Sterbezimmer 319

“Sterbezimmer 319,” New Era, Nov. 1980, 30–31

Participatory Journalism:
Sterbezimmer 319

“Brueder Missionare, warten Sie einen Moment!” cried Sister Schmiedl, hurrying out of the apartment house door into the cold January air. My companion and I dismounted our bikes and turned to her. “I’m glad I saw you. Sister Jonas is sick; they’ve taken her to the hospital.”

“When did this happen? What’s the matter with her?”

“Yesterday afternoon … something to do with the liver. Brother Wist said they don’t expect her to last the week at her age.”


Ja! She wants very much to see you, and she asked to be administered to.” Sister Schmiedl had that desperate but firm Austrian look that told us we had better get over to the hospital as soon as possible.

We pedaled our way in silence through the snow-clogged streets toward our apartment. Elder Rogers and I weren’t regular companions. His companion was the district leader. My companion, Elder Smith, and the district leader had gone to Linz to work for the day. We often traded so we could get different ideas on how to approach people about the gospel and to gain experience working with various elders. That particular day didn’t seem much improved by the absence of our senior companions. You see, Elder Rogers and I were both junior companions with very little experience. Between the two of us, we had a total of six weeks in the field.

Warming our stiff hands over the coal stove in the landlady’s kitchen, we wondered what we were going to do. Or more precisely, how.

“Have you ever given a blessing to the sick?”

“No, Elder Rogers, I haven’t. Not even in English.”

“Well, comp., this could be tricky. Neither have I.”

We knew stalling wouldn’t do any good. Even if Sister Jonas’s condition hadn’t been so urgent, delaying until morning wouldn’t guarantee Elder Smith’s getting back to perform the ordinance. The wind was whipping the dusty snow into a regular gale outside, and trains all over central Europe were being halted. Winter 1970 was to become one of the worst winters in the history of the continent, and that’s a lot of history.

We decided not to take the bikes, preferring a long walk to a slide that might take us to the hospital as patients rather than visitors. As we went, our breath came out in big puffs of white vapor that froze to the fibers of our scarves and collars and gave our eyebrows and noses a Frosty-the-Snowman appearance. Fortunately, the hospital was not too far away, and Wels is a small town in any case. The nun at the desk looked doubtfully at us when we introduced ourselves as ministers of the Church of Jesus Christ, but our identification papers convinced her, and we proceeded down the corridor, even though there were no visiting hours on Tuesday.

Sterbezimmer 319 is a room where patients with only a few hours or days to live are kept isolated from others. It was a reasonably pleasant room, despite its awful function, and the white lace curtains gave a feeling of hope, even when hope was long gone. Sister Jonas lay in a bed by the window; from there she could watch the storm’s progress. Outside the wind was still playing ball with the fallen snow, but it seemed a few rays of sunlight were trying to find a way through the clouds. As we entered, Sister Jonas looked and smiled.

A nurse was there. “Don’t be long,” she said and then left, assuming we had come to give the last rites.

“I’m glad you came,” whispered Sister Jonas.

“Don’t be afraid. Do you believe you can be healed?”

“Yes, now I do.”

Elder Rogers produced a vial of pale yellow oil, and, in a quavering voice, anointed her. Now it was my turn. I paused. How did they tell us to pronounce a blessing at the Language Training Mission? An instant’s hesitation, and, “Otilie Jonas, Im namen Jesu Christi … ”

My time in Wels was almost gone, and I expected to be transferred to another town in a few days. Elder Smith had long since been sent to Vienna, and Elder Rogers had followed him. I looked out on our little congregation in sacrament meeting and had difficulty holding back the tears. The hardy souls in these small and sometimes obscure branches mean a lot to the missionaries who labor there. When I left home to come to Austria, I knew I’d soon return, but I knew when I left Wels I would probably never see these people again.

It had been a long winter, and even in the spring it was still a bit chilly. Others felt it too, and in the back, a sister got up and stoked the little potbellied stove. It was Sister Jonas. When she finished, she returned to her chair, and I got up to walk to the pulpit—what could I tell these people?

Illustrated by Arlene Braithwaite