1. Essays

Women Ministers in the Prairie Star District


Essay by Carol Hepokoski

The Universalists and the Unitarians were among the first denominations to begin recognizing women as ministers. In 1863, Olympia Brown was ordained by the Universalists. Eight years later, Celia Burleigh was ordained by the Unitarians. From that time until the 1920s, there was an increase in Unitarian and Universalist women ministers. Many of them served smaller churches in the outlaying areas as missionary ministers. This essay will focus on two examples of this missionary minister phenomenon in the Prairie Star District. First, an overview will be given of the Iowa Sisterhood, a group of women ministers who organized churches in Iowa and throughout the District in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Then, we will turn our attention to the life story and ministry of one particular woman missionary minister from northern Minnesota—the Reverend Milma Lappala—who worked with Finnish American immigrants. Finally, there will be a few concluding remarks about the contemporary position of women ministers in our District.

Catherine Hitchings in Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers writing about Helen Grace Putnam: [1]

Learning North Dakota was in need of missionary workers, she went to Jamestown where her first sermon was given in a hall over a saloon. Living in a hotel in Jamestown until it burned, and afterwards in Fargo, she traveled as much as possible giving lectures and services wherever she could find the space. … Travel conditions were poor and uncomfortable, waits in railroad stations long and roads muddy or dusty depending on the weather. … She would often give services several days in a row before moving on to another community. … Preaching, handing out religious literature, caring and cooking for the sick if needed, she was deeply appreciated. …

One of the most highly acclaimed missionary efforts in our Unitarian Universalist heritage is that of the Iowa Sisterhood. This group of women, through the leadership of the Reverends Mary Safford, Eleanor Gordon, and Eliza Wilkes are credited with organizing eighteen societies throughout the Midwest. Their formation was influenced by the Women’s Ministerial Conference, organized by Julia Ward Howe and others in 1875, and their missionary efforts were encouraged by the Western Women’s Unitarian Conference and the leadership of the Iowa Unitarian Association. The results of their efforts strengthened the Iowa Unitarian Association until, according to church historian Charles H. Lyttle, it attained a degree of spiritual integration and financial independence that was unequaled throughout the denomination. [2]  It should be noted, too, that every Unitarian parish in Iowa, except Davenport, has been served by a woman minister. [3]

The leading force within the Iowa Sisterhood was Mary Augusta Safford. She organized seven societies throughout her ministry, and she encouraged other women into the missionary ministry. She began her organizing with a Unitarian church in Hamilton, Ill. in 1878. She moved on to Humboldt, Iowa, in 1880. From 1885 to 1899, she was based in Sioux City, where, assisted by her friend the Reverend Eleanor Gordon, she helped form an active and vigorous congregation. Safford moved next to Des Moines, where she served from 1899 to 1910, revitalizing the church building and congregation. In addition to her parish work, she held leadership positions in regional and national Unitarian associations. She served as chaplain in the Iowa state legislature. She also was president of the Iowa Suffrage Association and lectured widely on women’s rights, philosophy, and poetry. She understood her role as missionary minister, strengthening struggling societies and creating new ones. [4]

Eleanor Gordon followed her life-long friend Mary Safford into the Unitarian ministry. After assisting Safford in Sioux City from 1889–1896, she moved on to serve parishes in Iowa City (1896–90), Burlington (1900–02), Fargo, N. D. (1902–04), and Des Moines (1904–06). Safford and Gordon published the missionary magazine Old and New for many years through the Iowa Unitarian Association. They retired together to Orlando, Florida, where they (as a matter of course) organized a Unitarian society in 1912.

Another very active member of the Iowa Sisterhood was Eliza Tupper Wilkes. She founded eight societies, primarily in South Dakota and Minnesota, served as director of the Iowa Unitarian Conference, and secretary of the Post Office Missions of St. Paul, Minnesota. Like her other “Iowa Sisters,” she recommended and trained women to the missionary ministry.

Other women ministers who are considered to be part of the Iowa Sisterhood are: Martha Chapman Aitken, Mary Leggett Cooke, Caroline Bartlett Crane, Mary Graves, Marie Jenney Howe, Ida Hultin, Marion Murdoch, Anna Jane Norris, and Helen Grace Putnam. [5]  They organized and served parishes in Nebraska, Kansas, Colorado, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Illinois, and Ohio in addition to Iowa. (See notes at the end of this essay for a listing of dates and places served.) Some of these women served in co-ministries with husbands or female friends. Many were active in the women’s suffrage movement. Several were involved in leadership positions within regional denominational associations. Many endured great hardships and low salaries as missionary ministers on the Western frontier. Collectively, they helped extended liberal religion into the Prairie states.

Milma Lappala, from a sermon preached December 29, 1940:

Be still, and hear the voice calling from the depths of your own heart-—arise and be a co-worker with the ever-creative spirit and powers that are molding the human life and building the kingdom of Heaven upon the earth. [6]

Milma Lappala is a name that is known and loved by many Finnish Americans with roots in northern Minnesota’s Iron Range. She was a liberal religious minister who, along with her husband Risto, served the Unitarian congregations of Virginia and Alango during the first half of the twentieth century. Milma Lappala was known for her eloquent speaking and her warm community-building personality. She was a “free thinker,” dedicated to liberal Christian theology, to social justice for women and workers, and to the preservation of the Finnish heritage in America. In the midst of her active ministry she also raised a family of four children.

Milma Tikkanen Lappala was born in 1879 in Kuopio, a central Finnish town with an unusually rich cultural and intellectual life. In her young adulthood, she immigrated to America, working as a domestic worker for several years on the East Coast. One of her childhood goals was to become a missionary to China, and it was with this in mind that she entered seminary, graduating in 1906 from Lay College for the Ministry in Revere, Massachusetts. It was there that she met and later married Risto Lappala, a congregational minister.

The early years of their marriage were marked by continued missionary work and a movement toward a more liberal theology. Eventually, and amidst much controversy, they both left the Finnish Congregational church, with Risto joining the Unitarian ministry. On one of their westward trips, they were invited to speak on liberal religion in the Finnish Temperance Hall in Virginia, Minnesota, some sixty miles north of Duluth. They were well received and in the fall of 1911, they were asked to return to Virginia to help establish a liberal church there. A year later, the new church building was completed and the church named “Vapaa Kristillinen Kirkko”—the Liberal Christian Church. Risto’s salary was paid in part by the Department of New Immigrants of the American Unitarian Association.

The Finnish Unitarians described themselves as a “free thinking” people. The Bible and Christian traditions formed the basis of their theology, but they were left free to define their own religious understandings, not bound by theological dogma. This was a radical idea to the Finnish American religious community at the time and a very much-welcomed idea to some. It freed them to integrate religion with contemporary philosophy and socialist thinking and provided a spiritual community as well.

During the early years of the Virginia Church, Milma—in addition to raising a family of four children—became involved in a variety of parish and community activities. Milma served the church by helping to organize the Sunday school and the Ladies Alliance, and by serving on the church board of directors. She also organized the first “mission” of the church: The Alango Unitarian Church, founded in 1916, some twenty miles to the north. It was at this time that Milma was ordained. Risto also was involved in missionary work, making periodic trips to Finnish communities in Montana and Utah.

Risto died at the age of forty in 1923. Milma spoke at her husband’s funeral and soon was called upon to serve as minister for the Virginia church. By all accounts she was a popular and personable pastor. She was often called upon to do funerals of the “unchurched.” Her reputation is that of an eloquent and dramatic preacher: “She could get the devil to join the church if she tried hard enough.” [7]  Most of her sermons were in Finnish, with occasional English sermons, especially for the young people. Her sermons bear witness to her ability to create images, which carried her liberal Christian and humanistic message. Many times the source of that imagery was the natural world. [8]

During Milma’s tenure as pastor, the church was alive with activities of the church school, the Ladies Alliance, the men’s organization, and other social events. Members of the church still talk about the fun they used to have in the days Milma was around: the potluck suppers, Halloween parties, winter sliding, costume parties, summer picnics, and midsummer activities. They remember, too, the fundraising with pannukakku (oven pancake) suppers, doughnut sales, seasonal teas, and bake sales.

Throughout her ministry, Milma faced financial hardship. Her salary from the two small churches was supplemented somewhat by the American Unitarian Association. She retired from full-time service to the Virginia church in the early 1940s, when a young English-speaking minister was hired. In 1945, she married her long time friend, Matti Erkkila. She continued to preach at the Alango Church until her death in 1950.

Several other, more personal notes must be added to this brief retelling of Milma Lappala’s life. She was a woman who almost always had a knitting project with her: the story is told of how at committee and board meetings she would be knitting, sometimes a suit for herself, sometimes an article of clothing for her children. She was a weaver too—making the curtains for her home and fabric for her clothes. She had a reputation as an artist for the pictures she painted. The pioneer hardships of her life impress our late twentieth century ears: stories are told of how she rode by train and sleigh in below zero weather to speak to a group of rural farmers, and of how she performed funeral services at the graveside when it was fifty below zero. She was, of course, one of the pioneers in her choice as a woman to enter the ministry. One of my favorite images is that of her nursing her baby during breaks in the confirmation class she was teaching one summer.

These two examples—the Iowa Sisterhood and Milma Lappala—illustrate the kind of ministry that early Unitarian and Universalist women ministers often were engaged in. Typically they worked in rugged conditions for low pay: it seems they were willing to take positions for missionary service where married clergymen found the stipends too meager. [9]

From the 1920s through the 1960s, there were fewer Unitarian and Universalist women ministers, the decline following the American pattern for women in most professions. With the rise of the contemporary women’s movement, women in numbers greater than ever before are entering the parish ministry. Of the five-hundred parish ministers affiliated with the UUA today, about one-hundred are women. In the Prairie Star District, there are nine women among the 23 parish ministers—most of these women serve on a part-time basis in the smaller churches of our District. Undoubtedly the causes of this phenomenon are complex and an analysis of the situation of contemporary UU women ministers is beyond the scope of this essay. Hopefully we are in a transitional period, moving toward a time when we realize a more equitable position of women in our ministry.


[1]  Catherine F. Hitchings, “Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers,” The Journal of the Universalist Historical Society, v.x, 1975, p.124. Much of the information about the Iowa Sisterhood in this essay is drawn from Hitchings’ volume.

[2]  Charles H. Lyttle, Freedom Moves West: A History of the Western Unitarian Conference 1852–1952, Beacon Press, Boston, p.149.

[3]  Hitchings, p.5.

[4]  Hitchings, p.129.

[5]  Hitchings, p.129.

[6]  Milma Lappala, “Religion As Experience,” sermon preached at First Unitarian Church, Virginia, MN, Dec. 29, 1940. From a collection of unpublished manuscripts donated by Paul Lappala, currently in the author’s possession, to be placed in a public archival facility. The Lappala segment of this essay is excerpted from the article by the author, “On the Life of Milma Lappala,” to be published in 1986 in an anthology of Finnish American women writers. The author wishes to acknowledge an unpublished manuscript by Clara Stocker, entitled “Biography of a Free Spirit,” written in the 1950s. Additional oral history research was conducted by the author with a grant from the U.U. Women’s History Reclamation Project.

[7]  First Unitarian Church, Virginia, MN, “History of the Virginia Unitarian Church,” Sunday morning program, 1978(?). (Tape recorded.)

[8]  The collection of unpublished sermons, in English and Finnish, is scheduled to be placed at the Iron Range Research Center, Chisholm, MN.

[9]  Lyttle, p.149.


The Iowa Sisterhood
Martha Chapman Aitken Cedar Falls Unitarian Church
Missionary work, Ill., Wis.
Mary Leggett Cooke Beatrice, Neb.
Ord, Neb.
Caroline Bartlett Crane Sioux Falls, S.D.
Kalamazoo, Mich.*
Grand Rapids, Mich.
Eleanor E. Gordon Sioux City, ass’t.
Iowa City
Fargo, N.D.
Des Moines
Orlando Fla.*
Mary Graves Services in Peoria, Earlville, Ill.
Baraboo, Wis.
Sec’ty, Western Unitarian Conf.
early 1870s
Ida Hultin Algona
Des Moines
Moline, Ill.
Marion Murdock Humboldt
Kalamazoo, Mich.
Cleveland, Ohio
Anna Jane Norris North Platte, Neb.
Fort Collins, Colo.*
Helen Grace Putnam Preached in Huron, S.D.
Missionary in S.D.
Mary Augusta Safford Hamilton, Ill.*
Humboldt* & Algona*
Sioux City*
Des Moines
Cherokee* & Washta*
Ida Grove & Odebolt, & Winside, Neb.*
Eliza Tupper Wilkes Neenah & Manasha, Wis.
Rochester, Minn.
Sioux Falls, S.D.*
Luverne, Minn.*
Huron, S.D.*
Madison, S.D.*
Miner, S.D. *
Rock Rapids*
Adrian, Minn.*
Palo Alto, Cal.
late 1880s
early 1890s

*Organized or founded.
The communities listed are in Iowa, unless otherwise noted.

Compiled by Carol Hepokoski, based on Catherine F. Hitchings, “Universalist and Unitarian Women Ministers,” The Journal of the Universalist History Society, 1975.