A tribute to simple saints

November 29, 2004 | 17 comments
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Her name was Sister Pooters. Petite, energetic, single. She was around seventy when I, a young convert, met her at our local Mormon branch. She lived in the tiniest apartment of the tiniest rowhouse on a gloomy street of a forgotten Antwerp suburb. Serving others had been her whole life. As an orphan of the First World War she grew up in a Catholic convent where the nuns taught the girls to become deferential maids in well-to-do households. That’s what she became at age seventeen. She spoke with pride of her fifty years of service “among the rich”, in the upstairs-downstairs interaction of bourgeois town houses. She had lived in their basements, cooking, washing, mending, ironing on a meager salary. She considered serving dinner upstairs, dressed in starched black with an immaculate white apron, the highlight of her daily chores. Her pride was that she knew “the etiquette in society”, learned from the nuns and from the four or five “eminent” families she had served.

When she retired, she moved from her last basement to that tiny apartment. Her cupboards were stacked with worn-out silverware and weathered wine glasses, which her “families” had given her over the years as a “token of appreciation” when they renewed the cutlery for themselves. Her “letters of reference” of former masters – excellent maid, no boyfriends, trustworthy, clean, no reservations - were kept and shown as PhD diploma’s.

One day, shortly after her retirement, there was a knock on her door. Two Mormon missionaries. She embraced the Gospel as much as she did the Elders, whom she adored as true messengers of the Lord. Miss Pooters became Sister Pooters, a gutsy member of the primitive Antwerp branch. Gutsy? I should clarify she was a stubborn saint. For Sister Pooters had a temper. As an experienced maid with a pedigree, the petite woman dictated to members and investigators the etiquette, correcting clothes, comportment and communication. She picked her friends and her enemies. While the district president was her avowed foe, I found grace in her eyes. That earned me the privilege of being invited to her dinners for the missionaries.

Ah, those dinners! A number of times a year she summoned the local messengers of the Lord to her tiny dwelling for a six course banquet. I do not know how she managed to cook all those dishes timely on her crumbling kitchen-range for five to seven guests, but she did. Her mass of stylish silverware and decorated glasses of a by-gone era now fulfilled a divinely foreseen purpose. The small festive table was overflowing for it had to hold for each guest a couple of plates, four sets of knives, forks and spoons in gradual sizes, three arty glasses, a silver napkin holder, a calligraphed menu card, and a finger-rinsing cup with lemon water. Also candles, bottles, flowers. Calculated and compacted to the millimeter, the whole radiated the grandeur and harmony of a banquet for royalty.

At each dinner Sister Pooters relived the best hours of her upstairs service among the elite. From a corner of the table, dwarfed by and squeezed between two elders, she oversaw her gastronomic ceremony. In no uncertain terms she told the missionaries how to unfold the embroidered napkins, which knife to take first, how to hold the fork, how to cut the beef, how to graciously hold a wine glass (filled with juice). The missionaries were happy to comply for the reward was tenfold: the most exquisite cuisine and so plentiful that even they could not eat it all. A dinner would last for at least three hours.

When I became branch president, saw Sister Pooter’s tithing and conducted tithing settlement, I came to know how small her pension was. She lived as soberly as possible, saving every penny for her next missionary dinner. The frequency of the event depended on the money she could muster. Her reward was the satisfaction of the messengers. She knew she gave them the strength to face hundreds of hours of fruitless tracting. And her happiness reached ecstasy when later on she would receive a Christmas card from one of them – all the way from Amerika. It should be said that the return ratio of the cards was not better than that of the ten healed lepers.

Each autumn she made her own apple juice and bottled it according to ancestral traditions, including herbs and spices. A dozen bottles were always neatly stored in a dark corner. One Christmas Eve, with six missionaries and me crammed around the table, she placed a couple of her dust-covered bottles between the plates and uncorked them professionally, beaming with contentment.
– I’ve saved these for you. From a very good apple year.
Glasses filled, we drank to her health.
– Gee, what a strong taste, it makes you feel warm, whispered one junior to his companion. I wonder if…
– Don’t ask, Elder. Drink and shut up. Don’t offend her. We don’t know what it is, so it’s OK.

Yes, apple juice can ferment to cider. Sister Pooters kept toasting to each of us, making sure we emptied the glasses. Happily – yes, very happily – we all got home safely. It was quite a sight. Six tipsy missionaries trying to ride their bikes on a starry Christmas night.

One day, in her eighties, while returning from the market, hauling supplies for her next dinner, Sister Pooters was ran over by a trolleycar. For two weeks she lay in a coma in the hospital. Delirious she didn’t stop talking about some money she had left in her apartment. Money for a dinner, she kept repeating, clasping my hand. She died with that concern on her mind.

Such are the Mormon characters that will not make an Ensign-story for lack of noteworthy deeds. But since the day of her conversion, Sister Pooters certainly did consecrate herself, her time, talents and resources to the Church, for the building up of the Kingdom of God and for the establishment of Zion. By nourishing the messengers, like the poor widow at Zerephath, willing to give her last flour and oil to feed Elijah.

Sister Pooters is one of many of such sisters. Missionaries who have worked in Antwerp will remember others, like Sister Janssens and Sister Giebens. Such can be found all over the world, in large and in small branches and wards. We salute them with deep respect.

As for dear Sister Pooters, I allow myself to imagine her now, in radiant white, teaching Celestial Etiquette 101 to the ministering angels.

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17 Responses to A tribute to simple saints

  1. cooper on November 29, 2004 at 12:40 pm

    Thank you Wilfried, for that rendition of a modern “Babbette’s Feast”. It is amazing what converted saints will do to lift the burdens of others.

  2. Russell Arben Fox on November 29, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    “Don’t ask, Elder. Drink and shut up. Don’t offend her. We don’t know what it is, so it’s OK.”

    Thank the heavens above for that senior companion, and for all the other senior companions over the years who managed–in a manner very unlike a typical immature 19-year-old, and very much like a true servant of God–to realize that any self-satisfying offense which might come out of one’s mouth is a far greater sin than any heartfelt doctrinally-borderline offering which might go into it. I wish I could say I had often been like that senior companion, but I can’t.

    This is a touching, wise little essay, Wilfried; my thanks along with Cooper’s for your having shared it.

  3. Joel D. on November 29, 2004 at 1:00 pm

    A beautiful tribute, Wilfried. I have a brief one of my own.

    For some reason, a particular Sunday School instructor from my youth has been on my mind lately. It has been long enough ago that I’ve forgotten his name, but I think his first name was Tom (of course, we always called him Brother _________). Tom was on the youngish side of middle age, a simple man who wore cowboy boots and a handlebar mustache. He was not a particularly great teacher, to the best of my recollection, nor did he live in our ward for more than a few years, so I never got to know him well. He taught my course 14 class.

    My only real memory of Tom’s class was one lesson he gave on the importance of keeping a personal journal. There was nothing fancy about it, but at the end of what was probably a standard lesson, he gave us a challenge to go home and start keeping a personal journal. I don’t know why particularly, but the Spirit attended his teaching enough to cause me to go home and ask my mom if I could have an old still-wrapped journal that was laying around the house. While I don’t remember, she was probably delighted someone wanted it. I started writing in my journal that afternoon and while I wrote in it initially out of sheer obedience, I soon caught the spirit of it. Now, some seventeen years later, I have a journal account of every day of my life since that afternoon totalling many hundreds of pages–a priceless treasure to me (and hopefully my posterity) and a constant opportunity for self-reflection, gratitude for blessings, and spiritual growth through recording spiritual experiences.

    Like Wilfried, I am so grateful for the lives and service of “simple Saints” like Tom and many others who have blessed my life immeasurably through their yeoman service and efforts.

  4. J. Stapley on November 29, 2004 at 1:06 pm

    I find it ironic that this post followed directly after Nate’s. I freely admit that it is an irony that I find deeply rooted within myself. I was moved by Wilfried’s description of this woman. When I feel the spirit during the discussion of particular events and persons, it is typically those similar to what Wilfried has described. The experiences that Elder Holland relates of the Saints in South America are also great examples.

    Then why do I want to be the Deep Blue and find my sainthood through intellectual transcendence, when all I need to do is just serve?

  5. Mark on November 29, 2004 at 2:50 pm

    Thank you Wilfried:
    A delightful story. It brought back remembrances of the time that I served as a missionary among the poor, Hispanic slums. One incident in particular I remember. A very poor couple from Nicaragua continuously prepared dinner for us when we visited their home. They sat and watched us eat. I began to wonder, so one day I opened their refrigerator and there was nothing but a solitary chicken inside. I began to feel guilty that we were eating them out of house and home. I suggested that the next time I bring $20-$30 to repay the sister for her generosity. She took offense that I would place a dollar value on her charity and gave me an undressing I will never forget.

  6. Adam Greenwood on November 29, 2004 at 3:06 pm

    A dressing down, perhaps?

    Thank you, W. Decoo, for this moving reminiscence. Sister Pooter’s is an acquaintance I look forward to making.

  7. Rusty on November 29, 2004 at 3:09 pm

    Wilfried, thank you for the beautiful story. You’re right that these sisters can be found in many parts. In a ward of mine in Guatemala there were/are two sisters who have to be older than 70, and go out and visit people (inactives, investigators, members) for 3-4 hours a day… EVERY DAY! There was nobody, inactive or investigators, that hadn’t had a visit from these sisters. We called them “Las Pilas” but of course they would always reflect any praise back to the missionaries. Truly inspiring.

  8. Kevin Barney on November 29, 2004 at 3:41 pm

    Your posts are priceless, Wilfried. Thank you.

  9. MDS on November 29, 2004 at 4:01 pm

    I’m reminded of Sister Fischer when I was serving in Oberhausen asking us if we had received any invitations for Halloween dinner yet. When we told her that we were free she remarked on what a shame it was that people would leave the missionaries alone on a day that was such an important holiday in their American homeland. I wasn’t quite sure what she meant, but, like any good European missionary, was not about to turn down a relatively rare dinner appointment. When the district arrived for the meal on Halloween, we were greeted by the smell of roasting turkey and all the other Thanksgiving fixings. While the dates had been confused, we weren’t going to let this sweet sister down, and ate with the gluttony that only a missionary on Thanksgiving can muster.

  10. diogenes on November 29, 2004 at 6:01 pm

    A lovely story — but what exactly was “simple” about this very rich and vivid life?

  11. Ivan Wolfe on November 29, 2004 at 6:15 pm

    D&C 84:90 applies:

    90 And he who feeds [my servants] . . . shall in nowise lose his [or her] reward.

    Great tale.

  12. Gordon Smith on November 29, 2004 at 9:35 pm

    Thank you, Wilfried. That was an extraordinary description of an extraordinary woman. She reminds me of Sister Wadosh from Vienna, at whose table I at many a Sunday meal. She would not remember me, but I will never forget her.

  13. Jonathan Green on November 29, 2004 at 11:22 pm

    (MDS, your initials are allusive. Do you usually go by “D…”, or did you in Oberhausen, and then later in New Jersey? Just curious if I’ve stumbled again across someone I know. It happens a lot around here.)

  14. MDS on November 30, 2004 at 10:18 am

    Never been to New Jersey, except for a quick connecting flight through Europe. In Oberhausen I went by “Elder Stanger.”

  15. Rosalynde Welch on November 30, 2004 at 11:51 am

    Lovely again, Wilfried. It strikes me that the relationship between master and servant, so formative for Sister Pooters and so utterly absent from the lives of many (most?) Saints today, is crucial to understanding true discipleship. During most passages of history, most people would have had direct experience with the social insitution of service or slavery, would know what it’s like to serve (or to be) a master with a light or heavy yoke. In many ways, in early modern Europe, at least, the insitution of service (ie working as a servant in the great households) was a more influential social structure than the family itself, particularly for those in the lower classes. Today, though, the kind of pride in servantship that Sister Pooters exhibited seems a lost virtue–and though the world is a better place without class-based institutions of service, we may have lost an important reference point in understanding Christ’s teachings on discipleship.

    (Note that I’m not referring to the race-based institution of slavery as practiced in America or elsewhere, which was clearly an evil and destructive practice, and not useful or necessary for understanding discipleship.)

  16. Melissa on November 30, 2004 at 3:01 pm

    Like so many others, I too appreciate this post. Obata Shimai of Hachijoji, Japan used to feed us every week. She would live frugally so she could spoil us when we came. After lunch she always had us sing to her in English. Her favorites were “You are My Sunshine” and “There is Sunshine in My Soul Today.” She called us the sunshine girls, but she was the radiant one. Although she never was baptized due to an intense fear of the water (at 89 and barely able to walk I don’t blame her), her heart beat with a testimony as true as anyone I met in Japan.

    Before I was transferred I left all the necessary information in the area book to have her Temple work done when she passed. It has been almost ten years now. I’ve never checked, but I hope some responsible pair of sisters found my old notes.

    It occurs to me that I should check on this myself this week. Good grief, what if she’s been waiting all this time? Thanks Wilfried for reminding me of Obata Shimai!!

  17. Larry on November 30, 2004 at 7:10 pm

    Wilfried,

    You reminded me of Sister Sefton in the old Liverpool Branch. Every bit the same quality as your friend, except she was an old school marm. What a difference she made to the Branch and to the Elders.