Eleanor Parmenter Churchill: Canterbury Shaker Child, Canterbury Shaker Friend

Eleanor Paramenter Churchill
Eleanor Parmenter Churchill at the reunion
Canterbury Shaker Village, August 5, 1990.

Eleanor Parmenter arrived at the Canterbury, New Hampshire, Shaker Village on June 14, 1926, six months before her twelfth birthday. She was one of several children who, due to any number of family and social circumstances, lived among the Shakers.

While under their guidance, Eleanor Parmenter attended school taught by Sister Marguerite Frost and played with the other children. She cooked, sewed, and did chores alongside the sisters and also participated in the recreational life of the Village.

Eleanor Parmenter resided among the Shakers during a turbulent and defining time in the religious community’s history. In the late 1920s and 1930s, the Shakers were surviving but not prospering. The once vibrant community was in decline. Few new members joined its ranks, and some of its vital older members passed away, including the last two Shaker men to live at Canterbury, Arthur Bruce and Irving Greenwood. The ravages of time and constant use took a visible toll on the village, as did a lack of much needed labor, and the damage caused by the Hurricane of 1938.

In 1939, Eleanor Parmenter left Canterbury, and shortly thereafter she married Sam Churchill. She never signed the sacred Shaker Covenant, and therefore never became a Shaker. Nonetheless, she was a member of the community’s extended family. Sister Evelyn Polsey “adopted” her as a daughter, she called Sister Helena Sarle “Grammie,” and she knew Sister Aida Elam as “Auntie.”

Throughout her life, Eleanor maintained contact with the Shakers. The many letters, cards, and photographs she kept vividly depict Shaker life at Canterbury. Letters from Evelyn Polsey record some of the exciting events and mundane activities of the sisters, while notes from Eldress Emma King document a broader view of society’s perception of the Shakers, and the failing health of the Canterbury community.

The Churchills frequently visited and corresponded with the Shaker sisters until Sam’s death in 1971. Eleanor eventually remarried (Dick Schopp). She continued to maintain contact with the remaining sisters until the passing of Ethel Hudson, the last Canterbury Shaker, in 1992. Eleanor died in 1994, the victim of a car accident.

Exhibit created by Erik R. Tuveson, Special Collections manuscripts curator.