Mary Allen West

First, the backstory. For five years, I was the Director of Music/Organist for Central Congregational Church in Galesburg, Illinois. This magnificent building is on the National Register of Historic Places and tours of church are frequent. I hosted many of those tours and learned much about the people who are memorialized by the stained glass windows.

There are over 70 windows, but only one was designed specifically for the individual whose name adorns the window. I was curious to know more about the woman who inspired this window, and thus began my research of Mary Allen West.

Mary Allen West was probably the first child born in Log City, the temporary settlement of the founders of Galesburg, very near the current town. Her father, Nehemiah West, was part of the scouting party that selected the site for Galesburg and was instrumental in getting the town organized. By the time she was 17 years old, she had finished the public schools in Galesburg, taught school for 2 years, and graduated from Knox College.

Miss West continued as a teacher, and in 1873 was elected Knox County Superintendent of Schools, long before a woman could cast a vote. Miss West never married but supported and lived with her widowed mother, Catherine. After Catherine died, Mary moved to Chicago to expand her work with the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union as editor of their newspaper, the Union-Signal.

In Chicago, Mary Allen West was always working to support women and children in any way she could. In addition to her work with WCTU, she was a director for the Temperance Hospital, a court advocate and director in the Protective Agency for Women and Children, first president of the Illinois Woman’s Press Association and remained an active supporter for many other organizations.

She was named a Round-the-World Missionary for WCTU and in January, 1892, left to begin an extended trip. After some months in California, she went to Japan. After only a few weeks there, she suddenly took ill and died. Her body was shipped back to her beloved hometown, Galesburg, where she is buried next to her mother, father and one brother.

How can I tell the story of a person of such great faith, perserverance, dedication and tremendous accomplishments in just a few sentences? I can’t. I have left out far more than I have included. That’s why I am currently working on a book about the remarkable Mary Allen West.

In the meantime, in a humble attempt to share Miss West’s amazing and quite colorful journey, I portray her in living history reenactments. Contact me for more information.

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