87 - Our Beloved Sister Matt

When Mattie Craighill arrived on the Randolph-Macon campus in 1898, she’d overcome countless hurdles to get there. Luckily, by the time she’d arrived, a strong band of women had established a Sisterhood three years prior that was now active on her campus. This opportunity to cultivate a lifetime of purpose opened doors for Mattie that would lead her to years of practicing her love of storytelling and connection.

“I look back over 35 years to the fall of 1898, and memory surges up. I was 16, entering college in the September of that year, having graduated from high school the previous June. I was at Randolph-Macon on a scholarship obtained because I had received the highest average in my class… otherwise, I probably could not have gone to college at that time.

Mattie Craighill Nicholas at age 16

“My father had lost tremendously in a disastrous fire, and was in ill health. We had to leave my childhood home. My precious, good mother was overborne with anxiety. My older sister, who had been a reigning society belle in Lynchburg, had to take a business course and go to work.

“I tell all this autobiography because it has a bearing on the intense love I had for Chi Omega from the very beginning. I was young and home problems had filled my heart with the heaviness that we regret seeing fall upon a young heart. College opened to me, therefore, a new world of hope and delight.” said Mattie Craighill Nicholas years after being initiated into the Sisterhood that would mold so much of her life.

Joining Chi Omega on the National Level

In 1902, to encourage timely submission of quality letters to The Eleusis, the Governing Council offered a Chi Omega badge, set in opals or pearls with a chapter pin attached, to the correspondent sending in the best letters.

To her absolute surprise and delight, this prize was awarded at the 1904 Convention to Sigma Chapter correspondent Mattie Craighill. When Ida Pace Purdue rolled from editor of The Eleusis to became S.H., it was with great pride that she appointed Mattie as the new editor of The Eleusis. Mattie would quickly become known by the endearing name of Sister Matt.

“I made no effort myself to win the election, although I was dying to be the editor, but tried hard to appear decently modest and not self-seeking,” Mattie wrote in her memoirs. Thus, an early example of “the position seeks the woman” endures!

At this time the editor was a member of the Governing Council, so Mattie did not take this appointment lightly. Ida Pace and Mattie’s collaborative work was so well received that Mary Love Collins, who would go on to be a long-time S.H., noted it was The Eleusis that influenced her local sorority at Dickinson College to apply for a Chi Omega charter.

Ensuring Quality and Quantity of Content

Sister Matt was known for taking her job seriously and holding the publication to a standard of excellence that only Chi Omegas know as so natural. During Mattie’s time, she introduced more pictures and department headings inspired by Greek design and drawn by Ina May Boles.

Department headings drawn by Ina May Boles

“They laugh at me sometimes,” wrote Mattie a few years after she became editor of The Eleusis, “because no matter into what mazes my conversations with Chi Omega Sisters may lead, inevitably I finally come back to the question: ‘Won’t you write me something for The Eleusis?’ You can tell from this, that I never have an overabundance of material, indeed, often the material gets to the last gasp, and I have even at times had to put these last gasps into The Eleusis.”

To encourage timely submission of chapter reports, Mattie noted in a 1904 editorial that, “For the protection of the often harassed Eleusis editor, the Convention imposed a fine of $2.00 upon the correspondent for delinquent chapter letters… The treasury does not need two-dollar fines, and The Eleusis does need articles always – and not merely articles, but good articles – Looking to receive a car-load of magnificent literary productions in the near future!”

Mattie Craighill Nicholas in her wedding dress

Fines and pleas for articles did not solve the problem. In 1906 she next enacted the requirement for collegiate chapters to submit three times a year and alumnae chapters to submit once a year with the looming consequence of being on suspension if not fulfilled. Today, thanks to technology and the ease of sending a quick email, we receive a magnitude of submissions that would make even Sister Matt content!

And even when she received letters, she would often feel the need to stress the important of quality.

“The Editor’s task is not a light one,” wrote Mattie. “But it would be infinitely easier if every article came in to her in just the shape in which it should go to the printer… Please write your articles carefully, paying strict attention to spelling, punctuation, paragraphing, and general rhetorical structure of sentences.”

Changes in the Fraternity

When Mary Love Collins became Fraternity president in 1910, Mattie moved right along with the tone of the magazine as it changed radically and immediately. Reflecting the ideals of our new S.H., The Eleusis suddenly became serious in nature, seldom featuring any frivolity. Gone were pleas for member-written material and articles on sorority and campus life.

In addition to her work on The Eleusis, a lesser known point of pride for Sister Matt was her proposal to celebrate Fall Eleusinia. At the National Convention in 1908, she suggested October 5th should be designated Fall Eleusinia to coincide with the already well-honored April 5th celebration. The idea was adopted with great excitement!

The Blue Books

In 1925, under Mattie’s watchful eye, the unforgettable and highly recognizable blue covers were introduced. This came with fewer pages and smaller text, and most all features authored by non-Fraternity members focusing on civilization and culture, psychology, hobbies, travel, art, reading, religion, and articles of interest to teachers.

These famous blue covers would become a highly recognized symbol of Chi Omega until they were replaced in 1983.

Blue Book covers of The Eleusis

Mattie’s love for Chi Omega ran deep through her work, but also her family. The seventh Convention in 1912 honored Sara Norvell Craighill, Mattie’s biological sister, as Supreme Governing Council Model Initiate. Then, at the 18th Convention in 1934, Jaquelin Ambler Nicholas, Mattie’s third daughter received the same distinction.

Sister Matt believed in the Fraternity and all that it stood for, which is why she devoted so much care and intention to its success.

In a 1904 issue of The Eleusis she summed up her view on the Fraternity’s purpose quite well, “But let them all be of good cheer, and remember that their best is all that is demanded… We want our girls to stand for good scholarship, as well as for good everything else. Each Chi Omega should always remember that everything she as an individual does, reflects credit – or discredit (perish the thought!) – upon the whole Fraternity.”