Mary Madeline Sylvia Chase

Mary Madeline Sylvia Chase

1866 – 1940

Essay by Marjory Gomez O’Toole

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Mary Madeline Sylvia at the George and Elizabeth Gray Farm, 1886. Gift of the Estate of Bessie Gray. LCHS Collection.

Essay by Marjory Gomez O’Toole

Mary Madeline Sylvia Chase (August 1, 1866 – November 24, 1940) was one of the first people, especially women, of Portuguese descent to live in Little Compton. Most of Little Compton’s Portuguese immigrants arrived between 1880 and 1900. Mary’s family was already here in 1875.[i]

Mary’s parents, Manuel and Rose Sylvia (sometimes Silvia), came from the island of St. Georges in the Azores and settled in Troy, New York in the 1860s. Their three children George, Mary and Frederick were born there. By 1875 they were farming in Little Compton, most likely on Shaw Road.[ii] Rosa worked as a housekeeper to help make ends meet, and Mary and her brothers attended Number 8 School on the Commons.[iii]

As a teenager Mary, who was called “Mame,” also did housework to earn a living, like many local girls from working class families. She is pictured here drawing water at the George and Elizabeth Gray farm on West Main Road, often refered to as the Betty Alden House. Mary, at age 20 in 1887, married an older Little Compton man of English descent, George Chase (sometimes Chace), age 35, in New Bedford. Yankee-Portuguese marriages were often frowned upon by local families. Mary and George were some of the first to be married just as the real wave of Portuguese immigration came to Little Compton, and so may have avoided or chose to ignore this community disapproval. Unlike many later Portuguese immigrants, Mary appears to have given up the Catholic faith so common in the Azores and likely worshiped instead in Protestant churches. This change in religion may also have helped her assimilate into the community.[iv]

Mary and George had one long-awaited child, George Edward (called Edward), fourteen years after they were married. For the first years of their life together they owned and farmed land on West Main Road. The couple was able to hire a live-in servant, Mary Moran, the daughter of English immigrants, to help with household chores in 1910.[v]

By 1916, Mary and her family made a dramatic change. Like many of their neighbors they gave up farming, left Little Compton, and moved to New Bedford. The couple bought a single-family home on Chancery Street. Mary took care of the home and was responsible for caring for George’s elderly widowed aunt from Little Compton, Abbie H. Wilbour. (This may be Abbie H. Wilbor from the Wilbor House.) When she could, Mary would enjoy extended visits with her sister-in-law Leonora Bailey in Little Compton, and like so many social calls of the time, these visits were recorded in the local newspapers.

In 1923, Leonora sold her Little Compton home and moved in with Mary and George in New Bedford.[vi] The 1930 census records that the household owned a radio, and we can picture Mary, George, and Leonora gathered around it in the evenings. George worked at various jobs – meat cutter – night watchman – until his death in 1931 at age 71.[vii] Leonora also passed away in 1931, leaving Mary alone for the first time in her life.

Then Mary came home, returning to Little Compton. She moved into her son Edward’s rented home on Main Street in Adamsville, where he earned a living as a house painter, and stayed with his family until her death in 1940.[viii] She is buried in the Beech Grove Cemetery in Westport.

Marjory Gomez O’Toole, LCHS Executive Director

April 2020

Outdoor exhibit panel from the 2020 special exhibition, The Little Compton Women’s History Project.

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Mary Madeline Sylvia Chase was one of the first people of Portuguese descent to live in Little Compton. Her parents Manuel and Rose Sylvia immigrated from the Azores and settled in Troy, New York in the 1860s. Their three children George, Mary, and Frederick were born there. Sometime prior to 1875 the Sylvias moved to Little Compton and began to farm on West Main Road. Rose worked as a housekeeper, and Mary and her brothers attended Number 8 School on the Commons.

As a teenager Mary did housework for George and Elizabeth Gray, and at 20, she married a 35-year-old Little Compton man of English descent, George Chase. For many years Yankee-Portuguese marriages were frowned upon. Mary and George avoided or ignored this community disapproval, perhaps in part because Mary gave up Catholicism.

Mary and George owned a farm on West Main Road and had one child and a live-in servant. Around 1915 they moved to New Bedford, where George was a meat cutter, and Mary cared for elderly relatives. After George’s death Mary lived in Adamsville with her son’s family.

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[i] 1875 RI State Census

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] 1885 RI State Cenus

[iv] Because she is buried in Beech Grove Cemetery. Practicing Catholics would have been buried in a Catholic Cemetery.

[v] 1910 Federal Census

[vi] Providence Journal Article.

[vii] 1920 and 1930 Federal Census

[viii] Rhode Island Deaths and Burials, 1802-1950