Catherine Garber Laine: The Role of Her Lifetime

October 9, 2006 | 11 comments
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This story and the other women’s stories to follow were written for my ward’s Relief Society newsletter, as a formal calling for which I was set apart. The assignment was to write about a faith-promoting incident involving a woman; I added the detail “… whom no one has ever heard about.” The feedback comes very quietly and in rewarding ways: a hand will squeeze my shoulder from the bench behind, while a sister says, “These stories are about women like me, doing what they have to do,” or someone will answer a question in Relief Society by saying “It’s just like in that story about so-and-so last month when …” Some day I will compile them for more permanent publication, accompanied by source citations.

Catherine Garber was born in Ohio in 1851, the middle of eleven siblings who remained close friends all their lives. As a young woman Catherine became a stage actress, joining troupes that traveled from town to town, playing for a day or two before traveling on to the next town for another short stay.

Catherine soon became such an accomplished actress that she progressed from the rural Midwestern circuits to the larger cities of the east coast. She adopted the stage name Kate Andrews and was managed by Rhea, Janansbek, Peel and Duff – names that are now forgotten but who were among the brightest stars in the theatrical world of their day.

Catherine also worked behind the scenes in the wardrobe department, serving as wardrobe mistress for several large British companies touring the U.S.

She married John H. Laine, a veteran of the Civil War, who worked as a theatrical advance agent – the man who traveled ahead of an acting troupe to arrange for theaters, dates, and advertising. Among John’s clients was the great American bandmaster John Philip Sousa.

Theatrical life had its glamorous side, with footlights, fantasy, and the applause of audiences. It could also be difficult, with constant travel, seedy boarding houses, and the relaxed moral atmosphere of the theatrical world. For Catherine and John, there was the additional hardship of separation, with John usually working one or two towns ahead of Catherine. And except for the biggest stars, there was little financial security.

In the late 1890s, Catherine retired from the stage. John had died a few years before, and with her small pension as the widow of a Civil War soldier Catherine wanted to settle down to a more traditional life. With her sister Helene Garber Davis, also a widow, Catherine invested her savings in a boarding house at 202 West 23rd Street, Brooklyn, New York.

And that is where LDS missionaries found Catherine, and where she discovered that, far from quietly retiring, she was only beginning the real work of her life.

Until 1899, missionaries had avoided New York City’s boroughs in favor of the rural towns of New York State. But scattered rural members could not participate in regular church activity and tended to fall away. In 1899, Mission President E.H. Snow concentrated on large cities where permanent branches could be established. Catherine was among the first to respond; she was baptized on 10 May 1900.

With her baptism, Catherine began a new career as a missionary and active Latter-day Saint. The Garber sisters’ boarding house became the center of LDS life for members and missionaries in Brooklyn and Manhattan. It became the preferred New York City stopping place for Utah businessmen, Salt Lakers en route to Europe, and Mormon students.

Until there were enough Saints in New York City to justify the renting of a hall, the small branch met at the Garber sisters’ boarding house, making it the first LDS meeting hall in New York City in the modern era. Weekly Sacrament meetings and monthly Relief Society and M.I.A. gatherings were held there, as well as frequent cottage meetings to introduce friends and investigators to the Church.

The president of the New York Relief Society was a young actress whose work frequently took her out of town. More often than not, first counselor Catherine Laine served as acting Relief Society president for a busy group of sisters engaged primarily in missionary work, most of whom were originally from Utah and had far more Church experience than Catherine had. Catherine ably filled the role “with a cheerfulness that inspired all who came near her,� according to report.

Before long, Catherine developed a desire for temple blessings. Unable to afford a vacation-like trip to a Utah temple, Catherine secured a position as matron in the Ogden asylum for the blind, allowing her to work for her support while attending to temple ordinances. From late 1902 until 1915, Catherine lived in Utah, first in Ogden and later in Salt Lake City. Then doctors recommended that she seek a lower altitude to relieve heart disease. Catherine returned briefly to New York City, then moved into the home of a brother, Edward Garber, in Pittsburg, Pennsylvania.

Catherine became active in the Pittsburg branch. Her home there was always open to missionaries and old friends, until Catherine’s death in 1919.

(originally published January 2006)

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11 Responses to Catherine Garber Laine: The Role of Her Lifetime

  1. Proud Daughter of Eve on October 10, 2006 at 12:09 pm

    This is an awesome idea; thank you for sharing the fruits of your labors with those of us who don’t get to attend your ward. :)

  2. Laura W on October 10, 2006 at 12:14 pm

    Wow- neat stories.

    Personally, I was dissappointed that she did not manage to balance her theatrical career with being LDS. I work in theatre and often struggle to reconcile the two, and while many things have changed since the late 1800′s it would have been nice to another story of someone who lived both lives.

  3. mami on October 10, 2006 at 12:31 pm

    Please keep posting these.

  4. Matt Evans on October 10, 2006 at 1:12 pm

    Ardis, this is a great idea, and I’m curious about your calling. Did you propose the idea to your RS President, or to the bishop, or did one of them propose it to you? . . . curious to see how this came about on the administrative end.

  5. Kevin Barney on October 10, 2006 at 1:17 pm

    A wonderful vignette, Ardis. Thanks for sharing.

  6. Ardis Parshall on October 10, 2006 at 2:03 pm

    Thanks, everybody. Some of these will be dramatic, others are more prosaic, but these are faithful Latter-day Saint women. We all have stories worth telling — you too.

    Kevin, I didn’t know about this assignment until the bishop called me in. From his sketchy description, I got the idea that not only had it come from my RS president, but also that it might have been one of those invented “let’s give everybody a job” callings. Even if it was, it turns out to have been inspired; at least it’s exactly what I needed. I’ve taken it seriously and put as much effort into it as anything I do professionally. Once I got going, I discovered how hungry I was for connections to women. The current lesson materials for RS and SS are good and valuable, but women never appear unless as the wife of the man who is the real subject of discussion.

  7. Ardis Parshall on October 10, 2006 at 3:19 pm

    Thanks, all. Everybody – you too – has a story, and it is a pleasure to recover the shadows of lives of faithful LDS sisters. Part of the pleasure is restoring a woman to the memory of her sisters; another part is comparing my life to hers and wondering how I would have faced her circumstances. Laura, along those lines I’ll keep a watch for an actress who might fit your interests. Agnes Rose Lane, the New York RS president with whom Catherine worked as first counselor, generally lived two lives: Active LDS when in New York where church connections were available; and actress, isolated from all LDS activity, while on the road with touring companies. That of course doesn’t say anything about the quality of her spiritual life, just that she couldn’t fully integrate her life. Then she married a nonmember (an electrician from Georgia), who took her both off the stage and apparently out of the Church.

    Kevin, this calling had never occurred to me before the bishop called me into his office. From his sparse description, thought that this was one of those invented “let’s give everybody a job� callings. Doesn’t matter in the end; it was inspired because it was exactly what I needed. I take it seriously and put as much effort into it as I do into any professional work.

    (Getting error messages here, too – more apologies if this appears more than once.)

  8. Julie M. Smith on October 10, 2006 at 4:04 pm

    Lovely post–thank you for this.

    Laura, Ardis can correct me, but it sounded like she retired from the theater before the missionaries found her.

  9. Rosalynde Welch on October 11, 2006 at 11:07 pm

    Wow, shades of Gladys Knight, of Mary and Martha, of Mme Rambouillet’s salon…. Fascinating!

    I know that in England, at least, actresses retained a flavor of the illicit and faintly unsavory well through the 19th century—any hint that the same was true in America, Ardis? That is, would her conversion have signalled a dramatic change in lifestyle, like Paul’s?

    Also, what did pre-Correlation but extra-Utah Relief Societies look like and do?

  10. Julie M. Smith on October 11, 2006 at 11:14 pm

    “Also, what did pre-Correlation but extra-Utah Relief Societies look like and do?”

    I love looking at the old RS magazines, and my favorite parts are the lengthy descriptions (sometimes with pictures) of what those extra-UT RSs did: bazaars, quilts, meals, work groups, etc., etc. If you can get your hands on any of them, RW, they are fun stuff.

  11. Ardis on October 11, 2006 at 11:42 pm

    What Julie said. Yes, those old RSMagazines are terrific. They’re also a good source for the germs of these women’s stories — if I can find an interesting moment in some woman’s life, I can research her as if she were my grandmother and fill in the history around her. I wish somebody would scan them the way they have done the Contributor and some other early publications.

    Rosalynde, the New York Relief Society at the time I’m studying the LDS colony there (1900-1916) was a little unusual in that they didn’t do the typical RS activities. Well, they did do compassionate service, but they didn’t do the usual lessons and fund raising and social activities. They were more a “missionary support” society. They mothered the missionaries, and were shills for street meetings and provided a warm and well-fed setting for cottage meetings for the missionaries to introduce their investigators to members. They met only once a month for most of this period.

    By the time you get to the 20s and 30s, RS everywhere tended to be the same — on a smaller scale — as it was anywhere in Utah. Even in a mission field like Tahiti you had the mission president’s wife stamping pillow cases and teaching native sisters how to embroider, because that’s the model of RS the women had: work meetings, and arts appreciation, and health, and spiritual lessons, and genealogy. I think the Magazine played a role in correlating church-wide RS before there was such a thing as big-C Correlation.

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