Written by Florence Ernestine Baker sometime between 1979 and 1985.
Autobiography of Sister Mary Henry Baker, RSM
The Puyallup River in western Washington overflowed its banks in 1901 at the time a third daughter was born to Edmond John Baker and Armina Ernestine Myers, and inundated houses located near it. Florence Ernestine Baker was born April 6, just in time to be hurriedly moved to the upper floor of the house to escape the muddy waters. My father’s urge to be a farmer must have been dampened by the flood, for the family soon moved from the small town of Sumner to the city of Tacoma.
My father was born in London, England, the youngest of a large family. His father was an accountant who had been born in Edinburgh, Scotland. Edmond, or Ted as he was called, wanted to be an engineer, but in those days sons were supposed to follow in their father’s footsteps or at least to remain on the same level. So Ted began training for teaching—all of his sisters were teachers—but he rebelled when he was nearly finished with the course. In 1890 he ran away from home and shipped on board a sailing vessel for New York with visions of becoming wealthy in the lumber business.
Not long after Ted landed in America he became ill with rheumatic fever and spent some time in Bellevue Hospital. After he regained his strength, he left for the foreign missions in China under the aegis of the British and Foreign Bible and Tract Society, an organization which served various Protestant churches in the missions. My father’s people were Presbyterians.
One day, not long after my father reached China, he went in the small boat which brought passengers from the ocean-going ships to the shore. One of the passengers was my mother, but as it turned out, they did not actually meet on that occasion. Later, after they had become acquainted, they compared notes and realized that they had both been in that small boat.
During his seven years in China my father traveled throughout the interior preaching the Gospel. He told us girls many tales about his experiences and the difficulties he had to endure. He found the lack of sanitation very trying. One day he stopped at an “inn” for a meal. The waiter was wiping first the table and then his sweating self with the same dubious looking towel. But it was a question of enduring the unsanitary condition or going hungry. Hunger won.
My mother was born in Akron, Ohio, the only child of Mary Jane Myers, a widow, who taught French and German in a private school. Mother crossed the United States by train from New York City where she and her mother had moved, and took ship for China from Vancouver, British Columbia, the same year as my father left New York. In China she taught in mission schools. She told us children many stories about her years there. Before she left America someone had said that since the Chinese did not iron their clothes, she should roll them tightly when she packed her trunk. She never could get all the wrinkles out. The most significant remark I remember my mother making about her seven years in the missions was that she thought she had converted one woman, but she was not sure of her! All her life she continued to “look for the truth,” and I have often thought what a good Catholic she would have been.
Apparently my father was able from time to time to visit the mission where mother taught. They were engaged for several years because my mother thought she should not marry a man younger than herself. Evidently love prevailed, for they lived many happy years raising a family of four girls.
My eldest sister, Edith Catherine, was born a year and a half before the conditions at the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion became too dangerous for white women to remain in China. Since English names cannot be translated into Chinese, the servants (coolies) gave Edie a Chinese name. We three girls who were born in America often teased her about being Chinese.
My parents and their infant daughter took ship for America with the intention of returning after the Boxer Rebellion was quelled and conditions were once more safe for “foreign devils” to live in China. I have always been grateful that they changed their minds when they saw the beautiful green state of Washington.
The sailing ships in those days were far from comfortable, and the trip proved to be long and fatiguing for my mother. She was sick the entire voyage, and my father took care of her and the baby. He often told us about their experiences at that time. He made “gruel” to feed Edie, and mother said it took her a long time to remove all the gruel after they reached land! Something happened to the cook—either he became ill or he was swept overboard—and my father, who had never cooked in his life, offered to take his place. No doubt it was that or go hungry. Probably he did a pretty good job as he was always able to do anything. When we were children he insisted on cooking the Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners to give mother a rest. The meals were delicious, but we girls did not like cleaning the kitchen afterwards. We insisted that he used every pan and dish in the kitchen.
One day during a storm at sea my father went on deck to empty the trash into the water and was swept off the ship. Fortunately he was a strong swimmer, having learned to swim in the Thames River near London when one of his brothers threw him in. He kept his head sufficiently to dive deep enough to avoid the propeller and came up on the other side of the ship just as the captain was going in to tell mother that he had drowned.
My mother lost her American citizenship when she married and did not regain it until my father was naturalized several years after they came to Washington. Later when Edie was old enough to travel, she took a copy of my father’s naturalization papers with her, especially when going into Canada. Thus she could avoid too many explanations.
My father did many things after coming to the State of Washington. Since he liked to work with his hands, he tried farming on several occasions but did not make much of a success of those ventures. During the years when I was in high school in Tacoma, he managed a grocery store for McLean Brothers. Sometimes when I went to the store on an errand for mother, my father would drill me in a Chinese sentence to tell mother. The sentence meant, “I love you,” but I doubt if my pronunciation conveyed much meaning. Father was well educated and often served as a preacher for short intervals.
The second daughter, Mina Geraldine (called Geraldine), was born in Tacoma very soon after my parents landed. They always felt that the difficult voyage and my mother’s illness accounted for her not being very strong. Geraldine was the only artistic one of the four girls. In her late teens she trained in Chicago as a “window dresser” and held a very good position in one of the department stores in Bellingham. She married several years later and had two children. She died suddenly at about 40 [note: Geraldine committed suicide. Not sure whether Florence is choosing to not mention this, or if she was possibly not aware.], after I had been several years in the convent.
The youngest of the family, Jessie Louise, was born in Tacoma. She was two and a half years younger than I, but we were always very close. I cannot remember any time in my life when Jessie was not very important to me. She married at 20, a very fine man, Herbert I. Oliver, a master sheet metal worker who died in 1979. They had two sons, Donald and Jim. Both men have families and live near their mother.
We had a happy family life, my father fun-loving, my mother quiet and kind. When we lived on an island (McNeil Island when I was five and Vashon Island in later years) we children had the beach for a playground. We were familiar with the marine animals, and my father also taught us the names of the trees and wild plants. Both my parents liked music. My father played the flute and organ, mother, the piano. They sometimes sang duets together at church services.
It was while we were living on McNeil Island, on the opposite side from the Federal Penitentiary, that we had many adventures. Jessie was not yet three and Edie was nine. There was no school on our side of the island; so mother taught us at home. We insisted that there must be “recess” and a bell rung when the period was over. Our patient mother never seemed to mind such demands. She was an excellent teacher and it must have been very trying for her to watch the untrained young girl who conducted the one-room school. Once a month mother took us four children to this school on the other side of the island. If the weather was fair, she rowed a boat around the island. If the water was rough, we walked through the woods on a barely discernable trail. How mother managed those trips, carrying Jessie most of the way and leading three small children, I cannot imagine. She was not very large and not at all strong. During the day while Edie and Geraldine took examinations in the basic subjects, mother sat in a corner and darned stockings. By means of these examinations the two older girls were promoted at the end of the year. I was too young for the first grade, but had learned to read at home and was able to keep up with the first grade in the little school without any difficulty.
When Edie was 14 we lived on Vashon Island. During an epidemic of meningitis she became very ill and was for a time completely paralyzed. My father used all his ingenuity to help her overcome the paralysis. He would put her on the carpet in front of the fireplace and encourage her to crawl and move as much as she could. Slowly the paralysis left in all except one leg. For some years she walked with crutches and later on managed with a cane. She never gave in to her disability, and would even play tennis and go swimming with us girls. The long halls in Lincoln High School, Tacoma, proved too fatiguing for her; so at 17 she took a position in the office of the Tacoma News-Tribune. In her thirties she married a widower with two small boys but died within a year or two.
After my graduation from Lincoln High School, Tacoma, in 1919, the family moved to Bellingham, 26 miles south of the Canadian border. Jessie was in high school, and I attended Bellingham Normal School. The next year I taught in a one-room school in Wauna on Puget Sound. I had 19 students in seven grades. I boarded on a farm and walked or rode my bicycle through the deep woods each day in time to make the fire in the pot-bellied stove in the front of the room. Those were almost pioneer days in some ways. One day a hunter knocked on the door. When I opened it, he was standing there holding up a cougar taller than himself which he had shot in the woods near the school. It was not unusual for us to see bears and many smaller animals in the nearby woods. That was an interesting year, but I was glad to take a position at a larger school.
The following year, 1921-22, I taught some of the seventh grade subjects and physical education in all the grades in a consolidated school in Moxee, a small town in Eastern Washington near Yakima. That was quite a different experience. The community was made up largely of Holland Dutch and French, two entirely different types of people. When teaching folk dances I called them “folk games”, thus satisfying the exuberant French and avoiding criticism from the staid Dutch.
The next three years I attended the University of Oregon in Eugene, majoring in physical education. At that time my entire interest was centered in athletics. We had a very fine physical education department, and I participated in every sport, making the “all-star” team in baseball, basketball, volley ball, swimming, diving, and field hockey.
During my junior year I was called home suddenly by the illness of my mother. By the time I reached St. Joseph’s Hospital in Bellingham, she had lapsed into a coma and did not recognize me. She was only 61. At that time my father owned a small restaurant near the Normal School, but after mother’s death, he soon sold the place and never settled down afterwards. We realized then that mother had been the stabilizing element in their lives, though she had never complained about my father’s inability to remain long in one place or with one type of employment.
After graduating from the University of Oregon with a Bachelor of Science degree in 1925, I supervised physical education for two years in Marshfield (now Coos Bay), Oregon. I taught the girls’ physical education classes at the high school, both boys and girls in Harding Junior High, and supervised physical education in the classrooms of three grade schools, going from school to school in a Model T Ford.
Marshfield was an excellent place to teach and to live, and I should have been glad to stay there longer, but in mid-year of 1926-7 our excellent superintendent was elected State Superintendent of Education. The man who took his place was quite different. When it was time to offer contracts for the next year, he wanted to refuse contracts to Catholics and to those receiving the maximum salary. Though I was not a Catholic and was not receiving the maximum salary, such treatment was too unfair for me to continue in that school system, I heard later that nearly half of the teachers left Marshfield because of that unfairness.
For the next seven and a half years I taught physical education and one class a day in biology at West Linn High School, just across the Willamette River from Oregon City, about twelve miles from Portland. That was an excellent situation. Every student in school was required to take a sixty-minute period of physical education every day — an unusual requirement. We had a fairly well equipped gymnasium, a swimming pool, and an athletic field. I coached the girls’ teams in volley ball, basket ball, & baseball. Each spring the girls’ physical education classes put on a field demonstration of marching, calesthenics with light apparatus, and folk dancing.
During the years in Marshfield and West Linn I had become more interested in religion. Up to that time athletics and outdoor sports, including mountaineering and horseback riding, had consumed most of my attention. I attended St. Mark’s Episcopal Church in Portland during the years I lived in West Linn. One day the Rector mentioned that he would be glad to lend books on the history of the church to anyone interested. I borrowed some of these books, but they had a different effect on me than the good Rector intended. Because I had always been interested in history and had a fairly logical mind, I could see that some of the claims of the “Anglo-Catholics” were not sound. However, this conclusion did not prevent my responding to an invitation to teach physical education in one of the mission schools in China. That appealed to me as a means of seeing more of the world, especially the Orient where my parents had lived. However, as it turned out, I was unable to pass the physical examination necessary for acceptance of the position. When I was given a second chance for an examination by another physician, I told the Lord that if I was refused again, I would find out more about the Catholic Church. Apparently the conclusion I had come to about the Anglo-Catholic Church and the “branch theory” was stronger than I had realized.
Each Saturday morning for several months I rode the bus or drove to Portland and took instructions from the Pastor of St. Lawrence Church. I was baptized (conditionally because of my previous baptism in the Episcopal Church) in January, 1933. The good Father warned me that I would probably not be rehired at West Linn, as that strict Methodist community did not allow Catholics to teach at their school. I agreed with him, but there was nothing I could do about that. When it was time for contracts to be offered, no objection was made, and I was given a contract for the next year at the regular increase in salary.
With most people the conversion to Catholicism is aided by friendship or at least acquaintance with Catholics. I had never discussed religion with any Catholic, nor had I been influenced by the lives of Catholics. I was teaching in a Methodist community in a school which did not hire Catholics. Instead, my interest was aroused entirely by reading. I enjoyed history and historical novels and because of that interest I read whatever I came across about the Catholic Church, most of my reading being obtained from the public library.
After my baptism I felt the need to learn more about how Catholics lived. I decided to stay a while at the Jeanne d’Arc in Portland, a boarding home for business girls. Though I did not find the women who lived there congenial, I became acquainted with the Sisters of Mercy who conducted the home. Sister Mary Eulalia Morris was superior at that time. She gave me spiritual books to read and prepared me for confirmation.
During the summer of 1933 when I was beginning my work for a Master’s Degree in Physical Education at the University of Washington in Seattle, a student with whom I was acquainted asked me when I was going to enter the convent. That was the first time the thought had occurred to me. God’s ways are mysterious. Evidently that one remark supplied the nudge I needed. A year and a half later, on January 30, 1935, just two years after my baptism, I entered the Novitiate of the Sisters of Mercy in Council Bluff, Iowa.
I remember the discomfort of the train ride from Portland which took two nights and a day to reach Council Bluffs. Sister Mary Eulalia had had me put on a make-shift postulant’s veil secured with an elastic band around my head. I was afraid to remove the veil even in the berth at night for fear I could not get it back on! The result was a throbbing headache, but as I spent the entire time reading “The Fervent Novice”, I accepted the discomfort as part of the life I was to live!
My Novitiate days were all-absorbing. I was eager to learn and accepted all the new conditions and practices without any difficulty. Within a few weeks after my entrance, I began teaching secular subjects to the novices — nature study, physical education, teaching methods. We had almost no reference material. I ended by writing a physical education manual from memory and teaching nature study from the same source. Mother Mary Gerard Killikelly, our Mistress of Novices, was able to inspire us to do much more than we thought we could do; at least it worked that way with me.
After making my first vows in 1937, I continued to teach in the Novitiate and also in the Preparatory High School located on the same grounds. During this time I attended Saturday classes at Creighton University in Omaha, Nebraska, receiving my Bachelor of Philosophy Degree in 1940. From then on I taught undergraduate philosophy courses in the Novitiate.
During my years in Council Bluffs, Sister Mary Cecilia McGuinness was most influential in my life. She had a brilliant mind, was an accomplished musician, and an exemplary religious. Her influence on the girls in the Preparatory High School, of which she was principal, was very strong.
In the summer of 1943 I matriculated at The Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., and received my Master’s Degree in Philosophy in 1945, having taken advantage of of the fifteen-week summer sessions during the war years. During the school terms I taught in the Novitiate and one or two classes at the College of Saint Mary while it was still in the old building on Castelar Street. In September, 1938, I was sent for one year to St. Mary’s High School in Omaha to teach the sixth grade at Holy Cross School, and then returned to Council Bluffs.
In June, 1955, I was assigned to the College of Saint Mary, Omaha, in the new building on 72nd and Center Streets. I had been appointed Registrar and also continued to teach physical education and philosophy for a few years. When the work in the Registrar’s office became heavier, I gave up the teaching. I continued there as Registrar until 1971. For another year I remained at the College working in the mail room and then asked to go to St. Catherine’s Residence and Nursing Center in North Bend, Oregon.
My eight years at St. Catherine’s have been very happy ones. I act as secretary, principally to the Nursing Department, relieve at the switchboard, and do odd jobs as they occur. When I came to St. Catherine’s, there were six Sisters living in the convent. Now we have an active community of 17 with seven Sisters on the nursing floors. St. Catherine’s is a community of fine Sisters — prayerful, hard-working, and fun-loving. We have a good community life with sufficient structure to insure stability, but with freedom also for personal prayer and interests. Living in “God’s Country” enables us to enjoy the beautiful scenery of Western Oregon. We often go on picnics or excursions to the beach and to other beauty spots, including our comfortable house on the ocean at Lincoln City which we share with the other Oregon Sisters. I thank God daily for having given me these last years to be useful in such a happy situation.
Autobiography Earlier Draft
There’s another version of this autobiography that seems to be an earlier draft that Florence mailed to Jessie. It’s much more informally written. There is some information that is excluded from the final draft, so I’m including it as well. Where the information conflicts, I would give more credence to the final draft. —Sarah Oliver
I believe Dad was born in London; I certainly never heard anything about his being born in Edinburgh. I am sure that is incorrect. Dad’s name was Edmond John, not Edmund. They spelled it the French way for some reason.
Dad had several brothers and more than five sisters. He came from a large family, at least 14 children. However, many of them were grown and had left home before Dad knew much about them. Probably when he talked to Bob there were only five sisters living. We know about Uncle Bert, of course, but I never did hear that another brother had come to this country. It might well be true, but I have no memory of Dad’s saying anything about it. Auntie Marie was the only sister who came to this country. She had married a Scotsman and they evidently came to America together, but her husband became ill and she had to support him for a good many years. She lived in San Francisco most of the time. Part of that time she was employed by a chain of restaurants to go around and eat at the different restaurants without saying who she was. That was their way of checking on the food and service. I think she enjoyed that job. She returned to England to spend her last years with the members of her family who were still living. She was in her eighties when she died. About all I remember about the other sisters in her family was that Dad said most of them were left-handed, as he was, and that they all played the violin. As you remember, Dad played the flute and the organ and had a good baritone voice. Dad’s father died before he left England, as far as I know. His mother died when he was in China.
Dad ran away from home at the age of 19 because he did not want to teach. He was almost ready to graduate from the teachers’ college or whatever they called it. He was attending classes a half day and practiced teaching a half day. He wanted to be an engineer but that was frowned upon because his family were in the professional class, and in those days the sons were supposed to stay in their own class. Most of Dad’s sisters were teachers.
Dad stowed away on a sailing vessel and landed in New York. Soon after that he contracted inflammatory rheumatism and was in Bellevue Hospital for a while. I think it was then that he decided to become a missionary. I am not sure where he sailed from for China; he may have gone around the Horn as many ships did in those days. He traveled in China for the British and Foreign Bible and Tract Society, a society which is still in existence. I think it represents several Protestant denominations. As far as I know, Dad’s family were Presbyterians.
Mother was born in Akron, Ohio, but lived most of her life in New York City, I believe. Her mother taught French and German in a private school. Her name was Mary Ann Myers. She came to live with us for a time when we moved to McNeil Island and later when we lived at Center on Vashon Island. She died there at age 78, I believe. I remember that was considered very old. She used to visit us when we lived other places. I remember she always brought us losenges and counted them out so each of us would get the same amount.
Mother was an only child, though a brother had died in infancy. Her father disappeared at some time in Grandma’s early years and Grandma had to support herself and mother. Mother crossed the continent—I think by the northern route through Canada—and sailed from Vancouver, B.C. for China. In those days the large ships could not draw up to the docks; so the passengers had to be taken by a small boat to land. After Mother and Dad met, they discovered that Dad had been in the small boat that took Mother to shore, but apparently they did not meet then.
Mother taught in mission schools, but Dad mostly traveled in the interior of China. I remember many stories he told about the hardships of travel and the way the Chinese lived. He found the lack of cleanliness very trying. At the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion they returned to this country because it was too dangerous to live in China at that time, especially for women and children to remain there. Edie was then about two years old. Dad and Mother had lived in China seven years. For several years Mother did not want to marry Dad because she was older than he, but Dad did not give up. Mother was very sick on the whole trip to America which must have been very long in those days. Dad had to take care of her and Edie (Edith Catherine). I remember Mother’s saying it took her a long time to get all the gruel off Edie’s face after they landed! The ship’s cook became ill and Dad, who had never cooked a meal in his life, took his place! I guess he got along all right. He always could do most anything. One time a storm came up and Dad was swept off the ship. He had forethought enough to dive deeply to avoid the propeller and come up on the other side of the ship just as someone was going to tell Mother that Dad had drowned. It was a good thing he was a strong swimmer. He learned to swim in the Thames River. One of his brothers threw him in — a hard way to learn, but he learned all right.
Jerry (Mina Geraldine) was born soon after the ship landed. I believe she was born in Tacoma. Mother and Dad had intended to return to the missions in China after the Boxer Rebellion was over, but, thank goodness, they never did. We children were to be left with friends in California. I suppose Dad and Mother and Edie landed in America in 1899 because Geraldine was two years older than I, and I was born in Sumner in 1901. Jessie (Jessie Louise) was also born in Tacoma, two and a half years after Florence Ernestine.
Dad did many different things to earn a living — he managed two of McLean Brothers grocery stores and did many other things. I was about five years old when we moved to McNeil Island. Dad planned to raise garden stuff and young plants for market. I can remember his getting the stumps out of the land with a horse. We lived in a log cabin on a high cliff overlooking the Sound. We children played on the beach most of the time. It was there that Edie fell against a barnacle covered rock and was badly cut. We were not supposed to go near those rocks. We kept our treasures in holes in the bank which were above high water most of the time.
Mother taught us herself, and once a month took us to the other side of the island to a one-room school to take examinations to keep up with the grades we were in. The teacher was 16 years old and didn’t know much about teaching, certainly not anywhere near as much as mother did. Mother sat in the room and darned stockings while we took our tests. If the bay was calm, we sometimes rowed around the island; on windy days we talked across. There was only a trail to follow. Mother had to carry Jessie and we three older ones followed along. I often marvel at the things Mother did. She was not very large and certainly was not too strong, and yet she did all those things.
When we moved back to Tacoma, all four of us attended Edison grade school in South Tacoma. Later Edie and I attended Lincoln Park High School, later hanged to Lincoln High School. But the halls and stairs were too difficult for Edie. She had contracted meningitis (or perhaps it was polio—not too much was known about those diseases then—when she was 14 and we were living on Vashon Island. She walked with crutches for a long time. Later she managed with a cane. Geraldine went to work instead of going to high school, and then Jessie attended high school when we moved to Bellingham. From that time on Jessie probably knows much more than I do about the family because I went to Normal School in Bellingham, then taught two years, went on to the University of Oregon, taught nearly eight more years and then entered the Sisters of Mercy in Council Bluffs, Iowa.