The Helpless Widow: Catherine Marshall

Mother’s Day
Women’s History Month: March
Widows (and Orphans)

“How many wives have been forced by the death of well-intentioned but too protective husbands to face reality late in life, bewildered and frightened because they were strangers to it!” ~Hortense Odlum

Even in this day and age, when women are supposedly liberated, there are still women who live in the shadow of an overarching husband. They have never known independence; when the husband dies, they do not know how to fend for themselves. Catherine Marshall epitomizes that kind of dependent widow.

Catherine Marshall (1914-1983) was born and reared in Appalachia. Her defense against poverty and seeming obscurity was that she was a good student and the daughter of a Presbyterian pastor. She met her first husband, Peter Marshall, when she was a student at an all-girl school, Agnes Scott College, in Atlanta, Georgia. If you know the area, then you know Agnes Scott is not far from Columbia Theological Seminary, Peter’s alma mater.

Peter Marshall (1902-1949) was born in Scotland, and like two other famous Scots, David Livingstone and Mary Slessor, he worked long hours doing physical labor. He studied at night. His ambitious thirst for knowledge was so remarkable that one wonders at the energy expended to get it. Tom Brokaw wrote The Greatest Generation (1998) of those who lived through World War II, but the appellation could equally apply to the generation who lived through World War I.

Peter’s home was Coatbridge, nine miles east of Glasgow, not far from Firth of Clyde. The sea was in his blood. Half-orphaned at age four, he had a dream: to escape to sea and become a British Mercantile Marine. Instead he became an office boy with a firm of civil engineers; four nights a week, he attended Coatbridge Technical School, where he studied mechanical engineering. At home he taught himself semaphore, Morse code, and trigonometry, which stayed with him all his life. Afterward he became a mechanist, working nine hours a day for 38 shillings a week, which he gave to his mother, Janet Findlay, a devout Christian.

Though one wonders where he found the time, Peter was active in the Presbyterian church. He taught Sunday school, led junior choir, had a love of music, served as scoutmaster, took young fellows on hikes, worked with the YMCA, and even knew Eric Liddell, the famed rugby player. After learning that Eric, a Congregationalist, was going to China as a missionary, Peter decided to give himself to Christian service. He applied to the London Missionary Society, which required training at Oxford. Peter couldn’t afford that. Someone offered him a place at Skerry’s College, Glasgow, which prepared a person for Civil Service; he attended three nights a week. He would not come in until midnight, then have to be at work at 6:00 am the next morning. There was little time for study, and it was impossible to save money.

A cousin suggested America, which didn’t appeal to Peter at all. Still, April 1927 found him on Ellis Island with $5 in his pocket, enough money to last a couple of weeks. He rented a room and worked manual labor with a utility company, Elizabeth, New Jersey, helped build a golf course, joined the National Guard, did his two-week training, and returned jobless. He worked the Paterson Foundry five months until a friend drew him to Birmingham, Alabama, where he, Dave Wood, and Bob Hunter—the Three Musketeers—became roommates. Peter got a job on the Birmingham News at $17 a week and became active in the local Presbyterian church, again working with the Young People’s Society, serving as scoutmaster, and teaching the Men’s Bible class.

Someone gave Peter a new suit and suggested he go to Columbia Theological Seminary, Decatur, Georgia. He did. The faculty, in an unprecedented move, voted to accept his Scottish education as AB equivalent and let him enter graduate school. This was a first, and it didn’t happen again for another twenty years! After graduating magna cum laude (1931) with a BD (now known as MDiv), he pastored a Presbyterian church, Covington, Georgia, three years (1930-33); afterward, Westminster Presbyterian Church (1933-37), E Ponce de Leon Avenue, Atlanta, near Columbia. Later (May 1938) Presbyterian College, South Carolina, awarded him an honorary doctorate.

Atlanta was blessed with schools—Georgia Tech, Emory, Oglethorpe, Agnes Scott, and Columbia—and students thronged his services. He was tall, well-built, athletic, broad-shouldered, handsome, warm, and smiling. People loved him—probably as much for his Scottish brogue as for his charisma. Critics admired his pulpit mastery, calling him an “artist in phrase making” and a “man’s man.” Frank S Mead interviewed him for The Christian Herald.

Sarah Catherine Wood wanted to meet him, but didn’t see how that was possible. Like many single good-looking young preachers, Peter found women chasing him, and he was good at dodging them. When one said she hated him, he was relieved. Catherine wanted to know him. He intrigued her. Though she didn’t know it, the interest was mutual. “I’ve wanted to know you for a long time,” he told her. “Preachers are not blind.” Six dates, four chaperones, and twelve months later they were engaged. When she heard the news, Peter’s mother wrote from Scotland: “God only gives to His own dear ones the best.”

Peter and Catherine married 4 November 1936 in Keyser, West Virginia. The following year they visited Scotland so Catherine could meet her new in-laws. What she noticed was that Scotland was chilly, a good fire was good any time of year, and cities were dwarfed and cramped compared with America. After their return, Peter became pastor of the New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC (1937), where he was to stay for the next twelve years. The church was only two blocks from the White House and three blocks from the State Department. It had taken Peter a mere decade to go from Ellis Island to the capital of the land and the church of the Presidents. His preaching was so popular, there was SRO, with another five hundred persons outside. He had to go to two Sunday morning services, 9:00 and 11:00 am, and install loudpspeakers in the church office and Lincoln Chapel for overflow audiences. There were still long lines out the door. One young man’s view, “I hiked many a mile to hear that man preach … after my first visit I could not stay away,” spoke for many. A speech teacher judged: “Two persons with the best diction I’ve ever heard are Orson Welles and Peter Marshall.” One time he appeared in the pulpit in full Highland regalia, with kilt and knee socks. He was also a good vocalist, sometimes singing in church. Someone observed that “Peter (the Great) Marshall” was “Scotland’s gift to New York Avenue.”

The couple’s Cathedral Avenue manse, a three-story, ten-room, six-bedroom red brick townhouse, in DC’s Cleveland Park neighborhood was next door to the Woodley Mansion, where lived Henry Stimson, Secretary of War. Stimson’s Federal-style hilltop home (right) was built (1806) by Philip Barton Key, a Georgetown attorney and uncle of Francis Scott Key. Four Presidents had used it as a summer home. As informal contact with famous Washingtonians was typical of life in DC, sometimes Mr and Mrs Stimson would drop in at the manse for tea. Peter had seascapes everywhere. Like Winslow Homer’s Nor’easter. He also collected clocks, stamps, pressed glass, and games. He was a game connoisseur. He liked to play too. Though good Christians did not approve of playing cards, Peter found contract bridge a “fine game.”

The couple’s only child, Peter John Marshall, dubbed “Re-Pete” by the congregation, was born 21 January 1940. Through “Wee Peter” Peter learned “babies tell us much about God.” They were “object lessons in how God deals with His children.” At home Peter sometimes played piano, by ear, and sang Gaelic sea songs. In summer the family vacationed at Waverley cottage, Sandwich, Massachusetts, on Cape Cod, the place of many of Peter John’s memories of his father. It was the only piece of real estate the Marshalls owned, and Peter thought of it and decorated it as if it were their primary residence. The cape was cool in summer; having lived so long in Scotland, he was almost allergic to heat. At Waverley, wearing casualwear and two-day-old beard, he could be himself.

“Wee Peter” was still small when Catherine learned she had tuberculosis and was homebound for nearly three years (1943-46). Her bedroom at the manse was a pleasant airy room with five windows, some framed with ivy, pale yellow wallpaper, mahogany Chippendale furniture, deep-blue rugs, and seascapes. During this time she read and reread the New Testament and came to the conclusion that it was God’s will to heal all the time. The spiritual world was governed by spiritual laws as indisputable as the laws of physics. “That would explain why some prayers were answered, and some were not. Surely, it was not just the caprice of God. The New Testament reveals that Jesus actually expected ordinary men and women in all ages to be able to do the same miracles He did … Jesus never refused anyone who came to Him asking help.” Catherine found no record of His ever having said, “No, I won’t heal you. This illness is good for your soul.” She did experience healing, but slowly. She also learned that “certain temperaments and physiques have a proclivity for certain diseases.” Humans were trichotomous: body, soul, and spirit. “Health of each has a bearing on all”—showing an appreciation of holistic health. “One of the most fascinating things about the way God overrules human lives is the way He makes circumstances ‘work together for good’ [Romans 8:28], like intricate pieces of a jigsaw puzzle.”

As Catherine was coming out of her illness, Peter was coming into his. For two days in late March 1946 he’d been complaining of pain in his arms; the family assumed it was muscular. Then Sunday, 31 March, as he was completing the 9:00 am service, he collapsed over the pulpit in obvious pain, asking, “Is there a doctor in the house?” He was taken across the street to George Washington University hospital. His pulse was regular but faint. He needed complete bed rest. On the street a newsboy was hawking: “Read all about it. Pastor Marshall Collapses in Pulpit.” His blood pressure was low, he had fever, was struggling to breathe, and was under an oxygen tent.

Catherine realized how pathetically little she and her “Christian” friends knew about prayer. She wanted to collar everyone she saw and say: Pray! “How many of us, we who had been in churches all our lives, knew how to pray? … I did not … I longed for the help of prayer veterans—people who had not wasted precious time as I had wasted it … Suddenly all former values that I had attached to my friends dropped away. I knew wonderful people who were specialists in nearly every field but that of prayer—trained musicians, engineers, lawyers, even doctors,” but what she needed—what Peter needed—was a prayer specialist. She telegramed Glenn Clark, a man who had written a book on prayer: please pray. The New York Avenue Presbyterian Church called a prayer vigil for 7:00-8:00 pm each evening. Monday, 1 April, the young people, in an uncalled meeting, convened in Lincoln Chapel to pray. Catherine read Matthew 7:9-11 and James 5:14, 15. Tuesday, 2 April, she went to the hospital with a tiny bottle of oil, anointed Peter, and prayed. Wednesday, 3 April, his blood pressure was rising. Thursday, 4 April, his fever was down. Though he had a long convalescence ahead, he was making steady progress. A good thing, since the most productive and significant period of his life lay immediately ahead.

The church tried to lighten his load. An associate pastor immediately filled in and stayed as long as he was needed. Peter spent ten weeks in the hospital, then two weeks in bed at the manse. Peter, Catherine, and Wee Peter took their usual three-month summer vacation at Cape Cod. His natural vitality returned. By September 1946 he was back in the pulpit at New York Avenue.

“Teach us, O Lord, the disciplines of patience, for to wait is often harder than to work.” ~Peter Marshall

Peter was supposed to take it easy—for the rest of his life. But he was hard to tie down. He resisted coddling. There was “no straining at the leash of mortality.” In addition to his normal pastoral responsibilities, speaking, visiting, counseling, and writing activities, January 1947 he was elected chaplain of the US Senate. This was the first time in two decades that Republicans had control. Since April 1789 the US Congress had opened with prayer. Since he was not in the habit of writing out prayers or praying dead, dry thoughts, Peter was permitted to pray spontaneously. There was admiration for his brevity, pungency, and sharp relevance.

At the summer 1947 church picnic, Peter insisted on playing baseball and running his own bases. He had bargained with God that he would trust his health in the hands of the Lord while living a normal life. September 1948 Catherine herself turned Peter over to the Lord, for better or worse. But when the trustees and congregation started talking about a new church building program, there was a premonition Peter might not be there to see it.

“God called me to preach; that call hasn’t been revoked. If He wants me to live, He’ll see to it that I do.” ~Peter Marshall

Friday, 31 December 1948, Peter was reelected chaplain of the Senate. Thursday, 20 January 1949, he was seated with the Senate at the second inauguration of Harry S Truman while, directly below the Capitol steps, Catherine sat in the audience of over a hundred thousand on crudely built benches. Friday, 21 January, Peter John celebrated his ninth birthday. Sunday, 23 January, Peter preached both morning services at new York Avenue, plus the afternoon service at the National Cathedral. Monday, 24 January, he was out shopping for trains with his son.

Then, in the wee hours of the morning, Tuesday, 25 January, he awakened with severe chest and arm pain. Catherine sent for the doctor—in those days he still made house calls. While they waited, Catherine prayed that the Lord would relieve the pain and make something good come out of this. Peter mocked. “Something good come out of this?” The pain left. When the doctor arrived, and the pain returned, he called for an ambulance. Peter asked Catherine not to accompany him in the ambulance: she could come to the hospital after she got Peter John off to school. Reluctantly she agreed. As they were loading Peter in the ambulance, she saw him alive for the last time. Her last words were “I’ll see you in the morning.” He died at 8:15 am.

Catherine had gone from her father’s house, to college, to her husband’s house. By her own admission, she was “in many ways … still a little girl. I … leaned on my husband.” Sheltered, she had never figured income tax, balanced a checkbook, invested money, had a car inspected, consulted an attorney, read an insurance policy, or understood a railroad timetable or plane schedule. She had had a drivers license only three months and had never made a trip alone. She found her identity in marriage. “Much of my orientation in life had been centered in my relationship to one man.” With his death, her whole basis for living had been “washed out.”

Though he had heart disease, and knew he could die at any moment, Peter had not left a will or cemetery plot. This caused an immediate problem: funeral expense and burial site. Kindly, someone offered Catherine a temporary vault, which suited her fine, because it was winter, the coldest time for DC, and she could not bear to see him put in the wet, icy ground. Also, she could put off buying a permanent plot until she had the money and could think clearer.

There was another immediate problem. Peter’s checking account was frozen. His lock box was sealed, though Catherine knew the box number and had the key. One evening, soon after Peter’s death, three professionals—attorney, insurance agent, and engineer—came to the manse to talk with Catherine about the facts of life. Peter had a little life insurance and a minister’s pension (now a widow’s pension). Between them, she would have $171 a month income. The men suggested she sell Waverley and the family car and get a job. What was she able to do? type? teach school? No. Catherine was not a typist; she’d never earned a teacher’s certificate. She was a pastor’s wife. “My ideal inner image of woman’s role in the world … was definitely not that of the career woman.”

Catherine waved them away. She was aware of the “economic imperative,” but she couldn’t think about that now. The trustees of New York Avenue Presbyterian Church kindly wrote her a letter, giving her permission to stay at the manse indefinitely, or until they had need of it, which didn’t appear to be anytime soon. Sometimes churches went a year or more between pastors. Catherine cleaned out Peter’s church office, finding things written in his “neat, very British handwriting” and taking down his books and his seascapes.

Almost immediately upon Peter’s death there was a “groundswell of requests” for his sermons. He had left six hundred sermons filed neatly in three boxes. He always wrote out his sermons, and preached from the manuscript. Within a week someone chanced to pass the offices of McGraw-Hill in New York, and on impulse asked to see the president of the company. The stranger told him that he, or William Barbour or Frank S Mead of Revell, should publish Peter’s sermons right away. Barbour came to see Catherine 27 February 1949 and carried away some manuscripts for editorial review. Revell wouldn’t want all the sermons, a couple dozen at most.

All her life Catherine had wanted to be a writer. She reasoned that God places real hungers in people. “When God plants the pattern of an oak tree in an acorn, it is certainly His will that the acorn become an oak …. The writer dream must be part of my pattern because I’ve had it since I was a little girl.” And she’d prayed “that God would … send into my life the right persons at the right time for the implementation of these dreams.” Working on Peter’s sermons was therapeutic. She made decisions about typeface, dimensions of the book, quality of the paper, color of the cover, chapter breaks, and proofreading, and even wrote the introduction herself. In all she edited sixteen sermons for Mr Jones, Meet the Master (1950), choosing the stairstep pattern of presentation that he himself had used in his manuscript.

It was three weeks after Peter’s death before the insurance could even get into the lock box for his papers, to initiate collection of death proceeds. Peter had thought he owned nothing. Why bother with a will? Catherine had to post bond (valuable money because it was needed for other purposes) and become executor of his estate, which had to go through probate before the bills could be paid. The couple had been saving for a vacation: that money was wasted on legal fees and court costs. What was his estate? Waverley, their Cape Cod house in Sandwich, Massachusetts. The family car. Peter’s stamp collection. His power tools. His sermons. Everything had to be appraised, and some things, like stamp collection and sermons, required specialists. Catherine got a whole sheaf of death certificates because every individual step required an original copy. Then she had to go to court to get guardianship of her own child, Peter John; for the rest of his childhood, until he reached the age of majority, she had to give an annual financial accounting to the court for how she reared her son.

Come spring, when the weather was warm and pretty, and all Washington was blooming with pale pink cherry blossoms, flaming coral azaleas, bright yellow forsythias, and flowering white dogwoods, Catherine chose a permanent burial site. To her a cement vault was too cold for a warm-blooded Scotsman. She chose Fort Lincoln Cemetery, Brentwood, Maryland, and a small graveside service with friends.

That summer, as usual, Catherine and Peter John returned to Waverley, “the only home we had ever owned.” Friends helped drive her to Cape Cod from DC; they stayed two days and left. Then it was Catherine and Peter John—alone. So much of Peter was still there: his beach shoes, his seascapes …. She went out on the beach and watched the blinking light of Chatham Point.

Peter had lost his dad when he was four; Peter John, when he was nine. Peter John was to spend most of his life in New England. In Washington, DC, he attended Sidwell Friends School, but his high school diploma would come from Moody’s Northfield school Mount Hermon. Peter John would earn a BA in history at Yale University; still later, a divinity degree from Princeton Theological Seminary. Called to preach, he would pastor in Hartford, Connecticut, and East Dennis, Massachusetts. His contribution to American heritage would be The Light and the Glory, From Sea to Shining Sea, and Sounding Forth the Trumpet. There would be grandchildren: Peter Christopher (deceased), Mary Elizabeth, Amy Catherine (deceased), Peter Jonathan, and David Christopher.

Monday, 28 November 1949, only ten months since Peter’s passing, Catherine had a book signing for Mr Jones, Meet the Master. That day, in DC alone, three thousand copies were sold. Before the day was over, across the nation, all ten thousand copies of the first printing were gone. Four thousand orders were placed the next day. The second printing sold out immediately; the third printing, gone in days. Printing was increased to fifteen thousand, then twenty-five thousand. Before the first anniversary of Peter’s death, both the New York Times and the New York Herald Tribune had it on their bestseller list. It was even confiscated at the Czech border as “inflammable material.”

Catherine had edited the book of Peter’s sermons. Publisher Edward Aswell, McGraw-Hill, wanted her to write a book of her own. A first for her, it was his biography, A Man Called Peter (1951). It was the launching of a successful writing career. Like Mr Jones, the book was a hit: in its first seven months A Man Called Peter sold 180,000 copies. To date, Mr Jones had sold 230,000. By April 1952 A Man Called Peter was number one on the New York Herald Tribune‘s bestseller list. The Readers Digest prepared a condensed version. Twentieth-Century Fox made it into a motion picture. Catherine would later edit The Prayers of Peter Marshall (1954) and write about her widowhood in To Live Again (1957).

By the time a suitor came calling, Catherine was doing pretty well for herself and her son. She had a nice home in DC and had added a new office, where she was looking forward to writing. But the suitor, four years her junior, was persistent. After a decade of widowhood she married (1959) Guideposts executive editor Leonard E LeSourd (1919-1996), a board member of Fellowship of Christian Athletes (FCA). In this post-Peter period she would write Beyond Our Selves (1961), Christy (1967), which also went to TV and film, Something More (1974), Adventures in Prayer (1975), The Helper (1978), about the Holy Spirit, My Personal Prayer Diary (1979), Meeting God at Every Turn (1980), Julie (1984), A Closer Walk (1986), and Light in My Darkest Night (1989). The couple collaborated as book publishers, eventually (1974) partnering with John and Elizabeth Sherrill as owners of Chosen Books. Len and Catherine later founded a ministry of intercessors called Breakthrough.

“A widow is a house without a roof.” ~Finnish Proverb

Copyright © 2012 Alexandra Lee

Photo Credit: New York Avenue Presbyterian Church, Washington, DC


About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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