The Life of Madame Feller


From the biography by Walter N. Wyeth D.D. (1898)

Switzerland in 1800 was an enlightened country. Children were sent to school from the ages of six to twelve. It had a state religion - a National Church that was Protestant.

Henrietta Odin was born at the small village of Montagny, near Lausanne, on April 22, 1800.
She was the fourth child in a family of six children.

Her father was head of a penitentiary.

At three she moved to Lausanne.
At fourteen she assisted at a hospital.

At 22, on February 6, 1822, she married Louis Feller, a Swiss aristocrat. He had been a widower for one year. He was nearly twice her age. He had two children.

"The day before her marriage she went to the cemetary to visit the tomb of the first Madame Feller, and there, before God, promised the departed mother, with all the affectionate earnestness of her soul, to be a Christian mother to the children from whom she had been taken, at the same time imploring the divine blessing on the union into which she was about to enter."

She fell under the influence of a religious revival due to the effects of Robert Haldane, of England. He was a dissident evangelical who had been expelled from the Academy.

She gave birth to a little girl, Elize. The child was unique. At the age of three she died.

"At the age of three she died, exclaiming, as she passed from the carresses of the distressed parents, "Why do you weep, dear mamma? I am going to Jesus; He is taking me in his arms."

She has her first "mystical" experience.

"'What, Jesus, is this all? Is this all? Simply to believe - to believe, and leave all to thee! Thy blood blots all out! Oh, Lamb of God! Lamb of God!' Andthen, falling upon her knees and weeping for joy, the place seemed to be filled with the light which had penetrated her soul. She could scarcely leave it, and when, after several hours there, she appeared again in the family, the peace and joy expressed in her countenance struck the children and servants with astonishment."

Evengelicals were persecuted. What they were doing was against the law. They worshiped and preached in secret - in houses, barns and fields. Monsieur Feller was the superintendant of the police of Lausanne. Yet, with the influence of his wife, he protected them.

M. Feller died of typhus, five years after their marriage. She is 27.

She winds up her husbands affairs and looks after both his children who are now young adults.

In 1828 her sister, Catherine, dies of typhus.

Not long after that she herself falls ill. She is expected to die. In fact, her death is announced. Then, suddenly, at the last minute, she is saved. She goes to the country for the summer to recuperate. She lives among Catholics. She reads about missionaries.

She returns to Lausanne and works among the homeless.

Her mother dies.

The doctrine of total immersion baptism takes hold in the "Independant" church.

She is in her early thirties. Her step children are young adults. Her own child died. Her sister died. Her husband died. Her mother died. And she almost died. She is ready to be a missionary. Rick

She becomes friends with M. Henri Olivier, who was a persecuted evangelical. He had been arrested, refused ordination and banished. But he came back for more. During a period of calm in the persecutions, Madame Feller became a deaconess in his church. Missionary sentiment was taking hold. I June, 1834, Olivier announced he would offer himself to the Lausanne Missionary Society for any foreign field it might select. The Oliviers left Lausanne on August 15, 1834. Madame Olivier's servant went with her. They went to Paris. Then Havre. A 53 day voyage to New York. Arrived October 18. Then up to Montreal for the 29 of October. There M. Olivier was baptised (immersed) by the Rev J Gilmour of the Baptist church in Montreal. It is interesting that there was a Rev J. Gilmour involved at both the beginning and end of Feller. They stayed the winter.

All the time Madame Olivier wrote to Madame Feller back in Switzerland. She decided to join the Canadian mission. Madame Feller originally intended to be a missionary to the North American indians. She was 35 when she left with Louis Roussy, another member of the Lausanne church and the Missionary Institute, on August 17, 1835.

"The departure of missionaries at such a time and place, with the various circumstances - a single woman and a single man, under the purest of motives, and in the prime of life - was a 'departure' indeed."

To Paris. To Havre. They arrived at New York October 23rd. 5 days in New York. A steamer up the Hudson river. Albany. Troy. A Canal boat to Whitehall. Across Lake Champlain. Up the Richelieu River to St Johns. They arrived there in the pouring rain on Saturday, October 31, 1835. Then a five hour stagecoach ride to Laprairie. A rowboat across the river to Montreal to meet with M. Olivier.

Montreal, a city of thirty thousand, is a "Citadel of Romanism":

"We find in the city the unruliness and ignorance of savages, joined with the vices of civilization. These people are, in fact, the worse kind of pagans; their idolatry; adorned with the name of God and Christ, is hidden from them by the hirelings who hold the truth in unrighteousness. .. Wherever there is a Testament, the owner is commanded to burn it. and they have forbidden their flocks, from the pulpit, to recieve me or to listen to me.."
Madame Feller"

They were run out of Montreal and then run out of St Johns. M. Roussy was physically beaten. One time, even his horse was beaten.

The found a patron: Madame Lore. She provided a horse and carriage for M. Roussy. She was converted near the end of her life. Her family turned against her. She was buried in an English burial ground. Her son in law, Mr Levesque, lived in Grande Ligne. He had also converted. Madame Feller moved there in September, 1836. Two small rooms and a garret were available for her use. The rooms were each twelve foot square. One was her chamber, the other was parlor, kitchen and schoolroom.

"From nine in the morning till noon, and from two till five in the afternoon she instructed children, upwards of twenty being generally present. At six in the evening there was a meeting for adults, which partook of the character of a school and a Bible class..So deeply interested were those who attended that the exercises were not infrequently prolonged until midnight."

She began her school. Although her purpose was to spread the Gospel, in order to do that she had to teach these country folk how to read. Learning to read meant reading the Bible.

Mr. Levesque, whose house was being used, could not read, though forty two years of age. He also cherished a longing for Scripture Truth, saying: "I take the Bible - hold it in my hand. I look at it, I open it - would that I could read it! I cannot tell you my distress; I am heart broken. I would ask the Lord to work a miracle for me, so that I might be able to read; but he will do it in giving me understanding. Oh, if I could once read it to those who are ignorant! It is not for myself only; I would go and read the word of God to those who know it not!"

First it is interesting that her early students were not children. They were adults. Also we see here that the local Catholic culture was not interested in teaching the populace how to read. The clergy would read for them and interpret the word of God for them. Hierarchical decisions were made from the top and passed down. And "The Collectivity" obeyed. Henriette was bringing the Reformation idea that every individual Christian could read the Bible for him or her self. Historically this was encouraged by the invention of the printing press by Gutenberg (McCluhan - "The Gutenberg Galaxy"). Now Bibles were available for all in various languages, not only for the priests handwritten in Latin. This sea change in culture was taking hold of Protestant groups all over the world, giving rise to ideals of Individualism and Capitalism (Max Weber - "The Protestant Ethic And The Spirit of Capitalism").

Henrietta plays the Gender card:

The singularity of her life and the superiority of her character and services made a deep impression on the inhabitants. And she became eligible to homes which would have excluded a man.

Persecution continued:

Mr. Roussy labored unsparingly of himself. In some places his message was rejected and his person exposed to violence. An attempt was made on one occassion to burn the house in which he was preaching.

During the summer they moved the school into a barn. But the need for a real school house was evident. She was aided by Rev J Gilmour of Montreal and donations from American supporters.

Mr. Gilmour, of Montreal, was so deeply interested in the new enterprise that he accompanied Madame Feller and Mr. Roussy in a visit to Champlain, Plattsburg and Keesevile, preached and aided in collecting.

I cannot help but feel the Irony of there being a Rev. J. Gilmour so involved in both the beginning and the end of Feller.

Now that I mention irony, I can't help thinking that it was ironic for a Baptist to try to save a people who already celebrated St John the Baptist as their patron Saint. In a sense, Quebeckers already were all "Baptists". Maybe this undercurrent ended up helping Madame Feller.

A small schoolhouse is built. The Levesque family allows Madame Feller to live in it as well.