“The Sisters of Cheltenham,” Ensign, Oct. 1996, 59
Cheltenham, England, in 1939 was a peaceful place—a spa known for its healing waters, a favored place of retirement for genteel ladies and gentlemen. Nestled beside the city of Gloucester and lying in the folds of the Cotswold Hills, Cheltenham was untouched by the high-rise office buildings and one-way traffic systems known today. Beautiful parks and gardens were found in abundance. Life’s tempo in general seemed slower then.
Missionaries had preached on the streets of Cheltenham from the early days of the Restoration. Many who had heard and accepted the gospel message immigrated to “Zion” to help build up the kingdom. The branch remaining in 1939 was tiny, and members relied heavily on missionaries for priesthood leadership.
September 1939, however, brought the days of war to England, and with war came the withdrawal of missionaries and closure of many small branches. Scattered throughout England during World War II were numerous pockets of faithful Latter-day Saints, but none more faithful than the sisters of Cheltenham.
What few local brethren remained in 1939 had been drafted into the armed services, leaving the sisters alone with no priesthood leadership or authority. Arthur Fletcher, the nearest Melchizedek Priesthood holder, lived about 18 miles away, in Nailsworth, and was a man of advancing years. On occasion Brother Fletcher would ride his bicycle from Nailsworth to meet with the Saints—not a small task at his age.
President Andre Konstantine Anastasiou, who had been appointed to guide the mission following the withdrawal of President Hugh B. Brown and the American missionaries, lived in London, nearly 100 miles distant. Periodically, the mission president or one of his counselors would visit us in Cheltenham to collect the tithing and fast offerings the sisters had saved up.
No member of our tiny branch had a telephone or car, making communication with people outside Cheltenham difficult. We had, therefore, relatively few remaining ties with members and the Church. Among those ties were our scriptures, the Millennial Star, and our faith.
My adopted mother, Nellie Middleton, had been Relief Society president and was the sisters’ natural leader. Our home became a center for Church activity. Visiting teachers went regularly to the elderly and infirm, taking with them the gospel, magazines, and a message. The Relief Society sisters of Cheltenham performed many hours of compassionate service during that time of war.
Many things that had been part of daily life before the war were pushed aside while strange events and strange things took their place.
For example, safety precautions were put into force, streetlights were disconnected and road signs removed, and everyone was issued an identity card and a gas mask. We children were told to take our gas masks everywhere we went—even out to play. Our mothers made canvas carrying cases with shoulder straps, so we would always have our gas masks with us. Safety mesh was installed on the inside of windows to prevent injury in the event of a blast of flying glass. Food was rationed. In addition, neighborhood roads changed in appearance. Metal gates and railings were removed and sent to factories to be melted down and used for munitions.
I was about 10 years old at the time. I recall helping to turn our basement into an emergency shelter as one of my first experiences in working toward family preparedness. Our basement shelter held emergency food, oil lamps, drums of water, and a small bed for me. In the event of an air raid, day or night, we were to drop everything and go to the shelter.
As months and years passed, the sisters of what we once knew as the Cheltenham Branch developed a strong desire for fuller gospel activity. They especially missed having the opportunity to partake regularly of the sacrament. This desire for spiritual nourishment became the topic of many conversations among the Cheltenham Saints in those war days.
Shortly after the United States entered the war in 1941, Cheltenham’s outward appearance changed yet again. Servicemen filled the streets in vast numbers. They assembled in many of the town’s larger buildings—including the Queens Hotel. The lovely Imperial Gardens leading to the entrance of that magnificent hotel became an army campsite. On the ancient lawns of Pitville Park, Nissen huts sprang up like giant mushrooms.
My mother reasoned that in such a large group of soldiers there had to be a few Latter-day Saints. Her reasoning proved to be accurate.
Mother asked Margaret Deakins, her stepsister, to paint a picture of the Salt Lake Temple from an Articles of Faith card. Then, with the commanding officer’s permission, the painting was posted on the general notice board of the Queens Hotel campsite. Below the painting was written: “If any soldier is interested in the above, he will find a warm welcome at 13 Saint Paul’s Road.” Other notices were later posted at locations in a few neighboring towns.
Not long after the painting and messages were posted, on a dark November night our doorbell rang. Mother opened the door, but all she could make out, because of the blackout, was a tall figure. The visitor extended a hand and, in a quiet American voice, introduced himself as Brother Ray J. Hermansen. Emotion brought a lump to my mother’s throat. No words would come—she just extended her hand and drew the stranger in.
Brother Hermansen had missed partaking of the sacrament, as had the sisters of Cheltenham. While in Gloucester, he happened to meet a Church member who had told him of our tiny group of Latter-day Saints in Cheltenham and of our desire for priesthood brethren to administer the sacrament. Ray obtained permission to take leave and walked about 10 miles from Gloucester to Cheltenham, where he found our house just after dark.
Soon after Ray J. Hermansen came Bill Overly, who had been stationed at the racecourse a few miles outside of Cheltenham. Bill wanted to find Latter-day Saints to meet with because he was far from home and missed their companionship. He called the Church’s headquarters in London and was given our address.
On a Sunday, Bill walked into Cheltenham looking for our address and hoping to attend Church services with us. To his surprise, there were many different roads with similar names. He found Saint Paul’s Street, Saint Paul’s Way, and other similar addresses. Finally, just after noon, Bill found our home on Saint Paul’s Road. Mother invited him to participate in the service that had just begun in our home. He blessed the sacrament.
Beginning soon after the arrival of the first servicemen, and with the mission president’s permission, that small group of Saints held sacrament meeting each remaining week of the war in our home, with visiting servicemen administering the sacrament. Sometimes Brother Overly was the only priesthood holder in attendance, and some weeks it was Brother Hermansen, but before long others joined them. Soon there were enough servicemen attending to fill our house each Sunday, and so some people had to sit on the staircase. Some of the servicemen, like Bill Overly, Ray J. Hermansen, and Harold B. Watkins, became our lifelong friends.
My mother sent letters to the families of soldiers who attended our tiny branch meetings. She felt compelled to tell the families how their sons had helped us and how grateful we were for their faithful service even in time of war. We received many letters in return telling us that the family had no idea where their son was and how glad they were to know he was still alive.
Occasionally when we would hear of the death of one of those dear priesthood holders on the battlefield, Mother would write letters of condolence. In many cases it was nearly as hard for us to take the news as for the soldier’s friends and family at home; we had learned to love those dear brothers as they served in their priesthood duties.
One of the more memorable servicemen was Brother Delbert Barney. He was instrumental in arranging for the baptism of Janet Junner, who was in her 80s at the time.
Because the small group of Saints met in our home, there was no official baptismal font. Sergeant Barney, using some imagination, arranged with a Baptist minister to allow the ordinance to take place in that church’s font. Taking advantage of a piano near the font, Maisie Junner, Janet’s daughter, played the piano while local members and servicemen sang hymns. The service reminded us of how things had been prior to the war.
Maisie’s music was a key element to inviting the Spirit into our meetings. Dear Auntie Maisie would play the hymns on her piano, which we moved to our house for the duration of the war. The sound of the piano as Maisie played the hymns would bring a tear to many eyes. I remember the testimony meetings well. Sometimes there would not be a dry eye in the house. It was under these circumstances that I bore my first testimony, gave my first talk, and attended weekly Book of Mormon study classes.
When the war was over and missionaries returned, their call was to strengthen members. The members of the Cheltenham Branch, however, were still strong in the gospel, thanks to the many servicemen who had given us priesthood blessings, taught us lessons, and blessed and passed the sacrament. Their presence helped link us to the larger body of the Church during a time of great difficulty.
President Hugh B. Brown, upon his return to England following the war, visited us in Cheltenham while touring the mission and visiting the Saints. He commended the sisters in Cheltenham for their faithfulness. I’ll always remember my mother drawing me forward and introducing me to President Brown. The moment was all mine as he took my small hand in his and spoke to me.
It has been more than 50 years since the members of the Cheltenham Branch opened their arms and hearts to World War II servicemen. Today the Cheltenham England Stake encompasses the same general area as the Cheltenham Branch did decades ago. Yet instead of one struggling branch, eight wards with a total of more than 2,000 members thrive in the area. This stake serves as a modern-day legacy of the faithful Latter-day Saints of the Cheltenham Branch, who helped keep the gospel alive during the dark years of World War II.
Those days of war will always live in our memories. We were blessed to have the gospel spirit kept alive through times of despair by Latter-day Saint soldiers from America. They were days mixed with sadness, happiness, and renewed faith. I will be forever grateful to Heavenly Father for allowing us the opportunity to carry on in the gospel through a time when it seemed to be nearly impossible.