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A Real Saint

Greg Spears

I’D ALWAYS THOUGHT that saints were long-ago martyrs, those people shown in paintings in the Louvre or the Prado.

That’s why I was surprised to find a plaque honoring a 20th century saint at the church I attend in Newcastle, Maine. The saint, Frances Perkins, had worshipped at that very church, St. Andrew’s Episcopal, until her death in 1965.

Who was Frances Perkins? My friends often draw a blank at the name, although she helped shape our lives. Perkins was a young social worker when she met Franklin Delano Roosevelt at a tea dance in 1910. She was passionately interested in improving the lives of poor workers and immigrants.

FDR took Perkins with him into government, starting when he was governor of New York. He named her Secretary of Labor in 1933, the first woman ever to serve in a U.S. president’s cabinet. That’s not why Perkins was made a saint, however.

Before she accepted the Labor Secretary’s job, she met with Roosevelt to tell him what she wanted to accomplish. She wanted to end child labor. She wanted to create a minimum wage. She wanted limits on working hours. She wanted unemployment insurance. And she wanted a system of pensions that would provide dignity to workers in old age.

Roosevelt told her he wondered if labor regulation was even constitutional. When she brought up the idea of pensions, Roosevelt broke in: “You know, Frances, I don’t believe in the dole and I never will.”

Still, in the end, Roosevelt told her to go ahead and try. “You have to invent the way to do these things,” he told her. “Don’t expect too much help from me.”

Amazingly, Perkins—with Roosevelt’s subsequent support—succeeded. She chaired the committee that led to the creation of Social Security in 1935. She was also a leading force behind the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938. It helped create the minimum wage, the 40-hour week, overtime pay and put an end to child labor in factories.

Perkins’s Christian faith was the inspiration for her actions, according to her biographer, George Martin. She rarely spoke in religious terms, however, “because she knew they made many people nervous.”  She was named a saint by the Episcopal Church in 2009.

Perkins didn’t achieve all of her ambitions, by the way. She also wanted universal health care.

What a saint.

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