The “Calvin Seminary Dames” – Part II
Part I of this story began by describing the founding of the Calvin Seminary Dames club in 1927, when a few of the wives of seminary students began meeting to socialize and discuss “such topics as might later prove helpful in our station as wives, more especially as wives of ministers.” Their mentor was Tessie Bouma, wife of Clarence Bouma, a seminary professor.
I also recounted the arrival of my mother in Grand Rapids in 1963, as a student at the Reformed Bible Insitute. In 1964 she and my Calvin College student father married. And in the fall of 1966, when he started as a student at the Calvin Seminary, she became a “seminary dame,” and my twin brother and I were born.
Part II begins by going back to the early years of the Calvin Seminary Dames and describing the club’s evolution in the second half of the twentieth century. Then it returns to the story of my mother, when she shows up in the minutes of the club.
Back in November 1927, the new Calvin Seminary Dames club decided to meet the first Wednesday morning of each month and served a light lunch. Tessie Bouma “consented” to serve as a mentor for the club—its “honorary president”—and agreed to help when the dames “needed aid.” She would play this role into the 1940s.
At the December 1927 meeting, one of the members, “Mrs. Kooyers,” spoke on the theme of “The Minister’s Wife” and a discussion followed. The next month, in January 1928, they met on Friday, due to exams at the seminary. They read and discussed an article on “The Christian Family.” In February, Clarence Bouma spoke on “How the minister’s wife can aid her husband from the pew.” One wonders whether he consulted with Tessie on this topic!
The club’s minutes reveal that meetings followed this format to 1977 at least, when the last minutes the archives has were recorded. The group of necessity became more structured by the early 1950s, as the number of members had grown to almost 80. Members were divided into groups, each taking charge of one meeting a year, giving members “opportunity for training in leadership.”
In addition to lectures and discussion, the meetings included prayers; updates on the dames and their seminary husbands and children (“cheer reports”); and “refreshments” or a “light lunch.” Sometimes “the men” joined them for refreshments. On occasion, the dames had meetings in the evening. But the group had grown too large to meet “in each other’s homes,” as it had in the early years.
These details were reported in the 1951 Prism description of the group. The club had become well-enough established to be treated as an official seminary club and Prism included a photo of some of the women in the group. In the late 1960s, the “Calvin Seminary Dames” were listed in the official seminary student handbook as a club.
Speakers continued to include seminary women themselves, a growing number of them over the decades having had college education themselves, and the wives of pastors and missionaries. Speakers also included seminary and college faculty, local clergy, and missionaries. When there was no speaker, the club discussed Bible passages and other readings.
The speakers and discussions remained mostly practical, as founders of the club had decided in 1927. Should “your door”—the parsonage was also a home, after all—always be open to parishioners in need? What should a pastor tell his wife about goings on in the church? In the post-war era meetings often included reports by wives on their husband’s summer internships or slide shows by missionaries.
My favorite discussion topic is from November 1965. Dr. Lester De Koster spoke on the delicate subject of “How to criticize your Husband’s Sermons.” The minutes describe his thoughts as “interesting” and based on “(1) our relationships to our husbands and (2) our relationship to what he says.”
Only very rarely did political, social, and economic events or issues make it into the minutes. The January 1942 minutes, for example, make no mention of the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941 or the U.S. declarations of war a day later. The focus of the January 1942 meeting, reflecting the club’s purpose, was (1) what ministers’ wives should do “regarding sales, bazaars, etc., when these are opposed by some in the church”; and (2) whether a minister’s wife should “allowed to belong to organizations or take part in activities outside the church.” The same meeting had one of the wives offer “a very instructive lesson in directing” choirs.
[An aside on pastors’ wives and activities “outside the church”: In 1983, after many years of being a dutiful pastor’s wife, participating in all the “ladies” organizations in their congregations, my pastor’s wife aunt decided that she’d done that enough. She began working as a nursing aid, something she loved, in senior facilities. A few years later, in the late 1980s, my mother similarly went back to working outside the home.]
The general silence on current events and issues does not mean that the Seminary Dames never discussed such matters, but simply indicates that they were not part of the club’s purpose. On the rare occasion when a current issue came up it was in the context of something that would affect the work of local churches. The minutes for February 1966, for example, record that Louis Smedes spoke to help club members “better see the problems facing minority groups.” In November 1968, a woman spoke on the topic of “A Black Christian Looks at Race.”
My mother shows up several times in the Calvin Seminary Dames minutes, reflecting the joys and sorrows of life, even for the mostly young seminary students and their families.
The first time is the meeting minutes from the month after my twin brother and I were born in 1966. “We” were a total surprise. “Twee jonkies?!” (“Two little ones?!”), exclaimed my paternal grandmother on finding out. My father, on hearing the news, after rushing to the hospital after class, likely felt faint. Remarkably, the minutes also mention that twin girls had been born to another seminary couple. It was quite a month at the seminary, apparently. The seminary had a donation box for my brother and I, as we arrived six weeks early and my parents needed help to pay for keeping us in incubators.
Two years later there are three reports related to my mother. One notes that my brother was at Blodgett hospital. A standalone follow-up entry a week later records that he had died and that the club had sent a sympathy gift to my parents. The next month, a third report indicates that my parents had sent the club a thank you note.
About nine months later, my sister was born. (Apparently confused about having a sister, I am supposed to have asked, “He’s a she?”) By then my father had graduated from the seminary. She arrived the same month in which he started in his first congregation and was ordained. My mother had graduated too, from seminary dame to pastor’s wife.
In the 1960s the seminary dames were meeting on the Knollcrest campus. They had their refreshments at the seminary coffee shop or at the Commons cafeteria on the college campus. Signs of cultural and religious change include a lecture by a local Methodist minister, who spoke on “The Crisis in the Ministry Today.”
It’s hard for me to know—drawing on childhood and adolescent memories—how being an RBI student and a Calvin Seminary Dame had shaped my mother. How well did these learning experiences help equip her to be a pastor’s wife?
I remember that she was active in the congregations my father served. She loved singing, had a naturally good voice, and always was in the choir. Over time she gained enough confidence to solo on occasion. She did not, in my memory, lead women’s groups in the congregations my father pastored; but she participated in most of them. I do not know how much of the “spiritual service” expected of a pastor’s wife she enjoyed and how much was a burden she endured. I know that she had fun hanging out with the “young people” at their annual retreats. They, especially the guys, delighted in and were exasperated by the fact that they could not beat her in ping pong.
The minutes we have in the archives for the Calvin Seminary Dames end in 1977. A note card from 1986 inserted in one of the books explains that the two minutes books (1927-1963 and 1963-1977) had been passed around “’Seminary Women officers.” In the 1990s a group called “Sem Wives” continued to meet.
The person who wrote the note and sent the minute books to the archives in 1986 was Lois De Jong, wife of the seminary president, Rev. James De Jong. She wrote that she thought the minutes should be “carefully preserved,” noting: “My opinion.” Perhaps her pastor-president husband was not so sure or perhaps she worried that the curator of Heritage Hall might not agree. In any case, the minutes are there, in the archives, and provide an important window into the seminary’s history.
In the 1980s and 1990s, spouses of seminary men continued to play a “spiritual service” role, putting together the student life orientation handbook for seminarians and their families. The covers read, “Compiled by Seminary Wives.” By that point, however, expectations about women at the seminary had been changing for a while.
A growing number of women at the seminary were there as students, aspiring to and eventually succeeding in becoming pastors themselves. The spouses of seminary students and of pastors increasingly would include men as well as women. And, whether men or women, increasingly the spouses of clergy would have their own careers. Those spousal careers have become factors in whether and when pastors would accept a “call” to move on to a new congregation.
William Katerberg is a professor of history and curator of Heritage Hall at Calvin University.
The cover image for the blogpost is the “Seminary Dames” in the 1951 Prism yearbook of the college and seminary. (Prism became a college only yearbook in the 1970s.)