Monday, August 4, 2008

Haunted Ancestors

Real life has interfered with my blogging a bit recently--between moving, attending to family matters, suddenly finding myself with a new boyfriend(!), and helping start a new business, I'm finding this whole "change my life thing" has strangely enough resulted in a whole new life! But, I have managed to find time to continue working on my book and researching family history.

Family history I continue to be amazed that I never knew about before!

I recently discovered that famously haunted buildings and fervent, virginal religious missionaries all factor largely into my mother's upbringing.

When my mother was three years old, living with her parents and six siblings in a
three-room coal camp house in Eastern Kentucky, her parents gave her away to two missionary women who were traveling through the region, on their way to set up an orphanage in Salyersville, Kentucky. Thus, my mother became the first child of the Dora Lee Children's home, which operated in Eastern Kentucky for more than 35 years and served as a weigh station for hundreds (maybe even thousands) of children from the early 1950's until the late 1980's. I spent summers there as a child, so am very familiar with the experience of being in an orphanage, and I met some tragic, interesting, wonderful, troubled, mentally/physically disabled children during my times there.

The missionary women, who I knew as my "grandmothers" were in their early 30's when
they "acquired" my mother, and were long-standing members of the Gospel Workers Society -- a group of fervent missionary women started by Mennonite church elder Rev. William Brunner Musselman in 1895. The group's purpose was to do outreach to homebound people or communities that were not served by local churches and encourage them to accept Jesus Christ as their savior. Rev. Musselman strongly encouraged the women to pursue a life denying their own wants and devote themselves entirely to the missionary work.

In 1907, the group set up headquarters in Cleveland's Tremont area after purchasing a historic 15-building complex.

The oldest part of the complex was an imposing red and brown brick Gothic structure, dating from the 1830’s that was built to house Cleveland’s first university, which closed in 1853. The complex was rumored to have been used as a makeshift hospital during the Civil War.

In 1907, after Rev. Musselman purchased the building, he brought in groups of his missionary women to live in the building’s upper floors and print bibles. The women, called “Sallies” by the neighborhood kids, wore blue uniforms with straw hats and tall boots. They were zealous in their faithfulness to the mission and publishing company, and kept completely to themselves. Having severed ties to the outside world, the women almost never left the complex.

This rich cast of inhabitants combined with the stark Gothic architecture of the complex led to widespread modern-day rumors that the buildings, abandoned until recently, were haunted. In 2004, a Clevelend Free Press reporter toured the building with a local psychic for a feature story on haunted Cleveland, titled “Spirits of the Gospel.”

As the psychic walked through the vacant buildings, dark deeply shadowed crevices, and underground passageways, she asked, “Did you ever have cults (here)?”

My mother always referred to the Gospel Workers as “some kind of cult your Grandma belonged to when she was a young missionary.”

No research indicates that the Gospel Workers were a cult, but the Rev. Musselman was an intense man who taught that service to Jesus was best achieved through rigorous self-sacrifice and isolation from the world. His missionary women, whether living in the Union Gospel Press complex, or going out into the world on various missions, embodied these teachings.

My mother was raised under this type of fervent religious influence in an orphanage in Eastern Kentucky...