Venus Rossiter, serving in Tahiti with her husband, Mission President Ernest C. Rossiter, wrote to the Relief Society General Board early in 1919 with her report for 1918. She hoped that the Tahitian statistics might not be too late to include in the general Church report, but she had a good excuse: â€œAll local vessels have been held under quarantine with the Spanish influenza since last November. I have not been able to communicate with the different island branches.â€?
Venus had been only 23 years old, married three years, when she had gone to Tahiti. Her husband, a year older than Venus, had already served missions in Belgium and in the Northern States before the call to preside over the Society Islands Mission.
While Ernest worked 15 hours a day studying the language (he eventually wrote a Tahitian grammar that is still cited in modern bibliographies), Venus tried to render service to the native women. Having lived all her life in the comfort of Salt Lake City, Venus found it difficult to deal with the primitive conditions in Papeete. She called on a sick woman early in 1915, laying her hand on the womanâ€™s head to check for fever. Venus returned the next day and saw that the woman had broken out with an ugly tropical skin disease. Venus was horrified â€“ not because the woman was so ill, but because Venus had â€œtouched her the night before. … You may be sure I didnâ€™t stay any longer than necessary.â€?
Her compassion gradually triumphed over her squeamishness, and Venus began to make a difference in the lives of members and their neighbors. She and Ernest traveled in tiny boats through endless open seas to visit Saints on isolated islands. She taught methods of modern hygiene and sanitation, and showed mothers how to better nourish their young children. She organized branches of the Relief Society throughout the islands, and, anxious to share Relief Society as she had known it at home, she taught native sisters to embroider the pillow slips that Venus stamped for them.
Under Venusâ€™s leadership, the sisters on three Tahitian islands raised funds to buy small organs for their meetings. While the men turned out to build a new chapel, the sisters prepared meals for them. The sisters of Tahiti even contributed $30 toward the building of temples in the United States.
Venus and Ernest returned to Papeete from a mission tour late in 1918 and discovered that their world had changed. â€œThe pilot boat came out & put us under quarantine, informing us that the Spanish influenza was raging in Papeete … In Papeete alone about 25% of the population was gone.â€?
Against the advice of other white travelers who were content to wait out the epidemic aboard ship, Venus and Ernest secured a special permit to land at Papeete. There they discovered the heroic work being performed by the seven LDS elders, five of whom themselves had survived mild attacks of the flu. Tahitians were dying everywhere, in such numbers that houses were being burned with bodies inside because there was no other place to take the dead.
â€œOur Elders have certainly acquitted themselves with credit by their fearless & untiring work. Some are night nurses in the hospitals, while others are given districts to care for, where they have been going from house to house, night and day, dispensing medicine, scrubbing out the houses of the helplessly sick, cooking food & feeding it to the patients, caring for orphaned babies and children, bathing the patients, carrying out the dead .â€? At least nine Church members had died, and the elders had saved them from burning and mass graves by washing the bodies, building coffins, and digging their graves. â€œWe indeed are grateful to God, that so few of them have been taken & that our Elders through his grace have been able to prove themselves such angels of mercy. We recognize the hand of the Lord in it, for they have broken down much prejudice.â€?
The Rossiters returned to Salt Lake City in 1920 â€“ but not to stay long. Ernest was called to preside over the French Mission in 1925-28, during which time Ernest built the first LDS chapel in French-speaking Europe (in Seraing, Belgium), and Venus organized the first French-speaking Relief Society. at Lyons, with six sisters, in 1926. They were called again to serve in Tahiti in 1941-44. One of Venusâ€™s accomplishments during this last mission was the translation of much Church music into Tahitian.
During the years when she wasnâ€™t serving in the worldwide mission field, Venus was called to serve on the General Boards of both the Primary and the Young Womenâ€™s Mutual Improvement Association. She also adopted two children, including a little girl who had lost her mother in Tahiti during the 1918 flu epidemic.
Venus Robinson Rossiter died in Salt Lake City in 1963, at age 72.
(Originally published June 2006)