The Face of Cassia

Photo of Sister Bothilda Svensson

Many Small Streams Make a Large River

“What ever happened to Sister Bothilda’s hat?” my friend Hildur asked as I visited her one afternoon. I helped her with tasks that had started to become challenging as she aged. “We used to use it as a costume at Halloween.”

I had only known Sister Bothilda from her black and white photo in the hallway of the Augustana nursing home. Her hat was prominently featured in that portrait—a stiff white cap with a large bow below her chin. Her wire-rimmed glasses gave her a studious and serious appearance. I was in my twenties and Bothilda’s world seemed so distant and constrained.

Hildur worked in the office at the Augustana Mission Cottage. She was about my age and told me details about her work that made me laugh. She remembered the coolness of the steel-lined pantry on the hot Minneapolis days. “Like heaven in there,” she would tell me. Her stories were a delight. She painted a wonderful image of July picnics and Sister Elfreda organizing an “army of old ladies on the porch to peel apples for pie.” I could almost smell the sweetness of the apples and picture the long peels falling into enamel dishpans. Sometimes I wished I could go back in time and be a part of that huge family that set out to do some social good in a growing and changing city.

The Swedish founders of Cassia had a saying. “Många bäckar små gör en å.” (Many small streams make a large river.) At 20 years old, I had no idea that I was one of those small streams. Just as Hildur savored the pantry, coffee time, and laughing at Sister Bothida’s hat, I liked the stories, lunch breaks with friends, and the creaky old floors in the west building. It was years later that I wondered what Sister Bothilda’s serious gaze held and what that hat symbolized in her life.

Who was Sister Bothilda Svensson?

Bothilda Svensson was born in 1862 on an ancestral farm in Skåne, Sweden. She had 8 brothers and 3 sisters. Her father was well-to-do and known as a leader in his community. Bothilda had only a few options because her oldest brother would inherit the family farm. The population in Sweden had grown rapidly in the past decades, so opportunities in America had a special pull.

She immigrated to the United States in 1881 with a group destined for Swedesburg, Nebraska. Bothilda already had relatives there and settled in with them before she made a move to Omaha. Her father’s deeply religious faith planted the idea of deaconess work and working for the glory of God. This interest was rekindled by her attendance at Immanuel Lutheran Church of Omaha, Nebraska. Her friends discouraged her, thinking her age of 25 was too old to take on such a long period of study and training.

Bothilda entered training in Philadelphia in 1887, went on to study in Germany and Sweden, and finally returned to Omaha for consecration in 1891. When Immanuel Hospital opened, she was already in the role of head nurse. At 37 she was called to Minneapolis to open Swedish Hospital and then Bethesda Hospital in St. Paul. Her leadership skills and intelligence made the challenge of setting up systems and building a strong workforce her specialty. When things were running smoothly, she returned to Omaha.

Building a Legacy

Sister Bothilda opened not one, not two, but three hospitals! This was an impressive feat in any era. However, her goal was not to just build her resume: Her objective was to diminish in personal importance while spreading the word of Christ and doing his work on Earth. I wonder what was in her prayers as she rode the train back to Omaha. She had left Sweden 26 years before. During her study in Sweden, she surely visited her family. How many losses had she suffered?  Within a few months, her direction was clear: she was to be the Superintendent of the Augustana Mission Colony in Minneapolis.

When Sister Bothilda arrived, she was joining a small stream that was getting bigger every day. The Mission Committee at the Augustana Church, keenly aware of the increasing needs of the Swedish immigrants, had committed themselves to work for a good cause. Sister Cecelia from the Omaha Deaconess Institute was there taking steps to make the vision of social ministry a reality. Sister Bothilda must have known these women from her time at Swedish Hospital. A group of prayerful women, suggesting who could help them in their growth, may have enhanced God’s clear direction. For the next 33 years, Sister Bothilda managed the daily work, purchased property, and adjusted service delivery. She stepped in wherever they saw the need. They supported children and young women before their focus on elders.

What impact did Sister Bothilda make?

How many cups of coffee? How many meals served to the poor? How many young women did the Christian atmosphere, prayers and council, influence? It was now a large river. Generations were supporting past generations. New streams, people, started their journey and spent their careers adding to the river. The past became an old friend through stories and objects.

“Hildur, the hat is probably lost,” I said as I hung up her dress. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to see it.”

“It’s OK but fun to think about.” She sat at the edge of her bed, pulled the covers around her, and placed her glasses on the bedside table.

It took many years before I recognized the size of the river. Hildur’s generation was gone and now a few stand beside me as the old guard. Time revealed my place in the widening mission. The remembered stories and laughter ripple off the rocks. Every day there is a welcome as another person joins in the journey. There were years of drought followed by a gushing springs. Always constant has been the strength of those that cut the channel wide. Sister Bothilda’s hat doesn’t matter, but her desire to do Christ’s work, shines clear in living water.

When Sister Bothilda died at 90, her obituary read that she had no immediate survivors. I do not agree.