#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

#57 – Before E-mail and Blogs

Vacation Bible School at Centereach, Long Island, New York

My cousin Helen lived in such an exotic place. Or at least I thought so as a child.   For one thing, we had to go through New York City to get there, craning our necks as we passed the Empire State Building. Also, Helen and her sisters ate pizza and lived only half an hour from Long Island’s beaches.

Each week my mother and I eagerly anticipated a letter from Aunt Mildred in Centereach, Long Island, New York. Through those letters, I gleaned not only tidbits about my cousins’ lives, but also  an uncensored view of what church planting was really like in the 1950’s, far from the sheltered assumptions at the center of the Franconia Mennonite Conference in southeastern Pennsylvania. I do wish my Mom had kept those letters chronicling Curt and Mildred Godshall’s joys and struggles.

We cherished other letters from afar also. Occasionally one arrived from Cuba, where my much older cousin Betty King and her husband Aaron ministered as a revolution unfolded around them.

We also heard from England, where Mom’s cousin Miriam Leatherman and her husband Quintus were hosts at the London Mennonite Centre. (We never told them that the fruit cake they sent each Christmas always arrived in little pieces.)

Later, in my 40’s and my 60’s, I relished hearing about family members from before the time I was born, reading letters which someone had saved.

Irvin Derstine with grandchildren; Sue held by brother Jim, back right

When I was 43, I learned to know my maternal grandparents, Magdelena (Maggie) Moyer and Irvin Derstine, through increasingly serious “pre-courting” letters they wrote to each other in the year 1900.  Prior to reading those letters, I remembered my grandfather Irvin only as an old man sitting in a chair with one leg amputated.

Since Maggie died when my mother was 10 years old, my discovery of  her via young adult letters was an enormous gift. I glimpsed her traveling to Sunday school conferences in western Pennsylvania, and visiting girlfriends all over the place.  I found in my grandmother a soul mate who helped “explain” some of my own impulse toward church leadership. (See #24 – Maggie Uncovered for more on Maggie.)

Lester-to-MarthaThe few “courting letters” from my Dad to my Mom in 1922-1924 are a hoot!  He wrote mostly about his adventures walking home to Souderton late at night from dates at her farm near Sellersville. Or about escapades with his Chevrolet sedan in a snowstorm…what it was like to be “the first machine to go through” on a snow-covered country road where they had to make their own tracks. I recognized in his writing a jaunty voice I heard him use years later when he was trying to impress people!

Roy Clemmer

My Mom’s weekly letters to my older cousin Roy in Civilian Public Service camps in 1943 gave me a glimpse of our household, of the family feed mill, and of  life in Souderton during World War II.

I learned that my then 16-year-old brother Jim had a paper route and sang in a chorus. I wasn’t surprised to read that after my Dad worked at the mill “until late” one January night, he tried unsuccessfully to fix the furnace when he arrived home. I was reminded of my Mom’s fondness for homemade ice cream.  I found out that she frequently fed and lodged CO’s who came to help out at the feed mill in addition to their work at Norristown State Hospital.

I cherish the memories created by reading these letters and by finding old greeting cards. They give me the “feel” of my family before I was part of it and when I was a child. They nourish my soul. I’m grateful to my Mom and other family members for saving them.



I wonder…in the age of instant communication via social media and smart phones, how will future generations learn such things about us?  How will they get glimpses of our traits and our everyday lives? How will they know what was important to us?

Questions for Reflection: How – if at all – have old family letters or diaries nourished your soul? What have you gleaned from them that’s important for you now?

How will future generations know what has been important to you?

Next Week: The Joy of Anticipation