The Young Women’s Christian Association (YWCA) movement began in London in 1855 and by 1900, it had spread across the United States. It was an interdenominational Christian organization whose purpose was, and still is, “to draw together women and girls of diverse experience and faiths to open their lives to new understanding and deeper relationships.” At a time when young women living alone were at risk, the YWCA offered safe housing and other services.
Helena physician Dr. Maria Dean saw that young career women, Helena Business College students, and young girls from rural communities attending the local high school needed safe housing. In January 1911, she began to organize Helena’s YWCA. The first members chose two young women from every church in Helena, including the Jewish Temple Emanu-El, to recruit members. By the end of March, 300 women had joined Helena’s YWCA. Dr. Dean hired Frieda Fligelman, a young and prominent member of the Jewish community, as secretary. The YWCA’s rented house on Fifth Avenue quickly filled, and members opened a public cafeteria in the dining room. It became a popular, income-generating venture.
The Helena YWCA incorporated in 1912. However, members decided not to affiliate with the national organization. At that time, the national YWCA allowed only Christian members to participate in chapter management. Some of the members who pioneered Helena’s YWCA were of divergent faiths. Frieda Fligelman, for example, had already done tremendous work for the Helena Y. Helena’s decision to remain independent was a bold expression of tolerance that went beyond that implicit in the national YWCA’s mission.
Members began a building fund and dreamed about owning a larger facility. In 1918, Helena investor John H. Empson donated a lot at Placer and North Park along with $25,000, stipulating that matching donations be raised in 30 days. In just one day, businessman J. E. Bower secured $37,000 in matching funds. Under the able leadership of association president Mrs. A. K. (Mary) Prescott, ground was broken in May of 1918. Completed in February of 1919, the first women moved into its 43 rooms. Throughout its long history, the home has sheltered hundreds of women, served as a gathering place for service clubs, housed dance studios and a preschool, and offered occupational skills.
Although the national YWCA long ago relaxed its management rules, a visiting advisor noted in 1972 that Helena was the nation’s only YWCA, Independent. In 1987, the Helena YWCA affiliated with the national organization.
With great community support, current YWCA members have taken important steps toward saving the ninety-year-old landmark. Its presence is important to the community and its service invaluable. Besides, it has an extraordinary story to tell.
Ellen Baumler, Montana Historical Society