The St. Cecilia Society

In December 1891, Cottage Hospital opened its doors to patients thanks to a four-year effort by the women of the area who had formed the Santa Barbara Cottage Hospital Society in 1888. In 1889, Dr. Richard J. Hall and his wife Elise (Elizabeth Boyer Coolidge) arrived in Santa Barbara and became active supporters of the Cottage Hospital Society. In 1891, with the hospital nearing completion, Elise formed the Amateur Musical Club which gathered the most talented musicians in town to give performances for a variety of charitable causes.

The Amateur Musical Club, which dissolved in 1896, is credited with inspiring the formation of another musical club, the St. Cecilia Club, named after the patron saint of music. Their goal was, and is, to provide health care for those who cannot afford it. Initially that meant furnishing and maintaining a free room at the new Cottage Hospital. The St. Cecilia Club, therefore, embarked on an ambitious schedule of benefit concerts and events.

In her memoirs, Elizabeth Eaton Burton, artist daughter of Charles Frederick Eaton of Montecito’s Riso Rivo estate, recalls the genesis of the Club. “Quite early,” she wrote, “before my marriage in fact, several of us formed into a singing group and gave a Cantata, the receipts to be given to the hospital toward a bed. We called it the St. Cecelia Club.

“While in school in England, I had learned a part song set to music from Tennyson’s poem, ‘The Lady of Shalott,’ and I now suggested giving it for our initial performance. So I sent for it and in due time we had finished our rehearsals and were ready.”

Not only were they ready, they completely enthralled the audience. After their February 2, 1892 performance, the Morning Press enthused, “There are but few professional artists who visit this city and give the pleasure to their audience that the members of the St. Cecilia Club gave last evening.”

Elizabeth wrote, “This was the beginning of the institution in Santa Barbara which has lasted to this day (1935), under the name of St. Cecilia, although it now no longer has to do with music, but solely with endowing a room at the hospital.”

In April 1892, the newspaper announced the names of the founding members and board. Miss Elizabeth Eaton was president; Mrs. F.M. Whitney, vice-president; Miss MacLaren, treasurer; and Miss E. Nixon, secretary. The board consisted of Mrs. W.W. Hollister, Miss Redington, Mrs. Henry Stambach, and Miss Hease. Eventually the membership would number 75, among them were these familiar names: de la Guerra, Dibblee, Winchester, Wheelan, Ogilvy, Edwards, Stoddard, Hawley, Fernald, Lincoln, Florence Baxter and Elise Hall.

The Annual Teas

Elizabeth Eaton Burton wrote, “We gave one big Bazaar a year, which took place at the Arlington on St. Valentine’s Day, and was in those days one of the big events of the calendar year; as most of our wealthy Eastern visitors contributed generously, we soon had enough on hand to have a room of our own at the hospital as well as to help run it.”

The first of the annual teas was given February 22, 1893. The Morning Press reported that since its founding the previous year, the club had supported a Cottage Hospital room which had been continuously occupied. They had met the $700 worth of expenses through dues, private donations, and the receipts from various entertainments. Now they planned to replenish the treasury by hosting a Martha Washington Tea.

Held in the parlor of the Arlington Hotel, the tea was the society event of the year. The Arlington parlor was filled with flower, candy and fancy articles booths managed by ladies in powdered wigs and quaint costumes. Mrs. Dixie Thompson presided as Martha Washington, and guests could purchase souvenir teapots and cups.

At the “Old Wooden Bucket” booth, Samuel Woodworth, grandson of the author of the booth’s namesake song about the old homestead in Scituate, Massachusetts, dispensed presents at 10¢ a grab. (The song, written in 1826, is actually titled “The Old Oaken Bucket.”)

Miss Ynez Dibblee and Miss de la Guerra sponsored the penola booth, and Mrs. Edwards and Mrs. Whitney ran the fancy articles booth. Decorated in red crepe and apricot and peach blossoms, the candy booth kept the Misses Nixon busy. That evening, Professor Green’s orchestra played, and there was singing, guitar playing and dancing performances highlighted by young Miss Bell’s dance, the Cachucha. The event raised over $850 for the club.

The following year, the tea moved to St. Valentine’s Day. Each year thereafter, a different flower was selected as the theme for decorations. In 1900, hollyhocks festooned the booths, and 1901 saw a “Blossom Tea” complete with peach branches covered with paper blossoms. The Daily News reported, “The person who stood at the door of the long parlor might readily have imagined that he was looking down between the rows of some bloom-covered orchard.”

That year, Mrs. E.H. Sawyer (Nathalie Anderson) and Miss Redington were in charge of the booth where, the Daily News reported, “the daintiest valentines, some of them really works of art, were sold.”

Edward Selden Spaulding, founder of Laguna Blanca School who came to Santa Barbara in 1897, remembers these Valentine’s Day Teas well. “This fair,” he wrote in his memoirs, “…was supported loyally and conscientiously by the majority of the residents of the City, of Montecito, and of the outlying districts as well. All through the year previous to the fair, the ladies had knitted, sewed, embroidered, and crocheted as they made the articles that were to be sold at the various tables.

“All of this fine philanthropy passed unnoticed by us children, of course. What was of much more interest to us were the candy table and the ‘post office.’ At the latter booth, valentines were sent and received by us, for a small stipend, of course, in considerable numbers and with great enthusiasm.”

Mrs. Bertha Gregory Smith, a former St. Cecilia member who wrote a Noticias article on the Club in 1961, said that after dinner, the tables and chairs were pushed aside and the dancing commenced. Each year at the end of the evening the girls were swung ‘round and around to the tune of the Virginia Reel. “Everyone was happy,” she wrote.

The Evolving Society

In 1898, St. Cecilia members supported old Rough and Ready and his boys during the Spanish-American War by making flannel bandages. In 1903, the club officially incorporated. In 1906, the club built a cottage for its patients in connection with Quisiana, the private sanitarium founded by three local physicians in 1902 on the Riviera. In 1909, the Order of the Sacred Heart of Mary purchased the site and created St. Francis Hospital. The St. Cecilia Club subsequently sold the cottage and returned the money to the endowment fund, although they would eventually help pay for nursing care at the new St. Francis Hospital.

In the 1920s, the Club started skipping some of the annual teas in favor of simply asking for donations. In 1928, concerned that their efforts overlapped the Community Chest and other charitable organizations in town, they disbanded for the year to see if they were really necessary. They became active again in 1929, the year the stock market crashed.

The minutes show that in 1932, the 40-year-old group decided to “show the public that St. Cecilia is still an active society.” They held a “donation tea” at the Umbrella Court of the four-year-old Margaret Baylor Inn (today’s Lobero Building next to the Recreation Center on Anacapa Street). In attendance were many of the original names including Mrs. W.W. Burton (Elizabeth Eaton Burton), the first president, who presided over the tea table.

The tea, a smaller version of the original fairs, brought in between 80 and 90 memberships and donations. The minutes stated, “A number of old friends of the Club who came to the tea were surprised and delighted to know that the club was still carrying on its work.”

The greater needs of the Depression rejuvenated the club and the annual fairs were back on in full swing until the end of World War II, when they were no longer needed due to large bequests and donations to the Club.

The St. Cecilia Society is 115 years old this year, and each year it helps hundreds of people who do not qualify for medical assistance through other programs. Nowadays, its annual donation tea is held at Our Saints-by-the-Sea Episcopal Church in Montecito. And though the valentine booths, crocheted tea cozies, and dance bands have faded into the dust of history, the tea and cookies are as fresh as the charitable mission of the St. Cecilia Society.

(Sources: “St. Cecilia Society” by George A. Higgins, M.D., Noticias, Autumn 1992; Santa Barbara- 1898-1925- as seen by a boy, Edward Selden Spaulding; My Santa Barbara Scrapbook, Elizabeth Eaton Burton; Mrs. John S. Edwards in April 1960 report, the minutes of the Society, 1911-1974.)