I grew up around church ladies – not the sort that Dana Carvey created on “Saturday Night Live” but the ones that Wayne Flynt described in his study of Alabama Baptists, the ones without whom most church doings wouldn’t get done. Men may preach and pontificate, but the women do the heavy lifting.
And when I think of the power of church ladies, I think of Alice Faye.
Now Alice Faye wasn’t a church lady. In fact, for all folks knew, church was pretty low on her list of priorities – well behind soap operas (she believed they were real), cats (she had 26), Bear Bryant (she wore black for weeks after he died) and the Republican Party (to which she swore loyalty because, back then, everyone else was a Democrat).
Church, for Alice Faye, meant potluck suppers, which she religiously attended and to which she contributed a dusty tin of shortbread cookies, which no one dared open and which she took home afterward and put on the shelf to gather more dust until the next time she felt she should make a contribution to a communal meal.
Not that she couldn’t afford better. The only child of a man who actually made money during the Great Depression and (the town believed) still had most of it when he died, she inherited not only his fortune but also his tight-fisted-hand-at-the-grindstone approach to the spending of it. His passing left her (already an old maid at 30) and her doting mother to manage a stock portfolio, some timberland and a house filled with family heirlooms dating back generations.
Then the mother died, and Little Mary settled down to live in spinsterhood and squalor, surrounded by cats, classical records, stacks of books, antiques and University of Alabama memorabilia.
To the distress of her host of aunts and female cousins, she became the town character. (Male relatives didn’t care. You know how men are.)
So what does all this have to do with Church Ladies?
Well, eventually, Alice Faye died. And at the time of her passing, she was mad at just about everybody kin to her, so she left her whole estate – including the house and all it contained – to the church that had potlucked her all those many years.
The men of the church were overjoyed and immediately formed a committee to inventory the bequest. (Ever notice that when money is involved, men become less willing to leave the ladies in charge?) After a momentary pause to decide what to do with the case of vodka they found in the trunk of Alice Faye’s car (they poured it out, but the vote was close) the committee (with its male majority) hired an appraiser to put a price on the house and its contents.
Church ladies were not happy. “The place is full of family things,” they protested, “and should stay in the family.” “Alice Faye wanted it all to go to the church, and we should respect her wishes,” was the reply. So they went back and forth until the men finally told the women that there was no sense running it
into the ground. The family items would be sold. The family would get first chance to buy them, but if they didn’t, then it was off to the auction block.
Church ladies were not happy. Family members bought what they could afford. Church ladies were still not happy. Then it was discovered that packed up in a box, overlooked and uninventoried, was a complete set
of antique Haviland china that had been in the family since forever. And with the appraiser gone, it was up to the committee to price and sell it. That was when the church ladies took their stand. They trooped into the meeting, led by a blue-haired matron, retired school teacher, whose
prodigious memory and record of personal piety made her both feared and respected, especially among the men. They took seats on one side of the table. The men settled uneasily along the other. “Alice Faye’s cousin wants to buy the Haviland for her granddaughter,” their leader announced.
“And what is a fair price for these fine antiques,” asked the committee chairman, who didn’t know Haviland from Valvoline, but figured anything that old was worth a lot.
“One dollar for each piece?” the chairman asked, seeing where this was going and trying to at least soften the blow.
“One dollar,” came the reply and with it a look, mirrored on every female face at the table, which challenged, dared the men to oppose her.
And they didn’t. The surrender was complete. The cousin paid the dollar. The china stayed in the family. And the church ladies were in control again. Harvey H. Jackson is Professor Emeritus of History at Jacksonville State University. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.