March 31, 2020
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Bangor missionary was one of a kind

If you were down and out in Bangor a century ago, you might get a visit from Mrs. Jennie Johnson, city missionary. She would want to check to see if you were one of the deserving poor — too sick to work, with a wife and kids — or the undeserving poor — too lazy or drunk to work. If you fell into the former category, she then would attend to your needs — a new pair of shoes, a hot meal and some winter clothes, perhaps even a job at a local factory. She couldn’t provide you with a lot of money from government welfare programs because there weren’t any.

Jennie Johnson’s name was often in the newspapers. In the summer, she took an army of hooting and hollering kids to Riverside Park in Hampden on the trolley. At Christmas, she threw a Christmas party at City Hall for poor kids. A look at her official report dated April 12, 1909, gives a clearer idea of what sort of operation she ran. “During the year I have made 796 calls upon poor persons and families and have distributed 293 pairs of shoes, 1,356 articles of clothing, much bedding and quantities of food and medicine,” she wrote.

Most of the $463 she had available to spend came from the proceeds of the city’s George Stetson fund and from the charity dance she organized each year. Money also had been donated by the Elks, Edward H. Blake and Mrs. H.C. Chapman. Food had been donated by Weferling’s Restaurant and J.H. Snow & Company. Many unnamed individuals had donated food and clothes.

Everyone loved and admired Jennie Johnson. Talk to the denizens of the city’s slums, especially in Ward One along the riverfront where many immigrants lived and the unemployed hung out, or to the police who solicited her help in dealing with abused children and injured women, or to the businessmen who contributed money to her cause. Jennie Johnson was an intrepid warrior. She certainly was no “kid-glove woman,” commented one supporter.

So what got her into so much political hot water in 1909? Was it new trends in social work? Or was it the fact she was a Catholic? I would guess it was some combination of the two in an age when snobbery and suspicion still created large gaps among religions, even as science gradually was seeping into all aspects of people’s thinking in a sophisticated city such as Bangor.

The newspapers revealed the bare essentials of the power play to oust Mrs. Johnson on April 13, 1909. It appeared the Twentieth Century Club, one of the city’s leading progressive organizations, had hatched a plot to have her replaced by Mrs. Alva R. Scott, wife of the minister of the Unitarian Church. A petition said what was needed was “a modern system of charity work whereby the best scientific, economic and cooperative methods may be employed …” Mrs. Scott had “special technical training and a wide practical experience in such work.”

The five-member petition committee, which was working “under the auspices of the Twentieth Century Club,” represented various charitable organizations of the city.

A story in the Bangor Daily News on May 14 was more explicit about the plot to oust Mrs. Johnson: “Certain people wanted to have the work under the supervision of a charity organization with one of their members as city missionary.” This was all in keeping with certain trends current at the time tending toward the profes-sionalization of social work and the centralization of welfare.

Jennie Johnson’s religion, however, apparently also had been cited as a reason for change. “It has been reported that some persons, who in their efforts to have another appointed in the place of Mrs. Johnson, have said that she has been partial to Catholics, she being a member of the Catholic Church,” the Commercial reported in its original story on April 13.

Jennie Johnson had many defenders. The most outspoken may have been Police Chief John C. Bowen. “Mrs. Johnson is one of the most efficient city missionaries we have ever had. We have had occasion to send for her at all hours of the day and frequently at night and she has always responded to our calls promptly and cheer-fully. She has always been willing to go down into the slums … I don’t believe there is another woman who would go where we have asked Mrs. Johnson to go.”

As the days went by, more people stepped forward to praise Mrs. Johnson. Among them was John L. Parker, formerly of the bankrupt shoe company Parker & Peakes, which was located in Ward One. “There are men in Bangor of the stamp who are not over-enthusiastic over charitable work who take off their hats every time to Mrs. Johnson,” he said in the Commercial on April 14. Two days later, Max Cohen, one of Bangor’s Jewish leaders, testified to the high level of support Mrs. Johnson had among Jews, many of whom were recent immigrants.

A showdown before the Board of Aldermen occurred on May 13. City Solicitor Donald F. Snow delivered the opinion that the city had missed its opportunity to fire Mrs. Johnson and hire someone else. The ordinance said the appointment had to take place in March. The city would have to “show cause” if it wished to fire her now. Obviously that would have been difficult to do considering the outpouring of support she had received. A committee was formed hastily to rewrite the ordinance.

I turned the clock ahead a few decades to ascertain the outcome of this political tiff. Jennie Johnson’s obituary on May 25, 1950, provided the answer. At her death, she had been the city missionary for 45 years until she had to step down because of illness. City Council Chairman Charles E. Sheehan summed up her life this way: “The citizens of Bangor have lost a truly fine friend and public official. Jennie Johnson was a very kind, thoughtful and charitable woman. She can never be replaced. There will never be another Jennie Johnson.”

Wayne E. Reilly may be reached at

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