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Cecilia Fund Transformed Music into Medical Care for the Needy

City's oldest private charity marking 125th Anniversary

Santa Barbara’s oldest private charity, the Cecilia Fund, is celebrating its 125th anniversary with its annual Tea and Membership Meeting at 2:30 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 26, at the Santa Barbara Club, 1105 Chapala St. Since its founding in 1892, the the Cecilia Fund has served to defray the medical costs of those in need in Santa Barbara.

The Cecilia Fund is a nondenominational organization named after Saint Cecilia, the patron saint of music, honored for ministering to the sick and downtrodden.

Author Elizabeth Eaton Burton included the history of the St. Cecelia Club in her book “My Santa Barbara Scrapbook.” Click to view larger
Author Elizabeth Eaton Burton included the history of the St. Cecelia Club in her book “My Santa Barbara Scrapbook.” (The Cecilia Fund)

The St. Cecilia Club began as a small orchestral group of women who would hold musicales for local residents in support of the newly constructed Cottage Hospital. Under the leadership of Elise Coolidge Hall, vice president of the hospital board and cousin of the future President Calvin Coolidge, the organization was formed.

Dr. Richard Hall, Elise's husband, was a member of Cottage Hospital's founding medical staff and a leader in the Santa Barbara community.

Another early leader was Elizabeth Eaton Burton, a nationally famous artist known for her patent-leather techniques and her work using native woods and shells in lamps, screens and chests. She also proved to be a writer and historian when she wrote a book My Santa Barbara Scrapbook that depicted in detail the early days of Santa Barbara, including the history of the St. Cecelia Club.

The group's first order of charitable business was to provide Cottage Hospital with a single hospital bed to serve as a reserved space where the needy could receive care free of charge.

The St, Cecilia Club's musicales were so well attended that an additional fundraising event was added, the Valentine's Tea and Fair held for years in the luxurious parlor of the Arlington Hotel until the hotel’s destruction during the earthquake of 1925.

The Cecilia Fund’s history of community involvement paved the way for future nonprofits in Santa Barbara. It not only established the St. Cecelia Club as a key organization that promoted public health, it also helped to create a thriving culture in the city with arts and events. Names on the earliest membership rosters included Whitney, de la Guerra, Hollister, Putnam, Fernald and Winchester.

Private donors and membership dues fund the organization today, but in the early 1900s the Valentine’s Day Tea and Fair was St. Cecilia Club’s main fundraiser and became the most sought after social event of the season. Community members would gather at the Arlington for tea and repast. Afterward, the tables and chairs were pushed to the walls and guests danced the night away.

Since its inception 125 years ago, the organization has adapted to the times. Whether it was known as the St. Cecilia Club, or later the St. Cecilia Society, and now the Cecilia Fund, its mission, the vision of the 1892 founders, remains untouched.

The baton has been passed from generation to generation into the 21st century despite two World Wars, the Great Depression, the disastrous 6.3 Santa Barbara earthquake, and today's challenging medical environment. The Cecilia Fund continues its charitable work and is extending its horizons to better serve the community.

The fund distributes more than $100,000 annually to help meet dental and medical costs for those who otherwise could not afford to receive the care they require. The Cecilia Fund is a volunteer charity group without paid staff or a permanent office and is composed of a highly-dedicated board of 12 women.

“We consistently receive more requests than we can fund and we urgently need the community’s continued support to increase our level of funding for critical medical and dental care,” said Marion Schoneberger, a board member. “Clinical social workers tout the organization as one of the best charities to work with because of our lack of bureaucracy.”

The board meets monthly to review the cases that have been referred by Santa Barbara County social workers and other health professionals to determine what cases they are able to fund. The Cecilia Fund pays providers directly and is often able to negotiate significant discounts from the dental and medical providers. Urgent requests can be funded within 24 hours.

Today, the charity no longer holds private recitals but rather hosts an annual tea and a fall event to raise money to fulfill its mission. Membership levels range from $75 a year to $2,500. In addition to membership, the tea event is $35 per person.

Guest speakers at the tea are author and local historian Erin Graffy and Domenic Caluori DMD, chief dental officer of Santa Barbara Neighborhood Clinics.

Tickets can be purchased at www.ceciliafund.org.

— Ryan Mandell/Chris Davis for the Cecilia Fund.

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