The legacy of the Stillwells
Brigadier and Mrs. Stillwell pictured with three of their eight children.
BY FRANCES DINGMAN –
Mary Stillwell, called Polly by friends and family, could be considered the West’s Catherine Booth. When she arrived in San Francisco in 1884, her Salvation Army bonnet was one of the first two seen on the West Coast.
She was born in 1862 in Corfu, Greece, the daughter of a British Army officer. He died after retiring in New Brunswick, Canada. Mary went to England at the request of her grandparents and uncle, who were to help with her education.
She was first attracted to the Army through reading an announcement that Mrs. Catherine Booth was to address a series of meetings in a large hall in London. This aroused her curiosity, as the preaching of women was seen by some church leaders of that time as being nearly sacrilegious.
Carried away by Mrs. Booth’s eloquence, she went again and again to hear her and finally went up to the penitent form. She then found the nearest corps, which was Chalk Farm. Six weeks as a soldier convinced her she wanted to go to the Training Home. In spite of discouragement by those around her, she learned that Emma Booth was in charge of the training and made an appointment to see her.
Meanwhile her mother had written, instructing her either to enter some religious training or to book her passage to America. On hearing this, Emma gave her a note to admit her to the Training Home as soon as possible. She was the first officer commissioned from the Chalk Farm Corps.
Henry Stillwell, who was beginning officer training, asked if he could “correspond with her.” At his commissioning he was sent to Scotland, and from there to assist Major Alfred Wells in opening a corps in California. General Booth said that after a year, she could join him.
Then, accompanying Wells’ fiancée, she set off on the long trek to California. They were married in a double wedding in July 1884, and opened the corps in Oakland right away. Eager to win new souls, they began the work in two or three more corps.
When Major Wells went east in 1886, Stillwell was put in charge pro tem. Soon they received word that a man had written to England for officers to help open in Portland. With two hastily appointed cadets and a small baby in tow, she arrived for a successful takeover and beginning of the work in Oregon. Mary had a convincing way of speaking and excelled in corps work. In four months Stillwell was free to join her. He was then put in command of the new Oregon-Washington Division. Mary, with two lieutenants, was in charge of opening the work in Portland and other places. One of the first corps they opened after Stillwell came was Oregon City. When buying lumber for seats and platform, she said, “The man wanted more deposit and asked for my husband’s watch as security. On Sunday morning, at our first meeting, the lumberman was there with the watch. He said, ‘This thing has kept me awake nights.
“I’m a backslider, and it says on the face of this watch, ‘Every hour for Jesus.’ Pray for me.’ The watch had been given to Henry by Ballington Booth. This man was our first convert and soldier in Oregon City.”
For 21 years, as the family grew to eight children, the Stillwells worked in corps and divisions all around the country, National Headquarters, and in Chicago as secretary of the Men’s Industrial Department.
Stillwell had been suffering from tuberculosis. For his health, they were sent to Amity Colony and then to Los Angeles. “California!” he was heard to say. “I have been kicked around the streets like a football. If I’m to die, how nice to die in California.” Stillwell is buried in Evergreen Cemetery in East Los Angeles, at East First Street and Evergreen Avenue. On the stone is written,
“Only one life, ’twill soon be past;
Only what’s done for Jesus will last.”
MARY CARRIES ON
Mary was left with eight children, the youngest 9, 7, 5 and 3.
Within two weeks she received a telegram appointing her as assistant Women’s Social Service Secretary for the western states. For 17 years she traveled the breadth of the area, including trips to Hawaii. While also in demand as a speaker, she was responsible for opening Rescue Homes in Chicago and Cleveland. In 1916 she attained the rank of Lt. Colonel.
After retirement from active service in 1924 she served in several short-term appointments when needed.
RETURNS TO SAN FRANCISCO
While passing through San Francisco late in life, she was entertained by Lt. Colonel Sophia Harris, territorial Women’s Social Service secretary, and her officers. She conducted some memorable meetings during her stay and was asked to accompany a representative of the War Cry to the area around Montgomery and Commercial Streets, scenes of some of the first meetings.
“HELP THIS MAN!”
Evidence of this veteran warrior’s love for souls was demonstrated in her offering a prayer for a German sailor who, slightly under the influence of liquor, halted the Colonel’s party, recognizing the uniform. She listened with a kindly smile to the flow of broken English as he explained that he had a close relative serving as an officer in the Fatherland. As the Colonel prayed, “Oh, help this man!” he bowed his head in reverence, touched by her interest and heartfelt sincerity.
TRADITION OF SERVICE
Lt. Colonel Mary (Polly) Stillwell was promoted to Glory June 28, 1947, in Atlanta, Ga. Three of her sons survived her: Fred, James and Brigadier (Later Lt. Colonel) Harry Stillwell. Her daughter Ruth, who became Mrs. Lt. Colonel John Morrison, was one of the beloved Doughnut Girls of World War I, and Fred also served with the Salvationists there. Several descendants today are loyal officers and employees of the Army. A grandson, Bandmaster (R) Harry Stillwell Jr., is one of the six Western members of the Order of the Founder.