Commentary: Book about Springfield pastor sprung from the love of a 3-year-old

Maud Elizabeth Hoyle’s life is told in the book,Beautiful Feet: The Story of Maud Elizabeth Hoyle by her great-neice Michele Cash Russo. Hoyle was a 1920s missionary and founding pastor of the Evangelical United Brethren Church on Columbus Avenue. CONTRIBUTED

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Maud Elizabeth Hoyle’s life is told in the book,Beautiful Feet: The Story of Maud Elizabeth Hoyle by her great-neice Michele Cash Russo. Hoyle was a 1920s missionary and founding pastor of the Evangelical United Brethren Church on Columbus Avenue. CONTRIBUTED

In 1924, as she wore her best dress to watch her beloved Aunt Maud Hoyle board a train in downtown Springfield to begin the trip back to a United Brethren Church mission in Sierra Leone, 3-year-old Dorothy Hoyle had little sense of the time that would pass before her aunt’s return or the nearly 10,000 mile round-trip.

But as an adult, Dorothy Hoyle Cash often told her daughters what was on her mind that day.

As Michele Cash Russo writes in Beautiful Feet: The Story of Maud Elizabeth Hoyle, “She recalled thinking that the hem could be let out as she grew, and she could wear it the next time her aunt would be home, making it easier for Aunt Maud to recognize her.”


Part 1: Stained glass in Springfield church inspired woman to tell story of its courageous founder

Part 2: Founder of Springfield church served as 1920s missionary in West Africa

Without the bond that 3-year-old felt that day – without the love that led her to save that dress — the real-life Maud Hoyle that unfolds in Russo’s book would have remained hemmed up in history. Russo’s book, in a real sense, is a story of how, in the pursuit of personal history, local historians reestablish the human side of human history.

“Mom is the one who kept her stories alive,” Russo said. “Mom had all of Aunt Maud’s artifacts” and “was a wonderful genealogist,” providing the raw materials for the first chapter in Beautiful Feet.

By the time Russo and her sister, Sheila Cash Skimmerhorn, of Springfield, knew Aunt Maud, she was in the final chapters of her life. She had retired from the ministry, had finished her nursing work at the Ohio Masonic Home in Springfield and had moved to the Otterbein Home in Lebanon, where she would continue to work as a nurse before a weakening heart required she transition to being a resident.

STAFFORD: History continues to teach lessons

As a child would, “I remember how swelled her legs and feet were,” Skimmerhorn said. She remembers her, too, as “a soft-spoken woman” who “just saw what she did as what she was led by God to do.”

That contrasted a bit with family lore about the feisty 5-foot-1 nurse who had founded a church on Columbus Avenue; had sought out a piece of ironwood to kill the snake wrapped around a bedpost in a child’s room at a mission in Africa; and had encountered head-hunters in the Sierra Leone countryside.

Other details of Aunt Maud’s everyday circumstances did, however, survive in their mother’s tales. There is the story of Aunt Maud’s financial straits after her mission days when, during the Depression, her two brothers slipped dollar bills into their sister’s Bible, where she would be sure to find them. There is the story, too, of one of Maud’s deepest disappointments in life: Being unable to afford a white lace collar to attach to the black burial dress of her mother, who had set Maud’s feet on a path of serving God.

Both stories served to underscore the generosity Maud showed in buying her dear niece, Dorothy, the first pair of nursing shoes she would wear after graduating from the Springfield City Hospital School of Nursing, successor to the school from which Maud had graduated.

Trying to ensure her Aunt Maud would be remembered, Dorothy Cash “always encouraged Michele to write a book about Aunt Maud,” Skimmerhorn said. A full time workload as a librarian at Indiana University South Bend delayed the fulfillment of that goal. Early on “I did interview Mom” Russo said. But the same job also taught Russo the researching and writing skills that would uncover details about Aunt Maud that Dorothy Cash herself hadn’t known when she passed away Dec. 31, 2011.

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First in the Evangelical United Brethren archives at the United Theological Seminar in Dayton, later in the archives at Otterbein University, “I kept finding all this information about her,” Russo said. There were hand-drawn maps that showed the layout of buildings at the Rotifunk Mission. There were annual reports Maud had filed. Although it required the tedious, eye-straining work involved in reading years of mission files at a microfilm machine, there, on the screen she also found her great-aunt’s handwriting of her experiences in Sierra Leone.

A particular thrill for Russo was unearthing material about Pastor James Alfred Karefa-Smart, who had named a daughter for Maud – a relationship that came all the more alive for Russo when she recently connected with a United Methodist Church missionary in Sierra Leone who “had someone she’s been working with name a baby after her.”

Sitting in the archives, Russo felt she began to discover the real person behind the family lore about Aunt Maud. Because the material she was gathering “turned out to be far more extensive than I ever thought, I thought other people might enjoy it, too.” Hence the book.

In resurrecting a more true-to-life portrait of her great-aunt, Russo brings another era of history back to life for all of us, following a general formula that works something like this: First, we learn to care about a person or people in history, largely because the researchers care. Then we care not only about the person but the times in which they lived. This, in turn, helps us to connect the life of a missionary of the 1920s with our own times and experiences through the lives of missionaries or Peace Corps volunteers we either know or know of.

Just as a 3-year-old Dorothy Cash hoped that letting out the hem of her skirt would make it possible for her Aunt Maud to recognize her when she returned, Russo, with the help of her sister and countless others, uncovered and stitched together the material needed to bring Aunt Maud and her times back to life for a new generation of readers.

This is the last in a three-part series about Maud Hoyle, 1920s missionary and founder of founding pastor of the Evangelical United Brethren Church on Columbus Avenue.

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