Christine Van Raalte Gilmore, First President (photographed above)
By Amanda Palomino
Previously published in Joint Archives Quarterly, Volume 21, Issue 04, Winter January 1, 2012.
Establishing the Leprosy Federation
The conception of the Federation started with Christine Van Raalte Gilmore, a much respected leader among the women of the Holland and Zeeland communities. On December 18, 1919, Gilmore invited key women from almost all the churches of the Holland and Zeeland area to her home, where she proposed the formation of a women’s coalition of church groups. It was a unique, ecumenical initiative, designed to encourage cooperative community service among local churches through their women’s clubs. Nothing of the kind existed in the area for women until this time, and that night, the proposal was unanimously approved, amidst much excitement. Gilmore was elected the first president, and on March 10, 1920, the Federation held their first meeting at Ninth Street Reformed Church. Approximately four hundred women attended to worship together and confer over the possible service objectives for their organization. Early financial reports show that they initially favored a number of ministries, including the American Bible League and, more locally, the building of the Holland Rescue Mission. Even from the beginning, though, the Federation took a keen interest in the issue of leprosy and, eventually, this became the focus of their patronage.
Leprosy, also known as Hansen’s disease, is one of the world’s oldest diseases. In countries such as the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Ghana, Ivory Coast, Myanmar, Nepal, and the Philippines, the stigma of the disease inspires such fear and contempt that people with leprosy are often ostracized by their families and friends. Because of their condition, such people are usually unable to care for themselves, facing long years of solitude and slow death.
To combat this tragedy, raising awareness about leprosy and funds to care for people with leprosy became the mission of the Federation as they worked with the American Leprosy Missions, or ALM. This global Christian organization, which was founded in 1906, continues to work in the countries most affected by leprosy today, providing treatment and comfort for patients, as well as educating and advocating compassion among their communities. The partnership between ALM and the Federation started in 1924, when C. J. Stauffacher, a medical missionary, was recommended by ALM to speak at the Federation’s annual meeting on March 12. The ladies had already planned their meeting’s schedule when he arrived, but they offered Stauffacher the last ten minutes to speak about his work in Imhambane, East Portuegese, which is now Mozambique. Stauffacher described his experience in the field, caring for people with leprosy, those deserted by their families and kept out of hospitals, suffering from painful, disfigured limbs and malnutrition. His speech made such an impression on the ladies that they arranged for another meeting five days later devoted to hearing him exclusively. At the second meeting, Stauffacher shared his story in even greater depth and told them about his goal in coming to the United States to collect enough money to buy land in Imhambane and build a colony where people with leprosy could live safely and be treated. In that single night, the Federation women raised $1,015––a phenomenal sum at the time––which enabled Stauffacher to not only buy the land but to build the first treatment center in the colony. For many years afterward, the leprosy colony in Inhambane grew, remaining in operation until the 1970s, when Mozambique experienced a period of turbulence following its independence from Portugal and warfare between right and left political factions.
Even after Stauffacher retired, the Federation continued to partner with ALM, receiving regular updates on developments in leprosy programs and speakers for their meetings. The stories of these speakers, many of them missionaries, encouraged the women of the Federation to continue raising capital to further ALM’s work in developing treatment through medical research and distributing them through medical missionaries to underdeveloped countries. Over the years, the Federation focused specifically on three main projects. First was Stauffacher in Imhambane. Following the evacuation of foreign missionaries during Mozambique’s civil war, ALM suggested endorsing the Leprosy Hospital in Ganta, Liberia. The Federation’s accounts vary as to the exact date, but it can be estimated that the majority of the Federation’s fundraising backed the work in Ganta during much of the 1970s until the late 1980s, when Liberia experienced its first civil war, and foreign missionaries were again forced to leave for their own safety. At that time, ALM gave the Federation a new project, supporting Dr. Kongawi’s practice in the DR Congo. There, the Federation continued to champion his outfit’s various needs––building materials for housing, motorcycles for delivering medical supplies, among other things––until the Federation’s disbandment in 2010.
Through the years, the vision of the Federation was to provide the women of the churches of West Michigan the opportunity to combine their efforts in a cause they all believed in. The Federation was thus organized in a way that reflected the large, diverse community that it created. Leadership rested with the Board of Representatives, headed by the president and included a vice president, secretary, treasurer and auditor, as well as representatives from each member church. There were usually one or two delegates from each church, and these delegates normally served a term of two years on the board. Voting took place at the two yearly Board meetings on the third Monday of January and November when the Board members met to plan their schedule for the coming year. Besides the Board meetings, the Federation held two other major events––the Annual Prayer and Praise service and the Children’s Rally. These took place at the same time and place at the end of March or beginning of April, and every year, a different church sponsored the events, hosting all the members of the Federation, as well as the Sunday school children from every member church. Typically, the Annual Prayer and Praise meeting followed a particular program, featuring music, devotional reading, and a main speaker–– often invited from ALM. Also, during this meeting, the Federation would collect the annual deposits from individual member churches, brought in by their representatives. The Children’s Rally also collected Sunday school donations and would award prizes to the group that brought in the most. These rallies were a big hit with the local children, featuring skits, stories, and puppet shows centering on the Federation’s mission to help those with leprosy. One beloved character who made a regular appearance at these rallies was Pete the Pig. The story of a young boy who raised a pig named Pete and sold him to raise money for the missionaries of ALM inspired the Federation’s youngest supporters to do what they could to help, sometimes by collecting loose change in little, cardboard Pete the Pig banks.
Legacy of the Federation
In operation for nearly ninety years, the Federation raised over $350,000 in the fight against leprosy before their meetings came to an end in 2010. This immensely admirable support undoubtedly helped to advance medical research in understanding the causes and developing lasting treatments for leprosy, as well as bringing hope to hundreds of people with leprosy. In an interview with Barbara Vande Waa and Gertrude Van Haitsma, long-time president and secretary of the Federation, Vande Waa summed up the spirit of the Federation as “the common bond when you see a need you can help with.” Indeed, the unity of the women of the Federation serves as a reminder of the power that dedicated people can generate to bring about change in the world. The collection of their meeting records, correspondence with ALM missionaries, photos of the projects in Africa, teaching materials, etc. is now housed in the Joint Archives of Holland––a tribute to how the Federation has served as an engine for change in the fight against leprosy.