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 â€“ 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 â€“ the man who traveled ahead of an acting troupe to arrange for theaters, dates, and advertising. Among Johnâ€™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 Cityâ€™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 sistersâ€™ 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 sistersâ€™ 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 â€œwith a cheerfulness that inspired all who came near her,â€? 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 Catherineâ€™s death in 1919.
(originally published January 2006)