966. She is talking about 1865, near the end of the Civil War: “What a venture of faith for that little group during those difficult war years to launch so serious an undertaking! But what a blessing, after many years of borrowing other churches in which to worship, to have their own simple, but quite lovely, little ‘country Gothic’ of white frame.”
She continues, “For our family St. John’s was to become the scene of baptisms, confirmations, weddings and funerals, and throughout the years was an integral part of our lives. Attendance each Sunday morning was usually an accepted fact, not a matter of discussion. The flurry of dressing in ‘Sunday clothes’ and the hour’s drive in the Big (horse-drawn) Carriage must have meant an early start for busy parents.”
My brothers and I were the fifth generation of our family to attend St. John’s Church. In my youth, it was where we were on Sunday mornings.
When the church leadership decided to tear down the church, with very little discussion from the congregation as I recall, my mother and others gathered together and decided to save the church building. They founded the Naperville Heritage Society in 1969, under the leadership of Jane Sindt, expressly to save St. John’s Episcopal Church from the wrecking ball.
My mother was an integral part of the effort as recording secretary. In those years, she was on the phone constantly, and along with raising three active boys, her life must have been very busy.
The church leadership sold the downtown church property and the new owners, Prescott-Meyers, offered the church to the fledgling Naperville Heritage Society, but the church building had to be moved, a new foundation built at a cost of more than $20,000.
It took months and many, many hours of meetings to find a new home for the church on property owned by the city of Naperville, which was 12 acres and the home of the Martin Mitchell Mansion.
One of their first fundraising efforts was to put on an antique show and sale in an auditorium at a local college. What a massive effort that was: contacting antique dealers and getting their commitment to come sell their wares; setting up a concession stand to sell coffee, sandwiches and other homemade goods during the event; and getting strong young men, including me, to help move furniture in and out of the hall.
The annual antique show and sale lasted 25 years and in those first few years, provided many of the funds needed to move the church the mile or so through the center of town to its new location.
On June 17, 1970, the church building, which was cut into three pieces, was loaded onto flatbed trucks and moved, ever so slowly through Naperville from its old home on Jefferson Avenue and Ellsworth Street to its new home, joining the Martin Mitchell Mansion. The event was covered by at least one Chicago television station and I know it was the realization of a dream for my mother.
Even after the church, renamed the Century Memorial Chapel, was moved, there was a lot of work to be done to restore it, to put it back into one piece, to make sure it could be used again for special celebrations, like weddings, for example.
The church was the beginning of Naper Settlement, a group of 30 historic homes and buildings that were saved, moved and restored, to show what old Naperville looked like. It is the site of many celebrations and events throughout the year and the Naperville Heritage Society is the curator of the settlement and the protector of a way of life that has passed from today’s society.
For saving a church, for being a founder of the organization — she was named to the group’s Hall of Fame months after her death — and for so many other things, I am proud of my mom. I know that in her 85 years, she made a tremendous difference in the world in which she lived. Thanks, Mom, for providing the inspiration for the rest of us to do the right thing — no matter what.