Peoria Women's Club operates under the radar

Theresa Kuhlmann
Channy Lyons discusses art at a recent Peoria Women's Club meeting.

According to Alice Dooley, the Peoria Women’s Club has been one of Peoria’s well-kept secrets for more than 120 years.

“We are under the radar,” Dooley said.

The club may be familiar to few and its effects may be largely unnoticed, but since its inception, it appears that PWC has been a lifeline for the community.

The PWC fosters educational growth in art, literature and travel and awareness of current civic concerns to all women of the Peoria area. Since its inception, it has delivered assistance to the Peoria community.

“In addition to the educational programs at our meetings, the Peoria Women’s Club has always helped the underprivileged,” Dooley added.

The club sponsors the Dress for Success program that collects donated professional clothing and accessories for the underprivileged. The clothes are stored year round at the Neighborhood House.

Underprivileged and domestic abuse victims at the Center for the Prevention of Abuse may call anytime to receive donations from the  ‘closet.’

In addition to the Dress for Success program, the PWC receives income support from fundraising events held during the year. It handles two card parties per year and a Christmas tea.

Each Thursday, September through May, the PWC has a lunch program from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. In addition to the catered lunch and guest speaker, there is a raffle for a goodie basket filled with treats or linens.

The red brick building, adorned with ornamental iron gates that the PWC calls home, sits at the corner of Madison and Lafayette.

In 1886, Clara Parsons Bourland and 27 chartered members started the PWC: sharing music, literature and art. They worked with architects Jenney & Mundie and craftsmen John L. Flinn and Frank Hasbrouck to design and build what is today an historical landmark.

The building’s cornerstone was laid at Madison and Fayette on May 22, 1893.

The main floor is still used by the club for its Thursday lunches and two annual teas. It can also be rented by any organization or group, and the money is a source of income to pay the building’s utilities.

The second floor, which needs renovation, holds a theater with 453 seats that still have hat and coat racks on the seats.

The club has been much more to the community than its name suggests. It appears its focus today is the same as it was in the previous era when Bourland started it.

“Providing  educational programs, group activities for members and service programs are its staple,” Dooley says. 

Though sometimes small, the PWC’s contributions are influential.

Current issues, or needs may be addressed by the club. In the past, the club has lobbied for the Peoria State Hospital in Bartonville and a traveling library for books in kindergarten classes.

It petitioned legislators for better child labor laws and assisted the American Red Cross during World War I, establishing the first ARC blood banks.

During World War I, PWC set up donations of knitting and sewing and bandage rolling classes for the ARC, and, during the Depression, food was available to the members.

During the influenza epidemic of 1918, the main floor was used as a hospital.

The home to the PWC has hosted countless plays and lectures.

Many famous people performed on its stage, including Victor Hugo, Julie Marlowe, Carl Sandburg, Edward McDowell, Ethel Barrymore, Steve Allen and Robert Shaw.

Some of today’s local performing arts organizations started in the historic building including Peoria Players and Amateur Music Club.

Even the Peoria Symphony Orchestra had its member and artist concerts at the club.

The PWC currently has about 80-90 members.

“But we only get an attendance at our meetings of about 25 to 45. A lot of members move away but want to maintain their membership in the club,” she said.

Membership today ranges from 50 to 90 years old.

“It is a sign of the times,” Dooley says.

“More women are working and more women with children find it hard to squeeze in time for lunch.”

But that is a trend that the leadership would like to change.

“The meetings are uplifting, educational and interesting,” Dooley said.

“I joined because I wanted something in my life that was educational and fun. And, the lunches are a great place to network.”

Membership is $50 annually, and open to any woman over 18. For reservations to the weekly Thursday lunch programs or information about the Peoria Women’s Club, call 692-5787 or 697-5224, or visit  www.peoriawomensclubofillinois.org.