It was only last year that a crowded room in Salem, Mass., chuckled as the Rev. Professor Peter J. Gomes of the Memorial Church remarked that the city had erected a statue of “Bewitched” actress Elizabeth Montgomery — an irony as her sole relationship to Salem was her role as a TV witch. Salem’s real hero was, in fact, Caroline Plummer, Gomes declared at a city-sponsored celebration of her life. Plummer, a lesser-known figure by pop culture standards, was one of the two posthumous honorees at the Memorial Church’s annual Commemoration of Benefactors and of the War Dead on Nov. 9.
“There are two new plaques today that join the company of others,” said Gomes, who presided over the ceremony. “They are not dedicated to people who died in wartime,” he continued, “but to two quite extraordinary women.”
Plummer, along with Nannie Yulee Noble, received plaques commemorating their generosity to Harvard. Both were pioneering female philanthropists at a time when few women held much power — or money.
Born in Salem in 1780, Plummer’s fortune came with the death of her brother Ernestus Augustus, a successful merchant with dealings in Russia. The second-eldest of seven children, Plummer outlived her siblings by more than 30 years and was consumed with philanthropic pursuits in Salem and beyond. As a tribute to Ernestus, Plummer established the Plummer Professorship of Christian Morals in 1855 — a position currently held by Gomes.
Nannie Yulee Noble, wife of Harvard alumnus William Belden Noble, was born in Florida in 1856. Her husband, a divinity student and clergyman in the Protestant Episcopal Church, died young, and in 1898, Noble founded The William Belden Noble Lectureship in his memory. The popular lectures have garnered wide acclaim, and Gomes praised Noble for endowing “our serious theological enterprise.”
“We still enjoy her benefaction, and that is why we remember her today and count her and Miss Plummer among our chief benefactors,” said Gomes, who went on to laud Plummer’s good works. “I and all my predecessors rise to call her ‘blessed,’ for without her we wouldn’t be here.”
It was during the celebration in Salem that Gomes was originally struck with the idea to honor her. In his Morning Prayer talk on last year’s All Saints’ Day, which he dedicated to Plummer, he said, “It seemed strange to me to have a memorial to a fictitious television witch yet nothing to a woman who had done so much for [Salem’s] well-being and good reputation,” Gomes said. “I was challenged with the question, ‘Well, has Harvard done anything to honor her?’”
Gomes resolved that “as soon as I can manage it” the next tablet erected would be to Plummer, “whose far-sighted generosity has secured the ministry of this church.”
With Noble as the second woman elected for a plaque, a rare and memorable occasion was marked. “We are one of the few institutions at Harvard whose foundations are feminine,” Gomes noted.
The stone plaques bear grateful remembrance to Plummer and Noble, more than a century after their remarkable deeds made them saints in the eyes of Gomes. “A good definition of a saint,” he explained, “is not that he or she is a perfect person, but that he or she does, and is witness to, God’s work in the world.”
With names carved in gold, Gomes has fulfilled the promise he made one year ago, redeeming the lost legacy of Caroline Plummer, his professorship’s benefactress.
“Before you leave the church you will see the two new plaques on the western wall,” Gomes told his audience, “ … and you will have seen that at long last we are paying attention to Caroline Plummer of Salem, Mass., and to Nannie Yulee Noble of Washington, D.C.”