Thousands of French Protestants fled to Switzerland during the religious wars of the 16th century. One such family settled in the village of Saules, in Neuchatel. Serge Ballif, one of the greatest French-speaking LDS missionaries, visited their narrow, rocky valley in 1853. He found Francois and Julie Desaules prepared for the restored gospel. They were baptized and gathered to Zion the following year.
Aboard ship, Julie wrote a long letter to her family and friends who remained behind. She told them how she had twice fallen ill before leaving Europe, and how priesthood blessings had restored her health. She begged her family to follow. â€œWe march toward Zion with a firm conviction that, if we are faithful, Godâ€™s promises will never fail.â€
Julie and Francois settled in Salt Lake Cityâ€™s 12th Ward. Francois died a few years later, as did Julieâ€™s sister. The few relatives who had joined the Church and emigrated to Utah scattered north to Ogden and south to central Utah, leaving the 60-year-old widow alone. Her English was poor, and she had few opportunities to meet others who spoke French. She could have felt lonely and isolated.
Julie, however, was determined to maintain ties to her family, no matter how far away they might be. She wrote continuously to those left behind in Switzerland, and even though many of their replies were lost in the long ocean and overland crossings, she heard from relatives often enough to learn of their marriages and deaths.
Julieâ€™s much older brother-in-law, who lived in Ogden with his ailing wife, was a cranky, irritable man, one of those people who can find a cloud in front of every silver lining. But he was family, after all, and Julie made the effort to travel to Ogden occasionally, to visit and to make life as comfortable as possible. Julie wrote when she could not visit, and carefully saved the letters she received in response, until the older couple died.
By the time Julie was in her late 60â€™s, her only family in Utah consisted of a young great-niece whom she did not know very well, and her nephew Ned, who had moved to southern Utah to join a United Order community. Ned was a lonely man, a bachelor in a community of much-married men, the only French speaker in town, and deaf enough that he had trouble conversing with his neighbors.
Ned poured out his heart to Julie in his letters. She read them sympathetically and encouraged Ned with her replies. Soon Ned stopped addressing his letters to â€œmy dear aunt,â€ and began to address Julie as â€œmy dear little mama.â€ Julie sent him small sums of money to buy writing paper and ink, items that were not included in the United Order budget. When Ned became dissatisfied with a watch he had bought from a Salt Lake jeweler, he asked Julie to exchange it â€“ and he was delighted with the excellent quality of the replacement, never realizing that Julie had paid the difference out of her own purse.
After Ned helped to build the St. George Temple, Julie and Ned sometimes wrote about genealogy. Julie wrote down as much as she could remember about their ancestors, and sympathized with Ned when his pleas for information from relatives in Switzerland went unanswered. Between them they were able to do temple work for about a dozen relatives, although they very much wanted to do more.
Julie died in 1881, leaving most of her property to her bishop to care for the poor in her ward. Did her neighbors even know she had a family, and that she had worked so hard for so many years to stay in touch with them? Or did they see her only as a childless widow?
They could not know it then, but the letters Julie so carefully saved have moved others to do the work Julie and Ned could not do. Temple ordinances are now being performed for more than 8,000 of Julieâ€™s extended family. The childless widow finds herself at the heart of a very large eternal family.
(originally published July 2005)