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: “All 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.”
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 woman’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 – not because the woman was so ill, but because Venus had “touched her the night before. … You may be sure I didn’t stay any longer than necessary.”
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 Venus’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. “The 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.”
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.
“Our 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 .” 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. “We 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.”
The Rossiters returned to Salt Lake City in 1920 – 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 Venus’s accomplishments during this last mission was the translation of much Church music into Tahitian.
During the years when she wasn’t serving in the worldwide mission field, Venus was called to serve on the General Boards of both the Primary and the Young Women’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.
15 Comments »
Ardis, this is fascinating. How does someone get home from a mission to Tahiti in 1944?
Comment by Jonathan Green — 10/31/2006 @ 11:13 pm | Edit This
Jonathan, good question — and an obvious one that never occurred to me since I was focused on the earlier period! Venus’s diary is in the Archives; I’ll see if it covers that mission and get back to you.
Comment by Ardis Parshall — 11/1/2006 @ 1:35 am | Edit This
Aha, Belgium is cited twice!
Thanks, Ardis. Keep ‘m coming. Few comments doesn’t mean people aren’t reading and enjoying this thoroughly!
Comment by Wilfried — 11/2/2006 @ 3:37 pm | Edit This
Thanks, Wilfried — it’snice to know that they’re being read, even if there’s nothing in particular to comment on.
This is another case of my thinking I had found someone no one would have heard of, but my visiting teaching companion who was born in Geneva has childhood memories of Sister Rossiter.
Comment by Ardis Parshall — 11/2/2006 @ 7:10 pm | Edit This
Ardis, I’d read it if you decided to just type out the ingredients your breakfast cereal. Sorry for not having much to add otherwise.
Comment by Matt W. — 11/2/2006 @ 7:40 pm | Edit This
Matt W., I seriously considered doing a “This is just a test” post linking your comment to the ingredients listed on my cornflakes box. Alas — I don’t know my fellow bloggers well enough yet to know how well that would play on T&S!
Comment by Ardis Parshall — 11/2/2006 @ 10:04 pm | Edit This
Ardis, I’m with Matt W. You and Wilfried are the two best contributors at T&S, and given the esteem in which I hold our other contributors, I intend that as high praise.
Comment by Jim F — 11/2/2006 @ 11:59 pm | Edit This
Ardis, I am very interested in these early Sister Missionaries. Are there records of any charismatic manifestations by her?
Comment by J. Stapley — 11/3/2006 @ 12:14 am | Edit This
Well, golly. Thanks, everybody. The main reason I decided to try blogging was as a way to have a wider community than I have managed to find in direct personal contacts, so it’s important to me to know that we’re connecting. I’ll remember the comments here and don’t expect frequent repeats. Thanks.
Jonathan: Venus’s diary in the archives covers only her 19-teens mission, and the other obvious sources for Tahitian mission history are just that — history of the mission in the sense of missionary arrivals and departures (without details of how that was accomplished) and statistical reports. I’ll have to watch for other less obvious sources hoping to find some personal account of what the Rossiters did at the end of their 1940s mission, whether they were somehow able to travel, or whether they stayed in Tahiti until the end of the war.
J. Stapley: I haven’t run across accounts of charismatic manifestations in this case, although Venus may have recorded some things in her diary which I only read superficially to expand on the RS theme of this article. Is your research experience the same as mine, that once in a while you find an extraordinary diarist who records such things, while the vast majority are more superficial? Mostly diaries are records of miles traveled and meetings attended and mean-things-people-have-done-to-me. I find that personal correspondence tends to be far more intimate and revealing about sacred things — but correspondence is also more difficult to find. I have a collection approaching 10,000 transcriptions of personal letters to draw on for projects, because I find them so valuable. (Memo to anyone who finds me lying in the street freshly hit by a truck: Secure my laptop first; call 911 second.)
Comment by Ardis Parshall — 11/3/2006 @ 12:36 pm | Edit This
It is no surprise that my small experience is reflected in your extensive oeuvre. There are some diarists that for one reason or another are more apt to record lots of details that don’t particularly expand our vision of who they are and how they saw the world (or at least not overtly).
…and please tell me that you back up regularly.
Comment by J. Stapley — 11/3/2006 @ 12:56 pm | Edit This
Ardis, what an interesting read. I have personal interest in the flu epidemic; can you expand on what she did to teach mothers to better nourish their children? I’m hoping this didn’t mean introducing the concept of powdered milk for babies and toddlers. Please put my mind at ease.
Comment by claire — 11/3/2006 @ 3:36 pm | Edit This
I too have been silently reading all of your most interesting posts. In the words of Sir Henry Taylor, “the world knows nothing of its greatest men”. If he’d been writing today instead of the early 1800s, he would have written “men and women”; if he’d read your posts, he would probably have named women first. Thanks, Ardis.
Comment by Ross Geddes — 11/3/2006 @ 5:05 pm | Edit This
I have a few corrections to make. I am the daughter-in-law of Venus Rossiter. Ernest Rossiter was 9 years older than Venus. They adopted only one child. You are correct in that she lived in Tahiti and her mother died in the flu epidemic. Venus’s son, my husband, was born to them after 26 years of married life. He is their only natural born child. Venus was 47 and Ernest was 56 when my husband was born. I never new Venus because she passed away soon after Terry and I started dating. I did find her journal many years later and got to know her through her journal entries. The church archives now has her journal. We gave it to the church because they can preserve it much better than we can.
Comment by Julia Rossiter — 10/8/2007 @ 1:39 am | Edit This
A correction to my correction: I do know how to spell – I never KNEW Venus – (I cringed when I saw my error).
Comment by Julia Rossiter — 10/13/2007 @ 1:02 pm | Edit This
Thank you, Julia; I hadn’t seen your corrections from a few days ago until I noticed your most recent comment this morning. Thanks for placing her journal with the Archives — I’m a very appreciative of the generosity of families who have placed records like this where they will be preserved and accessible to others, despite the understandable urge to want to keep them within families as keepsakes. As you can see, at least one Archives visitor as taken advantage of your donation.
Comment by Ardis Parshall — 10/13/2007 @ 1:32 pm | Edit This
This was published at another blog on 31 October 2006