Keepapitchinin, the Mormon History blog » Christina Olsen Rockwell: Visiting Teacher
 


Christina Olsen Rockwell: Visiting Teacher

By: Ardis E. Parshall - June 01, 2008

Christina Olsen was a Norwegian convert to the Church who emigrated to Zion before the arrival of the railroad. She was in her early 30s when she married the legendary Orrin Porter Rockwell, a man more than 20 years older than she was. Christina began her short married life by dividing her time between an isolated ranch in Rush Valley, Tooele County, and a home in Salt Lake City.

Rockwell had been widowed shortly before his marriage to Christina, and Christina probably helped to raise some of the young children of the earlier wife, in addition to her own children.

We have a glimpse into the domestic life of the Rockwell household in a letter written by a casual acquaintance many years later:

“My last visible picture of [Rockwell] is that of a wiry oldish man, ‘teeterin’ his youngest grandchild [actually, his own young son Stephen] on the toe of his boot, while other devoted youngsters huddled around his big rocker, then cuddling and patting them with utmost impartiality in the big dining room.”

Christina regularly attended Salt Lake City’s 14th Ward Relief Society. The minutes note steady contributions made by Christina to the charitable efforts of the Relief Society – 25 cents one month, 95 cents another month, some carpet rags another time.

The Rockwell home was designated by the 14th Ward as part of “block 5” for purposes of visiting teaching. The ward kept very detailed records of the visits made. “Block 5” was consistently overlooked by the visiting teachers:

In July 1872, the assigned teacher “wished to be excused because she was not at home the previous month.” During that previous month, Christina’s first child had been born and died.

In June 1873, Christina’s teacher had not done her visiting, and so had not called on Christina and her newborn daughter Elizabeth.

Christina had a difficult time during 1878 and 1879, and perhaps would have welcomed the aid of the Relief Society in June 1878 when her husband died; in October 1878 when the widow gave birth to Ida, her last child; and in November 1879 when her four-year-old son Stephen died. Yet month after month, the sister assigned to visit Christina’s block neglected to do her visiting teaching.

Christina devoted her life during the 1880s to raising her two surviving children. She had a home and some income from her husband’s estate, but she had to defend her right to that estate through constant lawsuits. Porter Rockwell had had two families before marrying Christina, and some of her stepchildren were older than she was. Some of those stepchildren were impatient to draw on their father’s estate, and Christina found herself pushed into negotiations that left her with less and less security. These negotiations must have been very difficult for her, perhaps increased by language difficulties, because as her daughters grew up they became Christina’s chief spokesmen in legal matters.

By the 1890s, Christina found herself with more time to devote to the Relief Society, and she became a visiting teacher herself. Her reports in the monthly teachers’ meetings were considerably different from those of the sister who should have been visiting Christina during the 1870s: Month after month, Christina reported her visiting teaching as having been faithfully completed. She reported charitable donations received from the sisters, and occasionally named one sister or another who needed help.

In addition to her regularly assigned block, Christina also took responsibility for all the Scandinavian sisters in the ward, calling on them and reporting their welfare to the Relief Society.

Month after month, year after year, ward records note Christina’s steady attendance to her assignment. They also provide evidence that her visits were more than mechanical completion of a duty: not only are the needs of individual sisters noticed and taken care of, but on the rare occasions when Christina was away from home, she arranged for a substitute to visit in her stead.

The public is understandably fascinated by the exploits of Christina’s famous husband, while Christina’s quiet, homely service is easily overlooked. But when the records – on earth and in heaven – are opened, Christina and many another faithful sister will be remembered and honored.

This appeared on Times and Seasons in October 2006.



5 Comments »

  1. What a curious life story. I wonder if she had any idea of the reputation of her husband before she married him. I wonder how his reputation affected her brief married life. Was he a violent man? It doesn’t sound like it from that brief anecdote. Our neighbor across the street is a police officer, former marine, former football player, and is a total cream puff and devoted father. I was talking with him recently at the bus stop about a situation with some of the neighborhood 10 year olds including one of my children and I said something about his daughter approaching puberty and he totally blanched. I would like to think that OPR was like my neighbor but I’m not wondering enough to buy and read a biography.

    I enjoyed reading the discussion on T&S.

    A note on the VT. I have always been quite a proponent of VT. I’m sure I learned it from my parents who always take their responsibilities and church callings very seriously.

    Well, here I’m living through a very difficult stretch in my life and am far from family. Kind of like Christina’s experience. The RS has been largely absent. Kind of like Christina’s experience. As I’m emerging from the events of the last few years, I’m totally on the fence as far as my church experience and trying to figure out where to go with it. Do I come out of this experience with renewed dedication to the visiting teaching program because I’ve seen how much it could have helped in crisis and I realize how deeply other people need support even if they’re not there at the bishop’s doorstep begging for assistance? Or do I figure that the program didn’t work for me, so why should I keep putting my time and efforts into it? It’s interesting being at this fulcrum right now and feeling like I could totally go one way or the other. Thanks for posting Christina’s story so I can consider the decision of someone else who was in a very similar situation.

    Comment by Researcher — June 1, 2008 @ 3:06 pm

  2. Huh. I must have hit the “I” button while writing my comment. I didn’t mean it to be in italics!

    Comment by Researcher — June 1, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

  3. Wasn’t you, Researcher; it was me. I hadn’t put the “end tag” after my last italicized sentence, which switched everything following to italics. Fixed now.

    You know, I’ve wondered what the Saints in general thought of OPR and his reputation. They certainly knew of it — he figures regularly in published remarks of outsiders. But his modern reputation, at least, is grossly exaggerated, and his targets always seem to have been “them” rather than “us,” so perhaps what they knew didn’t bother his neighbors at all. But it’s curious that I haven’t come across much about him from those neighbors.

    I do think that where his family was concerned, at least, OPR was a loving, kindly father, to a degree that would surprise most people. He had three families, including one by a wife who left him in Nauvoo and who didn’t come west until after OPR’s death. His children, especially those in that first family, were scattered from Minnesota to Arizona, and were members of just about every offshoot of Mormonism in existence at that time. Yet I find evidence that OPR kept track of them all, encouraged them to come to Utah, hosted his grandchildren for summer visits, helped get various relatives started in life, and did all that you would expect from a father. And when you remember that he couldn’t write (and of course couldn’t pick up a telephone), “keeping in touch” with all those children and grandchildren took an extraordinary effort. Sooner or later I expect to do a paper on “Porter Rockwell, Patriarch” to share what I’ve found about OPR as a family man.

    That doesn’t tell us much about Christina, though. Other than generic genealogical records (census, church membership, burial), this article pretty well covers all I have discovered about her, and of course you have to read between the lines — visits made, visits not made — to extract anything personal. She is my model visiting teacher, one whose actions demonstrate she understood its value.

    When my parents were sick and alone, I knew (and proved by experience) that one long-distance call to Mom’s visiting teacher would bring the home-cooked dinner or the extra-long chat that was needed. I wonder if that VT (Naomi M.) has had the same kind of service since then, when she needed it. Sometimes I think of Naomi when I visit one of my VT sisters (one whose circumstances remind me very much of my mother’s) and pretend that I’m paying Naomi back — by proxy — for her kindness to my mother. I guess that’s the way I have to think of VT: it *can* work wonders even when it often doesn’t, and someday the accounts will be settled.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 1, 2008 @ 3:56 pm

  4. This was quite beautiful. I missed it on T&S, so I’m glad you reposted it. One thing I really haven’t considered much before is the language difficulties of the early Saints coming from overseas.

    Comment by Bored in Vernal — June 2, 2008 @ 1:08 am

  5. fmhLisa has a great post on her “full service visiting teacher” that shouldn’t be missed — see http://www.feministmormonhousewives.org/?p=1840

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — June 3, 2008 @ 9:16 am

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