Music + Arts

Helen Warner

Trailblazing Elder (1901–1995)

Psalm 100 calls us to “serve the Lord with gladness.” If ever anyone answered this call, it was Helen Warner.

Helen Trowbridge Warner was born in Connecticut. As a young woman she served with the American Red Cross for three years on the World War II battlefront, driving an ambulance,  assisting at medical units, organizing social events for active service members and non-combatants. She worked in England, France and Germany before coming home in June 1946.

Helen arrived at Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in 1960. By then her leadership and organizational capabilities were well established—and so obvious that when the Session finally voted to allow women to serve as Elders and Trustees, Helen was the first woman chosen. She was elected to fill an unexpired term in the Session Class of 1973, and then was among three women Elders elected to full, three-year terms in the Class of 1974.

Helen worshiped here faithfully for 35 years and served the church in more ways than I could count. Besides serving as an Elder, she chaired the Nominating Committee, the Urban involvement Commission and the Women’s Association Tea, and was a member of the Volunteer Liaison Committee. No job was too big or too small for Helen.

Because God’s world extends far beyond the walls of this church, so did Helen’s service. She worked as an administrator for years with the YWCA, was active Presbyterian Senior Services and the Federation of Protestant Welfare Agencies, and worked with the Clinton Housing Association in the early 1970s, when they built 3,400 low, moderate and middle-income apartments in the city.

But perhaps her most profound and lasting service was to the senior population of New York. In the early 1950s Helen founded and served as president of the board of the Elder Craftsmen, a nonprofit organization that provided free classes in arts and crafts to New Yorkers over age 60. The group worked with women’s and men’s clubs, nursing homes and other groups (nearly 200 in all), with funding from the city’s Department of Aging and from private sources. In 1955 the Elder Craftsmen opened a storefront on Lexington Avenue (“a craft shop for oldsters,” the New York Times called it) where the handmade merchandise—everything from dresses and dolls to model boats and “fragrant pomander balls”—were sold on commission.

The store, the classes, the fundraising… Helen must have managed it all beautifully. So much so that, after she retired, the Elder Craftsmen invited her back, because they never found anyone who could replace her. (She was 90 years old at the time.)

Helen died in December 1995. The Chapel overflowed at her memorial service. Her much-loved Women’s Association provided good food and a chance for laughter, tears and hugs. Just what Helen wanted.

In 2009 the Elder Craftsmen merged with the Carter Burden Network, which serves more than 5,000 seniors across Manhattan. Helen’s legacy of service lives on.

About the Writer

Lisa Anderson joined Fifth Avenue Presbyterian Church in October 1962 and has served as a Deacon, an Elder and a Trustee. She was working as the church social worker when she first met Helen Warner, in 1963. The two became good friends in the 1970s while Helen was recovering from a broken hip in St. Luke’s Hospital, where Lisa was working as a medical social worker.