“Tessa Udy: Niagara Pioneer,” Ensign, June 1986, 56–57
Hundreds of thousands of visitors annually marvel at the thundering white waters of Niagara Falls. Of these throngs drawn to the western tip of New York by this dazzling display of beauty and power, only a few find their way to the tiny Niagara Falls LDS chapel. Fewer still become acquainted with another bastion of strength and beauty—but a more quiet, serene type. This is Tessa Udy who, along with her husband and small sons, was the first Latter-day Saint to settle in the Niagara Falls area.
Tessa’s testimony and courage have been instrumental in the growth of the Church in Niagara Falls from that first handful to almost three hundred members today. Now, in her mid-nineties, Tessa has become a hallmark of strength and sacrifice.
Growing up in the small town of Liberty, Idaho, the oldest child of John and Clara Hymas McMurray, Tessa faced many challenges that shaped her attitudes toward life, work, and the gospel.
“We were poor,” she remembers. “How I used to wish we could have a rope swing.” But although a rope swing was a luxury the six McMurray children never had, those early days were rich in love and happiness.
Just two days before Christmas when Tessa was nine years old, her mother died of typhoid fever and the young girl’s life changed drastically. Tessa became responsible for cooking (including daily bread making), sewing, cleaning, caring for her younger siblings, and helping with farm chores such as milking and mowing, hauling, and stacking hay. She and two of her sisters took turns taking a year off from school to care for the smaller children. As a result, Tessa was always trying to catch up with her classmates when she returned.
Tessa vividly remembers the morning she woke to find that her father had died during the night. “He had never gotten over mother’s death,” she says simply. The orphaned McMurray children were sent to live with various relatives. At seventeen, Tessa went to the household of her father’s sister in Farmington, Utah, where she had to get a job to help meet the family’s financial needs. While there, however, she was able to complete high school and two years at Deseret University in Salt Lake City. She also received some training from a local doctor to become a practical nurse.
It was while she lived in Farmington that Tessa met Marvin Udy. The day Marvin graduated from the University of Utah, he and Tessa were married. While Marvin continued working toward a master’s degree, Tessa became the mother of two sons, first Murray and then Lynn the following year, both born at home. Lynn had a difficult birth and was later diagnosed as having partial paralysis.
In 1917, the Udys moved briefly to Niagara Falls, then to Kokomo, Indiana. The closest Church members were a pair of missionaries stationed in Indianapolis forty-five miles away. That same year their third son, Kay, was born, then died just three days later.
In 1918, the family moved back to Niagara Falls, where as the only members in the area, the Udys held Church meetings in their home. “My husband used to say that the boys’ and my singing our Sunday School songs just about drove him crazy,” Tessa recalls with a wide grin. The only exposure the family had to other Church members was when the missionaries would occasionally pass through the area, or when special conferences would be held in Buffalo. Then the family would take the train and join with members in the small Buffalo branch. With no LDS neighbors, it would have been easy to become inactive, but Tessa and Marvin worked hard to instill Church principles in their boys.
The Church in the western New York area grew at a snail’s pace during the 1920s and 30s. By 1944, when the first Sunday School in the Niagara Falls area was organized, the membership included only five families. Four years later, a branch was organized and Tessa became the Relief Society president, a position she held for thirteen years. Not long after, Marvin became the branch president.
Tessa recalls arriving early on Sunday mornings at the various halls where meetings were held to clean up cigarette butts and beer cans. To Tessa, this was a small sacrifice compared to seeing the gospel grow in the transplanted setting she had come to call home. But it did accentuate the need for a building of their own, which soon became the main target for the little branch.
Two years before the new building was completed, Lynn, who had been severely crippled for much of his life, died of cancer. As a way of coping with her grief, Tessa turned to raising money for the building fund. By 1954 the Niagara Falls Branch was meeting in its own chapel, which—due to the sacrifice and contributions of the Udys and other branch members—was completely paid for within five months of the time the construction started.
Five years later, Marvin died; the Church and Tessa’s remaining son, Murray, became the focus of her life.
When the Niagara Falls chapel was only eight years old, it was torn down to make way for an urban renewal project, and it was again necessary for a new building to be constructed. Once more the indomitable woman threw herself into raising funds, getting up daily at 3:00 A.M. to bake bread. She would then sell her loaves and donate all the proceeds—as much as $50 a week—to the project.
When the bishop found out what she was doing, he told her she had done more than her share of the work. “You can’t build the church all by yourself,” he said. “Other members need the blessings too.”
For many years Tessa led the Buffalo Stake in endowment work. Each time the stake would arrange a temple trip, Tessa would be the first one off the bus and the last one to leave the Washington Temple. As poor health has prevented her from making the trip recently, many have commented that her presence is missed.
To the people of the Niagara Falls Ward and the Buffalo New York Stake, Tessa stands as a reminder of the price that one woman and her family paid so that many can reap the gospel’s rewards.