Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Faith of Great Uncle Irving

Grandma Wilson sent this recount out to family last Christmas. Embarrassingly enough, we didn't open our copy until yesterday. We really missed out though! This talks about Uncle Irving Wilson's conversion and the early growth of the church in the St. Thomas, Ontario, CA.  He is my Grandpa Wilson's brother, and the first to join the church in the family. This is a real faith builder! You'll want to be a better person after reading this.  Don't be overwhelmed just because it's long. It's really worth the read!


Nov. 2011
Recollections of Irving R. Wilson 1986
1920 - 1991

This account is from an interview held April 22, I986. The purpose is to discuss some of Irving’s experiences and some of the things that led to the formation of the branch in those early days of the Church, and to introduce some of the people that played a role in building the Church throughout those years. (Irving Wilson was Norm Wilson’s brother)

In the early 1950s, (I was in my early thirties), I was operating a small jewelry store on Ross St. in St. Thomas, Ontario. While trying to make a living, the missionaries called on me for some watch repairs. They came into my office and I found that they were from faraway places, which made me curious. They had answers that I had not heard before. They’d come in and stand around and talk. I would ask them questions and they would answer, between customers. I was aware that I felt something. Then they would go on their way.

About that time, one of my Air Force acquaintances by the name of Les Jordan mentioned to me that he was looking for a church and was actively studying with someone. I don’t suppose it is important which church he was studying, but they were pursuing him in pairs, so I said, “Look, if you’re going to study a church, you should talk to these missionaries. They have the answers for you. Otherwise, you’re wasting your time.” He said, “Well, okay, send them around.” So I sent them over to his apartment. I had been investigating churches along with my family all my life. We had crossed Canada one and a half times and never found what we were looking for.

There wasn’t really an opportunity for me to study the church at that time, as I was working 14 - I6 hour days, trying to make ends meet and ‘keep the wolf from the door.’ There wasn’t a church of this denomination here in St. Thomas, and these Elders were tracting the city. Anyway, I sent them to see Les and he ended up taking them to meet his parents. There was another family who’d joined the church in Holland and lived about I5 miles outside the city on a farm. The Vanderhydes had two grandchildren living with them, one was a boy about 8 or 9 years old, whose name was John Pountney.

Well, the Jordan’s joined the church and they had to drive to London. Then the missionaries were taken out of the area. In the meantime, my five-year lease was up on the little store. I obtained another piece of property up the street a couple blocks. After floating some loans through the bank and a few other places through my bank manager, I tore down a church that was there and built a jewelry story. Missionaries had visited me a couple of times. I suppose they’d found my name somewhere, or the Jordans had sent them to me.

One day, after the new store opened, I was standing across the street looking at it and I was thinking to myself, “Well, Wilson, you’ve got it made. You’ve got yourself a vehicle now, you’ve got a building, you’ve got a mortgage on it, all you have to do is pay the mortgage off and then sit back and make your living, till it’s time to quit. Then sell off. The way is paved for you for the rest of your life.” Then I heard a clear voice in my head say, “What if you died tonight?” I said, “Hold on, I’m not ready for that yet.” And it repeated, “What if you died tonight?” I answered with, “After all this? I’m not ready.” Again the question, “What if you died tonight?”

 Just then out of the corner of my eye, I saw two young men dressed in shirts and ties, wearing hats, I coming briskly toward me and I knew right then whose voice it was. They walked straight up to me and said, “We understand there’s a Mr. Wilson who owns a jewelry store here somewhere. Could you tell us where it is?” I hesitated a second, then pointed to the store across the street and said, “That’s his store over there.” "They thanked me and walked across the street into the store. My manager, Mac McClimont, had been leaning on the counter (his favourite pose) watching us - and saw them coming. He decided that there must be something funny going on and when they asked for me, he told them I had just stepped out. So they leaned on the counter and tried to engage him in conversation, but he was leery and talked about the weather. Then when I, one of the elders spoke up and said, “Mr. Wilson just went out and will be back shortly.” I said, “Well, he just came back,” to which they replied, “Oh”, but catching themselves quickly, “Oh, fine, now uh, the reason we’re here is to tract this town out.” That was their words, which were pretty final... They told me they needed a place to stay and asked if I had any idea where they could find an apartment to rent.

About three weeks before, a lady had come in to say that she had an apartment to rent. She didn’t want old men or women. She wanted young men, because they’re cleaner and gone most of the time and they aren’t a problem, she said. She asked me to keep her in mind if I found anyone, and I told her I would. Her name was Dora Daniels, and I retrieved the paper she had given me from beside the phone. I called and asked her if she had rented the place yet and she said there had been no one by to look at it. So I asked her if she’d like me to bring them by, and I took them. They immediately rented it, and were exactly what she was waiting for. I brought the elders back to the store and called my wife, Rita, and said, “How would you like some company for dinner.” She replied, “Isn’t that funny...l went to the store and saw a chicken that I couldn’t resist, so I brought it home and cooked it. I must have known you were going to bring company tonight, but I didn’t know who, because you never do either. I’ve got a big dinner ready, so just bring them along. Who is it?” I said, “Oh, you wait till you see them.” So we had our first lesson that night.

In those days you were supposed to be attending church for a year (although there was no church there) - paying tithing, living the Word of Wisdom and everything for a year to qualify to join. That was in the early part of 1952. _Within three months I was baptized, along with my wife Rita (April 10) and it was sort of miraculous that we were allowed to join that quickly. Elder Warren C Barnett from Ogden, Utah, baptized me and his companion was Elder Dean Nelsen from Hyrum, Utah. An Elder Singleton, the District leader was there also. The District likely would have consisted of everything west of Toronto. He traveled alone, with no companion. He would show up in the afternoon or evening-on the Elders doorstep and camp with them for three or four days. He had gotten married and then was called on a mission, and within one month of the I wedding, left on his mission. That wasn’t really uncommon in those days.

Dora Daniels came into the church as result of the missionaries staying at her place. Her son joined the Church too. We used the swimming pool of the YMCA on the comer of Ross and Talbot Streets for baptisms, and later held our meetings in an upstairs room. We used to go to London for Sunday School - actually it was a combined Sunday School and Sacrament meeting. We met in a small building, but I can’t remember where it was. President Mills was one of the    Q -3- leaders then. He was the Branch President at the time a chapel was built in London. He was a big fellow. Ivan Inkster was another early pioneer. Shortly after I joined, I was ordained a Priest. Then, as now, you had to be a member for a year before receiving the Melchizedek Priesthood. I had been a member for six months and at a conference in London I was ordained a Priest. President J. Melvin Toone, who was a Patriarch from Idaho, was our Mission President. He was a big man - a solid fellow with a lot of faith. He said he was organizing the London area and was doing something about it every time he came down from Toronto. He said, “Now, I would like to present the name of Brother Wilson to be the President of the St. Thomas Branch. Vote for yourself, Brother Wilson.” I saw that everyone else had their hands up, so I raised mine.

The “Branch” consisted of myself, -my wife, Rita, our son Dennis, daughter Donna, and Sister Jordan and a couple of daughters. There were just a few women and a bunch of kids. No other priesthood holders. It was some time before Brother Jordan joined. We had no missionaries either. I was still a Priest, because I couldn’t be made an Elder for a year - so I was set apart by the Mission President, who said, “Now Brother Wilson, in setting you apart as a Branch President, I’m putting a great load of responsibility on your shoulders. You are Branch President and you have no counselors. You have your lovely faithful wife, and she will sustain and support you. You are to go forth as a missionary, for there are no missionaries.” He gave Rita a blessing too. Then he set me apart as a missionary, a part-time missionary. As often as I was able to find the time and opportunity, I was to go forth, with or without a companion, to teach, expound and convert. Anyone whom I should meet, who were the honest in heart and willing to listen, I should bring into the church. I was to baptize counselors and officers and members. I’ve never been formally released from that missionary calling. The Canadian Mission in those days, went down into, I think, Maysville, New York and east as far as Quebec City. It included Sarnia, London and as far to the northwest as Sault Ste. Marie. The whole mission had only 19 missionaries; there was la great shortage due to the Korean War.

So here’s what I used to do. I would be working in my store and in would come somebody and I would hear, “There is your first counselor” I’d look at him and say to myself, “What’ll I do, for goodness sake.”

His name was Norn Gordon, an engineer on the railroad who came in to have his watch adjusted. He had a big friendly grin and I stumbled around, trying to change the subject from what he was talking about to the Book of Mormon, but he up and said, “Well, I’ve got to feed the chickens,” and left before I could say anything. So I went around kicking myself all afternoon until the evening. Finally I phoned him" and said, “When you were in this afternoon, I had a book I wanted to give you, and I wanted to discuss something with you, but you left in such a rush that I didn’t get a chance. How about I come out there tonight?” He said, “Fine, come on out.” So I piled in the car, drove out and presented him and his wife Jean with the book. I told “them it was the history of Christ’s dealings with the North American Indians’ ancestors. They began to read it and I went out there once a week until they were converted and baptized. He was my first convert and my first counselor.

Then along came Mr. Tustian, a carpenter. I hired him to help me work on the store, and I asked him if he’d ever thought of where the American Indians came from. He told me that he thought about it a lot, because he’d lived among them in Manitoulin. I told him I had a book I’d let him read. He said, “I’ll read it.” That was early in the week and the following Monday I called to find he’d read it - one and a half times! He never went to bed. My goodness, his wife was so mad at me because she couldn’t get a word out of him he was too busy reading. He hid in a corner and did nothing but read. When I phoned, he was on his way through it for the second time. He was a Deacon in the Baptist church- He was now totally converted and ready to join and become my second counselor. That was about a year and a half after I had joined. He was the only one who joined of his family. He would take them to the Baptist church and dump them off and they’d have to hitchhike rides home with the other members, because he didn’t get out of church as soon as they did. There were some pretty strong feelings there for a while, but one by one, the finger of the Lord touched them. There were some unusual spiritual experiences in that family. One had to do with Sister Tustian.

Some fifteen years before, they had lived in Delhi. There was a restaurant on the side of the road that had a front like a huge red wooden barrel. Brother Tustian had built it. The first time she met me at her house, a few miles out of St. Thomas, I came with the missionaries. The two Elders wore black hats and we had horn-rimmed glasses. She took one look at us and ran. Later on she told us why. She had a dream that three men with an Oriental religion had come and talked to her husband in the yard, and he had just turned with us, waved goodbye to her and walked across the fields towards a forest and never came back. When she woke up, she knew that these three men, whoever they were, were going to take her ‘husband away. As she saw us coming, she recognized us - we were the ones she saw in the dream fifteen years earlier. She knew we were there to take her husband away, so she wouldn’t speak to us. She knew the minute she saw us that her husband was going to join the Church, and she wouldn’t speak to us or anything. She was a very hospitable, wonderful woman, but she didn’t have any use for us. She wouldn’t give us the time of day for a good long time. Now she’s serving in the Washington Temple.

The kids came along gradually, one at a time. She didn’t interfere if they wanted to go to church with their father, she let them go. Then one ('1 ay her youngest, Molly, came in screaming and yelling. She was a tough little thing and was shrieking about hurting her knee. Well, she got down to inspect it closer and there wasn’t a mark on her. She asked why Molly was making such a fuss over nothing, and then she heard a voice say, “This is what you are doing about my gospel.” She said to herself, “Oh dear,” and she got up and went out to the back woodworking shed and said to her husband. “I want you to call the missionaries. I want to be baptized.” That’s what changed her mind - she’d heard the voice. So she was baptized. Molly, who was three, had stopped crying as soon as her mother heard the voice. She picked herself up and went back out to play. She was a big lady and had the spirit to match.

At 16, Owen was the oldest of the children and protested, “You’re not getting me into that church. I’m a Baptist and I always will be one.” Well, he’s out in a field stoking grain and all of a sudden the whole field disappears and he finds himself looking down into the basement of the Baptist. Church. He can see all the stewards of the church, laughing and playing cards, and they don’t play cards in the Baptist least they’re not supposed to. He sees the Saviour sitting above, looking at them, and the Saviour looked over at him and shook His head. So Owen stuck his fork in the ground, said to himself, “That’s it!” and climbed into his truck and drove home. He just quit in the middle of the day and said to his dad, “Where’s those missionaries? I want to join the church.” He was the first missionary to leave from the St. Thomas Branch. That’s the story of the Tustian family.

It just went on from there. When it came time to build the chapel, the Lord saw to it that the people he wanted in the church were out of work. They would come and ask if they could work on the building. I’d say, “Sure, how much of your wages will you donate to the building fund?” And they’d say, “Well, this is how much we need to live on, and we’ll donate the rest.” We paid them a considerable amount more than they expected and one of the men we hired was George Murray. He was quite a staunch Catholic and he’d made up his mind that he wasn’t going to get involved. I came in one morning and walked around the foyer area and saw him working in a corner. He said, “Good morning” and I answered with, “Good morning, brother.” “Not brother”, he said, and I replied, “Not brother ...yet.” His mouth fell open and he had no answer for that. He later told his wife that he guessed he’d have to join the church. When she asked why, his reply was, “That Branch President knows something I don’t know. He prophesied that I’m going to   join. He said to me, “Not a brother yet” so I guess I might as well face it.” He joined, over that statement. Isn’t that interesting? It just hit me to say that.

I served as Branch President for nine years’, from 1952 to 1961 when I was preparing to move to Burlington, Ontario. Elder Monson, our Mission President, released me. He was Mission President from 1959 to 1962. Then Frank Pitcher followed, (1963-65), Lamont F. Toronto (1965 to 68), Leland C. Davey (1968 to 71), Roy R. Spackman(1971-74) and M. Russell Ballard (1974 to 77). We finished the building under President Monson. (He became an apostle Oct. 4, 1963, and " President of the Church Feb. 3, 2008 after Pres. Gordon B Hinkley passed away.)

When we started to build the chapel, there were 33 families (about 96 members). Over one third were out of work and we had to raise close to $15,000. We did it by growing an acre of Spanish onions at Norm Gordon’s farm every year, and peddling them on the streets in children’s wagons. They were real beauties. Apparently they were all tithed, because they were HUGE! Like great big baseballs. We only had to go and hoe them once and they just popped out of the ground, they were so big. The restaurants looked forward to them, and the stores bought them, and we sold them to the store’s customers. We had customers come out to Gordon’s farm for them every year. We planted the rows wide enough apart so they could be cultivated by a tractor. It was a well-planned project.

Then there were the tomatoes. Sparta’s little tomatoes... but they were huge! One tomato filled a' whole can! What happened was, the Lord had the Adversary working for him in this case. A man was growing and canning these delicious tomatoes. They were known all over as Little “V” tomatoes. He had to grow a “Pack” it was called, store it over the season, and then sell it all by the time the new ones came along. They had to sit that long before government inspection could get around to passing them. Well, somebody in “tomatoes” did the polite thing, and made an arrangement with all the big stores that nobody would buy his tomatoes. That left him with a Pack sitting there and a new one coming off the fields and no place to put them. Somebody suggested that he go and see the Monnons, so he came to see me. We ended up buying his whole stock...all 1500 cases. We sold 10-20 cases at a time to restaurants and so on.

As soon as I became Branch President, we started meetings in St. Thomas, first at the YMCA and then at the Orange Hall on Ross Street. We met there for quite a few years. Then the YMCA burned. It conveniently caught fire on conference day. We were headed up the street on our way to conference in London, and had to drive right past it. I guess if we didn’t need it that day - it “was the day for it to burn down. When we arrived in London, President Toone said, “I feel terribly sorry that your hymn books were in there and you’ve lost it all.” I said, “No, we haven’t, not until we know we’ve lost them.” “What do you mean?” he asked. I replied, that I wouldn’t be a bit surprised if that place burns, but the closet that holds the books was still standing in mid-air with everything intact - not burned. The Lord could do that and I knew’. He said he wouldn’t put it past me to have that much faith and I said, “Well, you just watch!” After we drove home, I got permission from the fireman, now that the fire was out, to go in and check for our belongings. I climbed the stairs and saw that they were warped and full of water, so I went up very carefully. The cupboard that held our things was at the top of the stairs, behind a door off the hallway. The thin plywood wall had burnt right off, but the closet was okay, and all our books were "intact. My daughter, Donna, says that she remembers the smell of those smoke damaged and water rippled pages as we sang from them, until we had to buy new ones for the chapel. The sacrament trays were made of wood, so that absorbed the smoke and made the sacrament water in the paper cups (there were no plastic cups then) taste like smoke until we stopped using the trays. The lectern that was there was made from a box, and had a lid attached...probably built by Brother Tustian (I don’t remember) but we kept using that too. They were weekly reminders of the miracle that had taken place that day.

Prior to the fire, I would have to go in and set up the chairs on Sunday, as we had no Deacons. There were no missionaries. Only priesthood brethren were allowed to open the meeting with prayer, so I would open because we only had women and children there. Women were able to close the meetings, though. Then I would have to bless the sacrament and pass it. Then I’d give the closing talk, because the final talk had to be given by a priesthood brother. I got sick of   hearing myself talk, and I’m sure the members did too.

When Brother Gordon came to his first meeting, I asked Elder Stanley Jones, our District I President (from Picture Butte, Alberta) to come and speak. He had left his wife and five children, and a farm with about 130 cows, to come on his mission. Anyway, when he began to speak, Brother Gordon said that a light came in on that man’s head. It was so bright that it made him blink, and he couldn’t figure out where it was coming from, because it was a dreary grey day outside. Yet - there was this light and that did it for him. He said to himself, “That’s it, I’m going to join this church.” and he did.

After the fire we moved to the Orange Hall. We renovated the basement so that if you met by the furnace, at least you were warm. Every time the furnace came on, it belched a bunch of gas and the teachers got a little high. One of our new members went down there to see the teacher of his children “in action”. Cheryl Lynn Scott had a blanket spread out on the floor to cover the dust, and he said he never saw his kids happier than in that little Sunday School class. He felt convinced of the value of this church more than if they were meeting in a great cathedral. We were at the Y from about 1953 until, I think, 1959. By 1960, one of the members told me that when he joined that year, we were pretty much established as the church that met in the Orange Hall, as if it was an extension of the Orange Hall organization or_ something.

In regards to the church in the community, I would say that people, unless they had heard some things about it, were for the most part fine with it. We had neighbours who still maintained a friendship with us after we joined. I tried to stay pretty peaceful with people. I didn’t get into any religious confrontations with people. When we had members in the hospital, they were always counseled to be as “wise as serpents and as harmless as doves.” We went to a lot of anti- Mormon meetings, as the church became more well known. You could go and listen and keep to yourself, and learn to live with it, and if you couldn’t - then it was better if you didn’t go. In one case we baptized the man who was conducting the meeting. His name was Howell-Harris from London, Ontario. It was at the Bethel chapel in London and the subject of the meeting was “The Truth about the Mormons from the Bible.”' About 20 of us were there and we were very quiet and then they tackled us with, “So, you’re Mormons? What did you think of it?” Our reply was that it was well handled and if it had been true it would have been interesting. It was too bad, and we felt sorry for anyone who had to spend their time talking like this and then having to be responsible for it. So that piqued their curiosity and they wanted to know what that meant. Well, that was the fellow who ended up joining the church. Also, the son and daughter of the Y - minister who came from Toronto and were university students there, chided their father bitterly in front of the whole congregation for talking about something he knew nothing about. They said, “You brought us all the way down here to hear you preach about a lot of things that you don’t even know if they are true.” We pointed out that if they had shown the front they would have gotten a different impression and so on. So there developed a certain anti-Mormon sentiment in   those days, even though it shouldn’t have been a threat to anyone. We kept pretty much to ourselves and were called “sheep-stealers” once in a while.

After a short time of having to pick up the beer bottles and clean up the ashtrays and sweep up the mess on Sunday mornings, we decided that we needed our own chapel. So we started looking for property. I saw a nice piece on Elm Street. It was in such a beautiful location, and there was just one house on the back corner. So I went to talk to him, and found he’d been approached by several others. No way was he going to sell, because he said he didn’t want a bunch of houses and garbage cans out in front of him. So I countered with, “Well, you know what is happening to property taxes. How long do you think you will be able to pay your taxes on this frontage? The city is going to bring water up along there, and you’re going to pay for water frontage all along both sides of that.” Then I showed him some pictures of our chapels, and explained, “Now, this is what the front of the chapel looks like, and this is the back. We don’t have garbage out behind, and we don’t have old cars jacked up on cement blocks, or swing sets for a bunch of kids to kick around on, and so on. _We’ll build our chapel so that you have something that will not be an eye- sore to you. Why don’t you think about it for a few days? I’ll leave these pictures and you take a look out your window and see if you think you’d like to see it out there. Go to your bank and check out your account, and see if you’d like to see more money in there, or less due on tax bills.” I called him in a few days and he said, “Well, I thought about it and I’ll go along with you seem to be nice people.” So he sold us the property. If I remember correctly, we bought it for $4,500.00and then the fellow turned around and donated $5 00.00 to the building fund. The Church then matched our contribution with about 70% (seven times our share) and that helped us a lot. Not very long after ‘that, the man died. He had a weak heart, but his widow still lives there. It’s different now, because the church buys the property.  We had to go and find the property and then they sent someone to approve it. I think it was the Mission President that came and did that. Then Elder Mark E. Peterson came from Salt Lake and turned the sod with us. That was a big day! President Monson was there. That was1960-61.

We were building in the dead of winter. In those days the church had a program where they sent men on missions to supervise the construction, and they also called young men on missions as ‘building missionaries”. Their missions were shorter... they were one year instead of the usual two. Our construction superintendent was 'a Brother Lucien C. Reid from Price, Utah. We released Brother Tustian as a member of the Branch Presidency, so that he could become the building assistant. He took care of everything except the payment of wages and keeping the books. I did that. We started building in the fall and finished in early summer of the following year.

Brother Reid was a professional contractor. He did get some financial support from the church, but we supplied him with some of the things he needed. He must have left his normal livelihood s to come out and to that. Part of the purpose of these young men was to give them a chance to learn the building trade. Brother Tustian eventually went into the supervising program. I think he built the Kitchener chapel and then went down east and found the people to his liking. That’s what proved to be his death, actually. He took a spell where he couldn’t breathe and they called an ambulance. When it came it was actually a station wagon and they had oxygen but no one knew how to administer it. Instead of letting him sit up so he could breathe, they tied him to a board and he died. It was the worst thing they could do and he was dead by the time they reached the hospital.

I remember some of the people who worked on the project. One was dear old Brother Robinson.’ I recall he was a spry old gentleman, likely about 80 years old, who could just work my legs right off. He would go right up on the roof too. , He lived to be about 104.
Any church building cannot be dedicated until it is paid for. Although we didn’t have the building fully paid for by the time it was done...all but $5,000.00 was paid. I think it cost in the vicinity of $115,000 -_ $125,000. Today chapels are costing about $1,000,000.00. And of course as soon as it was paid for, it was dedicated.

This seems to be the end of the interview.
P.S. Last year we sent you an article entitled
“A Chapel for the St. Thomas Branch”
President Thomas S. Monson
General Conference, October 1990

Perhaps you would like to put them together as a completion to the story.
Mom & Dad
Grampa & Grama Wilson


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