Nellie Mann Opdale

Posted by Scott on October 10, 2017

(written by Anita Taylor Doering, Archives Staff)


Image courtesy of Harvard-Andover Theological Library

On Sunday, October 22, 2017, at 3pm at the La Crosse Public Library auditorium, Dr. Maria Rutland, a visiting scholar, will tell us about an extraordinary Wisconsin woman from wheelwoman to Suffragist. Reverend Nellie Mann Opdale accepted a call in 1898 to lead St. Paul’s Universalist Church in La Crosse – the biggest Universalist congregation in Wisconsin at that time and it counted among its membership at that time some of the biggest moneyed families.   Rev. Nellie therefore became the first ordained female pastor to be hired by a La Crosse church, a very progressive thing for the day.


A protégé of Rev. Olympia Brown of Racine, Nellie was literally thrust into a lay leadership role and then was coached by her mentor Olympia to pursue ordination.  The pair had become associated through their statewide work on temperance and Suffrage and both were known orators on the subject.

cover_of_booklet.jpgImage courtesy of Dr. Maria Rutland

“A funny thing happened when I went to a library book sale in my little town in North Georgia in 1985 or 1986,” Dr. Rutland commented.  “I bought a book of what seemed to be a handwritten listing of sermon topics for a church in Wisconsin just before the turn of the 20th century.”  Being a female minister, she thought this was intriguing, but didn’t give it much more thought until she again pulled the small book off the shelf in 2008 after my children were grown.”  What she came to realize was that this unnamed female pastor was trying to tell her, “Look! We made it as clergy and were forgotten in history!”

page_1.jpgImage courtesy of Dr. Maria Rutland

Thus began Dr. Rutland’s quest to find out who this woman was that put the scrapbook together and what was the connection between her and North Georgia?  One of her first calls and visits was to the La Crosse Public Library Archives on her way to a different destination.  Anita Doering was her first point of contact and when Dr. Rutland wanted to know more about the St. Paul’s Universalist Church and this woman, the researcher and the archivist learned together.

After many long years of research and many miles traveled to archival repositories squeezed in between the demands of daily living, Dr. Rutland discovered Nellie and some of her secrets, successes and disappointments.  She discovered how she came to live her final years in rural Georgia, assisting women of all backgrounds to the voting polls and continuing to empower women in her area as well as other clergywomen.  “What has surprised me the most in this journey is how many of the same problems and obstacles female clergy face today as they did in 1900.”

This program is co-sponsored by the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship of La Crosse and the La Crosse Public Library Archives.