By Phil Haslanger
One of the fascinating but somewhat incomplete stories about the early days of Memorial UCC is about the congregation sending missionaries to Japan in the 1920s. It has often been said that we sent four missionaries there, but it has taken some digging to find out much more and it appears that only three were actually part of the Memorial congregation.
They were all part of the missionary efforts of the Board of Foreign Missions of the Reformed Church in the United States. That was the denominational home of Memorial. Those missionary efforts began in 1879 and included a church building and girls school in Sendai, Japan, about 225 miles northeast of Tokyo.
Mary Amanda Vornholt was the daughter of Rev. Edward and Amanda Vornholt, born May 23, 1892 in Magley, Indiana. As her family moved to Indianapolis and then Ludlow, Iowa and then La Crosse, Wis., she attended school herself and also taught in church schools. But in Iowa, her health proved fragile and she had to take some time to recover. She attended Normal School in La Crosse (a teacher’s college), but left there to be with a brother in poor health in Loveland, Colo. After a bit, she went to the University of Colorado in Boulder, but did not earn a degree because she was called home when her father died in 1916. She finished her teaching degree in La Crosse, then spent a year teaching in Prairie du Chien.
Mary left the U.S. on Aug. 24, 1918 for Yokohama, Japan, as a missionary for the Reformed Church in the United States. Her legal residence was La Crosse at that time. Her passport describes her as a small woman, 5 feet 3 inches, with dark brown hair. She first studied Japanese at a language school in Tokyo, then went to the Miyagi Girls School in Sendai. While there, she contracted diphtheria and died on March 2, 1920.
In notes about her at Memorial, the unknown author wrote: “She was always cheerful and was well liked by all who knew her. It had always been her desire to be a missionary. For many years, it looked like her wishes would not be fulfilled but finally she saw the day when her heart’s desire was fulfilled…She left her home and friends with a happy heart but her stay at Japan was only about one year and six months. We may think it was too short a time, but our God has different thoughts, so we feel it was all for the best. Her works are following, she was well liked and loved by the girls of Japan who were privileged to get acquainted with her.”
Mary’s mother and brothers were part of Memorial at the time of her death in 1920 and the Missionary Society, formed in January 1921, was named after her. It’s not clear how long her family remained at Memorial after Mary’s death. Her mother died in 1927. Her brothers were Theodore (1895-1956), Karl (1898-1969) and Daniel (1901-1973).
In October of 1921, another Vornholt would come to Memorial as pastor – Edwin H. Vornholt. It is not clear what his relationship to the other Vornholts was, but he was not in the immediate family. But there was now a link between Memorial and the missionary work in Japan.
Another family that arrived in the early days of Memorial was that of Theodore and Elizabeth Bolliger and their four children – Lydia Aurelia, Louise, Katherine and Theodore C. Bolliger.
Louise (born Oct. 6, 1900) and Aurelia (born Sept. 5, 1897) got some notice locally for their music recitals. Katherine (born Oct. 8, 1904) was a young leader at the newly formed Memorial. Aurelia was the first secretary of the Missionary Society, a position she held until she herself went to Japan.
In the summer of 1922, Aurelia set off for Japan as a missionary with the goal of teaching English at Myagi College in Sendai. She had graduated from the University of Wisconsin in 1921 and then taught high school for a year in River Falls, Wis. When she went to Japan, she spent a year in Tokyo and then a year in Kobe studying Japanese before starting to teach in Sendai. In January of 1924, the Missionary Society bought a wool blanket to send to her in Japan.
And in August of 1924, Louise set off from Madison for Japan to join her sister after a picnic supper at the church and then a luncheon put on by her friend Elizabeth Suess, who had joined the Missionary Society in May of 1921. Louise’s plan was to teach for three years at the mission school in Sendai. But on Feb. 19, 1925, she died of pneumonia in Japan at the age of 24. In a tribute to her at a memorial service for her and two other missionaries later that year in Philadelphia, Rev. Dr. Allen K. Faust, president of the Miyagi College in Sendai, said, “Miss Bolliger was cut off from work at the end of her first year of service, but during that brief period, her rich, generous spirit had permeated the atmosphere in which she worked. Scores of letters poured into our school from pupils who had studied under her, expressing the profundity of their loss and recalling the beauty of their contact with this young teacher. The brevity of her service made her missionary life poignantly sweet, like a short symphony.”
In October of 1925, Elizabeth Suess (daughter of Mrs. Amelia Suess who lived on Spring Street in Madison) went to Sendai as well. She was Aurelia’s roommate there and also taught English at Myagi College. The Memorial Missionary Society bought her a Bible to take with her. Both Aurelia and Elizabeth came back to Madison at the end of 1927. Elizabeth stayed her to finish her studies at the University of Wisconsin and then left Madison in 1929.
Aurelia went back to Japan in September of 1928. She was sent off with a farewell service at Memorial on Aug. 5, 1928 presided over by the new pastor there, Rev. Calvin Zenk. She returned to Madison in 1930, moved to Seattle, Washington in 1931, appears to have spent some time in England and died on August 21, 1988, in Massillon, Ohio, when she was 89 years old. It does not appear she ever married.
A few other notes. There is no mention of Louise’s death in any of the archives at Memorial. Her sister Katharine got married at Memorial on June 2, 1928 (to Walter Lee Moore) and the soloist at the wedding was Dan Vornholt, brother of the late Mary Vornholt.