The Heritage Quilt

I called my mom. It isn’t uncommon for me to take a break from reading and call her with an observation or connection. I have just started the Salt Lake City Nineteenth Ward Relief Society Minutes. A number of years ago I stumbled on the women’s prayer meeting minutes from the ward, and I’ve wanted to dig into community that produced them. Their record starts like they commonly do: the appointment of officers, the calling of teachers and deacons, and then regular meetings.

The first year—1868—proceeds with an impressive regularity. The teachers visited the women in their blocks and solicit donations. The women met to quilt, knit, and sew. While the “different branches of needlework was attended to” someone read poetry or exhorted.

My mom has always been a quilter; each of my children have an example of her handiwork. But I also remembered a musical that she wrote: The Heritage Quilt. I remember going to the practices and hearing the stories and the songs of the (at the time) contemporary women who gathered to make a quilt for “Sister Curtis, who is bedridden.”

Jerri: Less active, perhaps bitter, could be any age. I see her between 29-40. She is Sister Curtiss’ granddaughter.

Beth: The quilt is in her house. A Relief Society President, she is the most spiritual and perhaps the wisest of these ladies.

Liz: She is a non-member, also Sister Curtis’ neighbor and wants to learn to quilt.

Raydean: She is from Utah and has red haired children. The children will be a part of a brief scene.

Mariko: Neighbor.

Shirley: Youngest of the quilters.

Marge: A neighbor who drops in, she is a member.

Joan: Member, Beth’s best friend.

Alice: Very lovely sweet sincere member but overdoes the sweetness.

Marie: Has a son leaving on a mission.

Louise: Moved in a few years ago.

My mom has always been aware of those who felt out of place. She created a narrative that worked to incorporate such characters in a deeply moving way.

I felt connected to the women of the nineteenth ward by the threads of my mother’s needle, both literal and fictional. So I called her. She explained how when she was newly married, she attended Relief Society, and how women presided at the meetings, read the previous meeting’s minutes and visiting reports, and frequently gathered to quilt. There was always some sewing to be done.

I turned to the women of the Nineteenth Ward after reading through the “Bishops Quorum” minutes from the 1850s and 1860s. The 1850s were the most difficult time to live in Utah. Food insecurity, lack of infrastructure and insufficient capital plagued our people. The bishops regularly surveyed how much food their ward members had and whether it was sufficient to carry them to harvest. They scraped their communities together physically and spiritually.  Individuals gave everything they had.

The overwhelming thought that I had with the bishops’ minutes was that we are the beneficiaries of their sacrifices. It felt like merely enduring to the end was entirely insufficient—that after receiving the gift of the Holy Ghost our greatest priority must be building the city of God. And I wondered how to do that in my present context.

I understand the focus on teaching religious principles. We need to learn and understand the gospel of our Lord. We can’t compete with select sports, community theater, and the internet. We have rightly embraced government welfare along side our own church resources. Outsourcing building maintenance makes sound fiscal sense, and no one has time to do more than occasional cleaning.

And, I know that there is a danger to nostalgia—reality never conforms to memory, even when bolstered by the dedicated efforts of secretaries and scribes. Still, it strikes me that the city of God requires far more than an intellectual assent. It must require more, and I wonder both how I can do this work, and how I can help the boys I work with in my calling find a meaningful labor.

Careful stitches form our work,
Needles sew waxen thread,
Saving all we’ve learned together here,
Keeping dreams for years ahead.


  1. Julie Stapley says:

    That you remembered, that you made a connection and that it mattered is everything!.

  2. I really enjoyed this. Along with other thoughts, this is a tribute to your mother.

  3. Just what I needed to read tonight. We have changed so much as a society, but I often wonder what makes a community?

  4. LaJean Carruth says:

    As I transcribe George D. Watt’s shorthand records of sermons from the early 1850’s – he arrived in SLC in late September 1851, and his shorthand for 1855-1857 is lost, with very few exceptions, so I am basically referring to the years 1852-1854 – I am struck with the optimism that is so present, the faith that they were building the Kingdom of God, their hopes, their plans, their faith, their determination. Finally, they were away from others, off in the valleys of the mountains, and finally they were building the kingdom, the temple, gathering from all nations, and despite the hardship, the hunger, the hard work, the constant struggle for food and shelter, not only for themselves but for those who arrived each year, they had tremendous hope and faith and even joy in what they were doing.

  5. Thanks all.

    LaJean, I think that is right. There were a lot of people that suffered, and many who never caught the vision, but there was some extraordinary faith going on at that time.

  6. Reading a great book that just came out on this topic of community cohesion called Upswing. Makes a compelling that rather than an inexorable decline throughout US history, the data actually show that our current polarization and individual focused society closely resembles what happened during the Guilded Age (roughly 1880 – 1910). What happened at that point was broad-based progressive movements that gradually lowered inequality and increased community engagement. Think antitrust and fair wage laws for the former and the founding of civic improvement groups like Rotary and scouting for the latter. The trend continued until roughly the 1960s when civic engagement began decreasing and inequality began increasing, which has continued to the present. The point being that the trend can reverse itself.

    The book is a bit more academic than I’d prefer but the evidence is strong. Haven’t gotten to the end where it will deliver a promised solution but looking forward to tangible steps some of which I suspect will Encourage greater religiosity and service. The authors are Robert Putnam of Bowling Alone fame and one of his former students, Shaylyn Garrett, who is a member of the church.

  7. There is going to be a lot of “sewing” to do when we are able to gather again. Spending time together, doing work that is engaging, but not consuming, is one of the best ways to stitch together a community.

  8. Thank you for sharing this story! I am a quilter and have a longarm quilting business. Quilters have been busy these past several months. A look at the many quilts I have waiting to be completed tells you that while they may not be together stitching away they are always busy creating. One customer brought two quilts to me yesterday. They were the first quilts she finished that were her “own” because she had been busy these past months piecing together 13 quilts that she donated to an orphanage in Mexico! I love the quilting community, women and men, who love to share with and do for others.

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