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COLLECTION Identifier: bMS 176

Downing, Ruth G. Papers, 1926-1941.

Papers of Ruth G. Downing, a Universalist minister and missionary. The papers include diaries, photographs, correspondence, reports, and artifacts. Deals with the Pigeon River mission in North Carolina, the Blackmer Home for underprivileged girls in Japan, and the tension associated with American missionaries during the escalating hostilities of World War II.


  • 1926-1941.


There are no restrictions on access to this collection.


5 boxes

The bulk of this collection consists of Downing’s diaries. Downing was a habitual and conscientious diarist, who for many years wrote nearly every day. While working at the Blackmer Home she primarily used small locally purchased notebooks in a variety of shapes and patterns, filling the pages right-to-left in the local style. If no more convenient option was available, she wrote on whatever loose sheets of paper were available, keeping them together in envelopes. A number of her diaries contain artifacts such as photographs, bookmarks, and pressed leaves tucked between the pages.

Downing writes primarily about the details of day-to-day life: the achievements of her students, the projects taken on by the mission, leisure activities such as visits to the movies, and comments on her health and the weather. She reflects on notable events, including graduation ceremonies and holiday celebrations (in January 1934 she laments that her enthusiasm for New Year's isn't shared by her Japanese colleagues), and keeps notes when she travels (a journey by ship in the diary of July 24-October 21, 1936 includes daily reports of latitude and longitude). As tensions increase between Japan and the United States, she writes of growing police attention and her worries for the legal status of the mission, though she reaffirms the kindness and trust the local population continues to extend to them.

The collection also includes photographs of Downing and some of her correspondence, plus material related to the Blackmer Home such as a floor plan, annual reports, and photographs of some of the girls in the home.

Biographical / Historical

Ruth G. Downing (1898-1991) was a Universalist teacher and missionary. In 1917 she was listed as a Junior-at-large in the Young People’s Christian Union (YPCU) of the Universalist Church in Connecticut. In 1927 she was issued a temporary ministerial license by the Universalist Convention of North Carolina, which was periodically renewed thereafter. Through the Women’s National Missionary Association (WNMA) she was connected with the community and social service center in Pigeon River Valley, North Carolina, where she served (1927-1929) under the direction of mission leader Hannah Jewett Powell, working especially with black children in the village of Sunburst, North Carolina.

In 1929 Downing was sent to the Universalist mission to Japan, where she served as a kindergarten and Sunday school teacher at the Blackmer Home for Girls, a project of the WNMA which housed twenty underprivileged young women. (Downing herself lived in a separate place bought with her own funds, a small house dubbed Sunny Corner.) Her ministerial license was transferred to the General Convention in 1930. She was a staunch advocate for the Japan mission to its American sponsors, writing publicity materials about its work including "Two little stories from Japan" (1937), "Michiko San" (1938), and a film of unknown title (cited in a letter to Roger Etz, September 17, 1937).

On April 15, 1940, the Universalist Mission Council, including Downing and three others, voted unanimously to accept a proposed merger with a local Congregationalist mission. This was done largely for financial reasons. Sometime in the next two years the mission was disbanded altogether. Downing remained in Japan, and in March of 1942 she was interned by the Japanese government with other Allied missionaries in the hospital of the Franciscan Missionaries of Mary (Seibo Byoin).

In 1943, Downing converted to Catholicism and was baptized as Ruth Maria Mercedes. In 1946 she joined the Mercedarian Missionaries of Berriz, and in 1953 she took her final vows, taking the name Sister Maria Mercedes Downing. Her work as an English teacher continued for eighteen years in the Koen Girls School in Tokyo, and later in Hino, where she moved in 1971.

Downing was diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease in 1948, a condition which advanced throughout her life and kept her confined to her bed from 1981 until her death. Her final days were lived out in the hospital of a convent in Daiichi, where she was moved after its construction in 1987.

Acquisition Information

Gift of the Universalist Historical Society and the estate of Ruth G. Downing.

Related Materials

For related collections, please see bMS 510, bMS 537, and bMS 405.

Processing Information

Processed by Erin Binkley, 2012.
Link to catalog
Downing, Ruth G. Papers, 1926-1941: A Finding Aid.
Andover-Harvard Theological Library

Repository Details

Part of the Andover-Harvard Theological Library, Harvard Divinity School Repository

Special Collections at Andover-Harvard Theological Library preserves and makes accessible primary source materials documenting the history of religion and theology, with particular historical emphasis on American liberal religious traditions. Though the historical strengths of the collections have been in the field of Christianity, other religious traditions are increasingly reflected, in step with Harvard Divinity School's evolving focus on global religious studies.

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