#109 – The Sisters’ Work

In a women’s group recently, we were asked:

“What were one or two of the special gifts you received from your mother or grandmothers that influenced the way you live – gifts for which you are grateful?”

My grandmother Magdalene Moyer before marriage

My maternal grandmother Maggie immediately came to mind. She died when my mother was 11. She greatly intrigued me as my Mom and her sister Anna talked about a poem and a couple essays which Maggie had published in the church paper, the Herald of Truth.

So, what gift did Maggie give me?  The gift of keeping letters she and her girlfriends wrote to each other when they were young adults in the year 1900. I was 42 years old and already a pastor when I realized that the letters existed, and that an older cousin had them. Sam transcribed them for me as a Christmas present.

Those letters – 100 pages of them – gave back to me a crucial, missing piece of my own past.  As I read the letters, I realized with a start that my grandmother was flirting with a call to church ministries as a 22-year-old woman.  In 1900 she worked at city missions for short stints and attended Sunday School and Bible conferences in western Pennsylvania, often with like-minded girlfriends. Their enthusiasm shone through in their letters.

My grandfather Irvin Derstine

But in the fall of 1900, things changed for Maggie.  Her mother implored her to come home to help with the butchering. Maggie consulted with her increasingly serious correspondent, local businessman/farmer Irvin Derstine.

He wrote this telling response:

“You ask the question what you should do about staying out there.  I think you ask the wrong party if you ask me. I might still be too selfish to answer it….The best is to find out God’s will and then obey.”

Maggie came home, married Irvin the next February, and settled into life on his family’s farm business. She gave the pitch at church if the male song leader couldn’t find it. She taught Sunday school to adults.

What stunned me most was an essay for the Herald of Truth called The Sister’s Work, which Maggie wrote in 1900, before her marriage.

First paragraphs of “The Sister’s Work”

Maggie’s argument parallels that used by Holiness groups in her era to sanction women pastors.  She quotes the prophet Joel on God’s Spirit being poured out on all flesh, so that “your sons and daughters shall prophecy.”

In the essay Maggie exhorts women to use their talents, whatever they may be.  She cites the example of Dorcas, who sewed garments for the poor, and Mary Magdalene, who was a missionary to the disciples on Easter morning.  These examples are carefully chosen, for at this time young women were leaving their sheltered rural Mennonite communities to head to India, and sewing circles were forming in local congregations to support their mission work….

The letters from my young grandmother’s circle revealed a hidden part of my own history. Through young Maggie and her friends, I uncovered a missing piece of myself.  I understood better how I came to be the person I am.  Perhaps most importantly, I glimpsed a group of ministering sisters who gave my own vocation a tradition.

All this, because Maggie saved her letters! (or someone saved them for her).

Questions for Reflection:

  1. What story would you tell about how your mother or a grandmother has given you a gift which has nourished you and guided how you live?
  2. What surprises have you gleaned from reading old family letters?

Next Week: TBA

4 thoughts on “#109 – The Sisters’ Work

  1. I love it! What an amazing collection and legacy. You “came by your callings honestly.” Not that there was ever any doubt.


    Muriel Bechtel
    515 Langs Dr., Unit J,
    Cambridge, ON
    N3H 5E4
    Home telephone: 519-219-3344
    Cellphone: 226-338-6915

    Every sunrise brings the promise of a new beginning.


  2. Sue,I am so grateful that Maggie ‘s & Irvin’s letters were passed on so that we, in a later generation have these glimpses of their beliefs & values! Thank you for helping preserve & share! On looking back, I realise that my Mom passed on these values by helping us to notice & value God’s image in others.


  3. That is a very interesting story, and amazing for so early. Mom had more initiative than dad but I don’t know that she ever open congregational leadership. At the church I attend, we lost probably 1/2 the members over the question of having women in leadership, that is 20 to 35 years ago. We still face challenges, and people leave rather than participating in a church bible and reading study to determine new policies.
    Thank You for this story.


  4. You’re welcome! I was amazed by it too.
    Many people are unaware of the “ministering sisters” influenced by the Holiness movement around 1900, and then the way women’s roles in the church were restricted by the 1920’s when fundamentalism gained more influence. Of course we have some painful incidents of that in our own Steiner history. Sue


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