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posted: 9/1/2013 6:00 AM

Daughters of British Empire celebrating anniversary

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  • Jill Hauser, regent of the Naperville chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire USA, pours tea for member Shelia Brown and Georgina Dirker, a visitor from St. Charles, at a recent DBE meeting.

    Jill Hauser, regent of the Naperville chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire USA, pours tea for member Shelia Brown and Georgina Dirker, a visitor from St. Charles, at a recent DBE meeting.
    Courtesy Louise Brass

By Louise Brass
Daughters of the British Empire USA

There's nothing quite like a cup of tea and a friendly chat to brighten the day, according to members of the Naperville chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire USA.

Members will celebrate the chapter's 50th anniversary Saturday, Sept. 7, at the Little Traveler, 404 S. 3rd St., Geneva.

Not that there is an empire any more; it's now called the British Commonwealth of Nations. The commonwealth consists of 54 nations, including Canada, Australia, India, Singapore, Ghana, Kenya, Malaysia and the United Kingdom, and has roughly 2 billion inhabitants.

The Naperville chapter of the Daughters of the British Empire is one of the oldest in the national organization, which was formed in 1909 to assist widows and widowers of British immigrants who fell on hard times. Now the group serves as friends to the elderly of any nationality, at The British Home in Brookfield.

Members meet monthly and plan fundraisers for such causes as supporting nursing homes, cancer benefits and the maintenance of the national Peace Garden in Minnesota. Members also take the opportunity to share memories about the old country and discuss the latest UK-related news and television productions, such as the popular shows "Downton Abbey" and "Doc Martin."

The recent birth of the newest British prince, George, to Prince William and Catherine, the Duchess of Cambridge, in London, was a popular topic of conversation. But the occasion stirred the group into action as well.

Two days before the royal birth in July, various Illinois chapters held a fundraiser at The British Home to collect clothing and other items for single mothers of newborn babies and needy families with babies.

The mission of the many chapters across the United States attracts several thousand members. The goal is still very much the same as in 1909, but the charitable activities have expanded, said Stephanie Donaghey, president of the Illinois State Board of the DBE.

"Our motto is 'Not ourselves but the cause,' and in this age of materialism, being involved in philanthropy grounds me and reminds me of what is really important," Donaghy said.

"As someone who was born in England, the camaraderie that I have found in this organization is heartwarming. I have connections with my mother country and a network of 'sisters' to call upon to share life's ups and downs," she said.

Pauline Bianucci is a charter member of the Naperville chapter of the national organization. She recalls the start of the Naperville group, called House of Stuart, in 1963 in a church hall with about 20 women attending.

"A Scottish member helped us choose the name House of Stuart for our chapter, and that year we all bought tartan berets and scarfs and wore them when we rode classic cars in the Naperville festival parade," Bianucci recalled.

Bianucci also served on the DBE State Board and Home Board at the British Home in Brookfield, where members help give friendship and support to senior citizens of every race and ethnic background, especially if they have no companions close by. She also was instrumental in the fundraising for an expansion of the senior citizens home in the 1970s.

"We spent a lot of time pouring over blueprints and we raised about $2 million for the project," Bianucci said. They named the apartment building The Wye Valley Apartments of The British Home, after a scenic location in Wales.

The group later held meetings in the basement of a local savings and loan building, and finally secured a meeting space at Naperville city hall for the current monthly meetings that always conclude with high tea.

Catherine Page recalls joining the organization in 1975 after moving to Naperville.

"At the church I went to I met another English member, Susan Bradley, who took me to a DBE meeting. We had bake sales and painted ornaments for the British Home. I think we sold more to each other than we did to people who came to our stall, which was outside the drugstore in downtown Naperville.

"All the camaraderie of these events helps make the chapter successful," Page said.

The current regent of the House of Stuart is Jill Hauser of Yorkville. She was invited to join the organization in 1965, two weeks after arriving in the United States.

"The members understood my accent, and they always knew where to buy good tea," she said.

When her husband, Jack, needed their car to get to work in the evenings, some Australian and Scottish members quickly volunteered to drive her to the meetings. Now she returns the favor when she can to others.

Besides it being a friendly organization, Hauser said she always looks forward to hearing the familiar accents, even if they do get a bit Americanized.

In 1962, Shelia Brown came to the area knowing no one. But she soon was introduced to the Naperville chapter and began to feel right at home.

"Over the years I've enjoyed visits to the British Home in Brookfield, the monthly meetings and the many friendships made, both past and present," Brown said.

House of Stuart Recording Secretary Mary Ragel said she was invited to join the DBE by her mother, Betty Ragel, a past chapter president, 18 years ago after a difficult period in her life.

"I found the ladies to be most caring, gracious and dedicated to the cause of helping the elderly. My heart is with the Daughters of the British Empire," said Ragel, who considers her participation a legacy to her mother's memory.

For Patricia Spiroff of Wayne, the organization kept her and her late mother, Eileen Ciupak, connected with the family's ancestry. They both were born in England and her father was born in Poland.

"World War II brought my father to England where he enlisted in the Polish division of the RAF. With a need to improve his English, Mother was assigned as his tutor," Spiroff says.

After a 10-year courtship, her parents married in 1951 and moved to the United States. Here she and her mother eventually learned of the DBE and joined the local chapter. Spiroff is the chapter treasurer and sergeant-at-arms for the state board.

"The DBE is thought of highly in the community. In the many little ways, bake sales, teas, or decorating the British Christmas tree at the Museum of Science and Industry, the DBE continues its unselfish goal of 'Not ourselves, but the cause,'" Spiroff said.

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