Tireless Fundraiser for MECS Mission to Brazil
Mary Decherd was born in Bastrop, Texas in 1874. Her devout mother, Kate Decherd, developed a strong interest in missions. She was active in the local chapters of the Woman’s Home Missions and Parsonage Society, and the Women’s Foreign Missions Society. Additionally, she was “Lady Manager” of the girls’ missionary group sponsored by the congregation. This Juvenile Missionary Society was organized in 1888. Kate’s daughter Mary was a charter member and an active participant in these meetings. The lessons she learned there were to bear important fruit later. The congregation organized an Epworth League chapter in 1892, one of the very first in the state. From the Epworth League, Mary Decherd imbibed still greater missions consciousness, plus an awareness of the power latent in a youth group.
Graduating from high school at the age of 15, the precocious Mary entered the University of Texas. She completed her bachelor’s degree in three years, graduating in 1892 and going on to become the first female to earn an M.A. degree from the University. She also did graduate work at the University of Chicago. After ten years of teaching at Austin High School, Miss Mary began work at the University as a mathematics instructor. As a professor, she continued her interest in religious matters. In 1931, she was instrumental in inaugurating the University’s Committee on Student Religious Life. For several decades, she taught a young woman’s Sunday school class that usually numbered around a hundred.
The significant work for which Mary Decherd will be most remembered began just before World War I when she launched a one-woman crusade to support Methodist missions in South Brazil.
The mission board’s foreign secretary, Edmund F. Cook, dispatched a form letter to Miss Decherd in January, 1914, inquiring about former student Jerome Daniel’s character and suitability for mission work. She responded immediately, describing Daniel in glowing terms. Later that spring, Daniel went home to raise funds to underwrite his mission. Dropping by Austin, he mentioned his needs to some friends in the student body and the faculty. They responded that he need go no further. Initiatives also later came from the Board of Missions asking that $750 be raised for Daniel’s salary for the first year. There happened to be 750 Methodist students enrolled at the university and they pledged the whole amount in one dedication service.
When Daniel sought to build a school in his missionary appointment in Passo Fundo, Brazil, mission board head W. W. Pinson notified Mary Decherd, asking her to keep working on funding. Miss Decherd and her students came fully to the rescue, expanding their pledge of $750 a year (though they had already exceeded this sum in helping with Daniel’s travel expenses) and raising an additional $5,475 in support of the proposed school. They rallied other Texas colleges to pledge their support.
“Texas Hall” was ready to receive students in December, 1919. It was a large two-story building made of dressed stone. The pediment of the Greek façade included a replica of the seal of the University of Texas. The school song was set to the tune of “The Eyes of Texas.” Two years after Daniel left, the institute erected a second major edifice called “Daniel Hall,” financed through funds raised by Mary Decherd and her Epworth League. Daniel Hall was a brick, two-story structure nearly as big as Texas Hall. The campus also included fields for “football, basketball, tennis, and other games.”
The support given to Daniel and Passo Fundo by the University Church Epworth League came to the attention of the mission Centenary directors and prompted them to hire a special “educational secretary” to promote this sort of thing all over the denomination.
At first, Miss Decherd marshaled her students at the University Church Epworth League to work among themselves. She soon expanded her horizons to include the entire state, recruiting other schools to add their weight to the Passo Fundo project. After 1918, however, the Austin group undertook the Passo Fundo project alone and asked the others to take up other missionary tasks. To cover this expanded burden, Miss Mary organized letter writing campaigns, by means of which her students blanketed the state, especially University of Texas alumni, with letters requesting financial aid for the project. The results were astounding. After the 1914 and 1915 donations of $750 each, the students raised $2,200 in 1918-1919, $3,300 in 1919-1920, $6,200 in 1920-1921, and continued at that level throughout the decade. The 1928-1929 giving reached $6,700.
By 1922, the Centenary excitement was subsiding across the church, but not at the University of Texas. The students there continued their interest unabated. Under the spell, and sometimes the whip, of Mary Decherd, they forged an enduring organization to continue support of the Brazil mission. They held fund raising drives at all seasons of the year, but especially in the springtime. Not only did the students canvass the University community, they wrote letters by the hundreds to solicit funds.
Miss Mary dragooned whatever human resources were at hand to assist in the paperwork and bookkeeping such a large undertaking generated. Students in her university classes, students in her Sunday school class, her young nieces, and anyone else who happened within her reach were pressed into service for an hour or two of work. In 1927, there were over 200 students actively involved, with 914 donors on the rolls.
The remarkable aspect of the whole enterprise was the way it was sustained over a decade-and-a-half. Successive generations of student leaders passed the interest and enthusiasm on to the next generations without interruption. That this happened was due to Mary Decherd, the single continuous element in the project. She rewarded herself, and gathered ammunition for further promotion of the Brazil project, by traveling at her own expense in 1923 to visit the mission field she was supporting.
Three events conspired to bring the Texas-Brazil connection to an end. One was the onset of the great depression, which was already present in the rural areas of the southwest by 1927. It eventually forced a major missionary retrenchment. A second blow was the establishment of an autonomous Methodist church in Brazil. While the Methodist Episcopal Church, South, continued to fund missionary work in Brazil and elsewhere, the connecting link was strained-if not quite broken-by this act.
These two events were compounded by the most serious problem of all – the withdrawal of support by University Methodist Church. In 1928, pastor H. Bascom Watts48 became convinced that the Texas-Brazil mission was a drain both on the congregation and on the student work in general. Together with George Baker, the associate pastor assigned to the Bible Chair work, he yanked the rug out from under Miss Mary and her team. This came in the form of a reorganization plan approved by the Board of Stewards in February, 1929. All Methodist student work in and around the University of Texas would now be placed under Baker as head of the new entity called the Wesley Foundation. The Texas-Brazil Committee would continue to promote missionary endeavors, but with a much reduced budget.
The program struggled on for a few more years and then was dropped. Miss Mary loyally turned her efforts to the support of the local church (under a new pastor) and to the establishment of a campus-wide interdenominational program called “Religious Emphasis Week,” which continued the mission interest.
After World War II, poor health forced Mary Decherd into retirement. At her home near the campus, she raised flowers, studied history, and maintained a steady correspondence with friends. In 1954, the mainspring finally ran down and Mary Decherd at last got a well-deserved rest. But the work in Passo Fundo endured into the 21st century.
Adapted from Robert W. Sledge, “A Model Home Base for Missions: Mary Decherd, The University of Texas Epworth League, and the Brazil Mission,” Methodist History 45:1 (October 2006): 4-15.