Matilda Bibbey: A Model of Active Citizenship
By Will Washko, Old North Illuminated High School Intern
Matilda Frances Bibbey was born in 1868 in the North End of Boston to immigrant parents with her mother originally coming from Ireland and her father originally from England. As a child, she lived on Vernon Place, which is near what is now the Charter St. Playground. As an adult in the 1890s, she moved to Dorchester, where she would live for the rest of her life. She chose to never marry, living her life as a single woman and owning pew 16 solely in her own name. She retired at the age of 70 in 1938 and died two months later. Perhaps fittingly with the way she lived her life, she is still the only woman who is solely honored on a plaque in the church.
Matilda Bibbey exemplified what it means to be an active citizen. Matilda taught at an all-girls school for the first two decades of the twentieth century and later shifted to public schools for the remainder of her teaching career. During the summers, she also worked as a house mother at the Girls’ Friendly Society Holiday House in New Hampshire (she was the main caretaker of these girls), and held this position for almost 30 years, meaning she was working the equivalent of a full-time job year-round. In addition to this, Bibbey was incredibly involved in the community of Old North, distinguishing herself as an extremely dedicated and involved parishioner, as well as an active member of her community.
The accomplishment that Matilda Bibbey is best remembered for is being the first woman to ever serve on the vestry of Old North. The vestry is the board of lay leaders in charge of the church’s day-to-day operations. What makes her appointment to the vestry all the more remarkable is that she was first nominated by members of the congregation, then voted on by a subgroup of the congregation. She must have had some special factor to lead the church to elect her. Whether she was elected for her money, connections, or ability is something we will likely never know. Regardless of how she rose to the position, she still served on the vestry for twelve years until 1923 as the only female member.
Matilda Bibbey was also a founding member of the Women’s Guild, serving as their first vice president. The Women’s Guild was founded in 1915 as a way for female parishioners to support the preservation and continuation of the Old North Church. This was primarily done through various fundraisers and events that the guild put on. For more information about Old North’s Women’s Guild, check out this article.
Bibbey was also one of five guild members also serving on the House Committee, a sub-group of the Women’s Guild with the goal of transforming the parish house into a hospitality house, and by the funds and friendships generated from this, hopefully preserving the history of Old North. This was incredibly successful, not just in preserving the history of Old North but in creating a closely-knit community around it. To learn more about the House Committee of the Old North Church and its impact, see this article.
In addition to holding these offices, Matilda Bibbey also sang in the choir and was also an assistant editor and an occasional writer for the church bulletin. Her pieces from the bulletin are actually one of the only examples that Old North has of Bibbey’s writings. They typically functioned as updates (or, on occasion, obituaries), usually on some of the more distinguished parishioners who no longer regularly attended services. These articles often focused on members of the congregation whose roles and contributions were often overlooked, such as the bellringers, former sextons, and Sunday school teachers, of whom she tends to speak glowingly. She heavily participated in several other smaller committees, such as the planning commission for the bicentennial anniversary of Old North. In addition, she did all of this while working a full-time job for her entire tenure at the church.
Matilda’s character is hard to guess because she was a woman who lived her life both inside and outside of traditional gender roles. She was the first female member of the vestry, a typically male role at this time, but was also a member of the Woman’s Guild, which while very effective was still within the boundaries of gender roles. Since we lack any pieces of writing that express her thoughts and opinions on the subject, we are left with more questions than answers, with only her actions serving to define her as a valuable and dedicated figure in Old North’s history.
The Women of Old North: The Women’s Guild
The Women of Old North, Part II: The House by the Side of the Road
This Old Pew: #16 – Matilda Bibbey, the First Woman of the Vestry