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Welcoming Women Immigrants, Ellis Island

In the late 1800's millions of immigrants began arriving in New York City by steamship. Many of these newcomers had no money and no family as they stepped off the boat. Fortunately, Alma Mathews and members of the Woman's Home Missionary Society were there to greet young women and guide them to safety. Alma Mathews spent 40 years meeting boats and making sure these new Americans had clothing, a meal, and a bed to sleep in. Learn more about this Methodist woman who followed her faith and changed history.


At the turn of the 20th century, steamships arrived at the rate of three a day in New York teeming with immigrants eager for a new start. Those aboard faced huge challenges. They were often penniless, spoke no English, and became targets for those who would steal their luggage or exploit them. Yet, many must have been relieved when they saw the faces of Methodists there to welcome the stranger.

Harriet Olson, Chief Executive, United Methodist Women: “Greeting people on the dock was one of the ways that the women of the church were able to receive people and connect them to a place of safety.”

One woman who changed history was Methodist Alma Mathews. She devoted nearly 40 years to the daily task of meeting the boats and offering women (some traveling with children) free lodging at the Immigrant Girls’ Home.

Harriet Olson: “There were in that day, just as there are today, plenty of dangers for young women traveling by themselves.”

Despite language barriers, or concern for her own safety, Mathews would approach women coming off the ships and offer assistance.

Harriet Olson: “Some of them were coming to meet family. Some of them were coming without knowing what the situation was that they would face. She greeted them at the harbor. She collected food. She collected clothing. We have records of her reports where she would say, ‘distributed this many pounds of clothing, wrote this many telegrams, wrote this many letters,’ because she was trying to connect, especially young girls, to family who were expected to receive them.”

Alma’s parents were doing this work years before Ellis Island opened in 1892. They were appointed by the Woman’s Home Missionary Society of the Methodist Episcopal Church, a precursor to United Methodist Women. Alma and church members carried on for decades, helping thousands of women find safe shelter.

Harriet Olson: “One of the barriers to the work of United Methodist Women and our predecessors has always been societal expectations. And not just from the broader society, but also from the church. So the United Methodist Women’s predecessors were founded in order to send single women to places where the Board of Missions didn’t think they should be sent. The design was to help women answer the call of God and to serve other women who needed to hear the message and needed the kind of support the sisterhood could offer.”

Alma’s work continues today. United Methodist Women operate a guesthouse in New York named for the missionary woman who welcomed so many. The Alma Mathews House accommodates lay people and clergy from all over the world. Some are in New York to advocate for women through the United Nations.

Harriet Olson: “Sometimes it’s easiest for us to remember people when their names are the names of buildings and they’re associated with work in a particular place. Most of us don’t have buildings named after us. Most of us are not engaged in the work of United Methodist Women as a fulltime job. Our work continues to evolve and to reach out and to be the connection that women and children need to live lives of dignity and to be the spark that helps our country, our places of living and our states and counties be more loving and just, places where women and children from around the world can actually flourish.”

Learn more about United Methodist Women and the General Commission on Archives and History for The United Methodist Church. 

This video was produced by United Methodist Communications in Nashville, TN.
Media contact is Joe Iovino.
This video was first posted on March 23, 2015.


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