Women of Spirit, Women of Faith

by Associate Archivist Jeffery M. Sauve

Many that are the first shall be last; and the last shall be first. (Matthew 19:30)

Permit me to share with you a poignant story about one of St. Olaf College’s pioneers – Mrs. Elise Kittelsby Ytterboe. She spent the majority of her life serving St. Olaf College. She may be the only person to have witnessed the erection and dedication of every building on campus from Old Main in 1877 to Rolvaag Memorial Library in 1942. Elise was a student in 1876 when St. Olaf’s School was situated across the river – nearer to “that other college.” At age 13, she witnessed the aftermath of Jesse James gang’s attempt to rob the local bank.

Married in July 1886, Elise returned to St. Olaf later that summer and she and Halvor took up residence in the Main. The only other building on campus was a two-story frame building, Ladies’ Hall, where some of the women students resided, along with a faculty member and his family.

Recently uncovered in the college archives was a small, plaid gray and blue journal. Inside were a lock of white hair and several tear-stained pages. October 31, 1889: An agent of the Chicago, Milwaukee and St. Paul Railway company signed off on the baggage certificate and Elise boarded the train in Calmar, Iowa. In her arms she held a sleeping infant girl named Evelyn. Halvor had stayed behind in Northfield, as school was in session, but had encouraged Elise to take the children and visit her dying mother. That was two weeks ago.

Elise wrote, “How little we dreamt that morning, when the summons came that Ma was dying, and you [Agnes] so happy to go on the ‘tutu to gamma’s,’ and so lively skipping about, that on our return you should be brought back so still and quiet in your little coffin,” all alone in the baggage car.

Agnes Marie Gunhilda, two years old, succumbed to “spasms,” as it was called then, and died two days earlier, on October 29. Her death was completely unexpected and a shock to everyone. Instead of losing her mother, Elise and Halvor had lost their first child. Just one day before, on October 28th, Agnes was out walking with her aunt and uncle in the afternoon. She was perfectly all right. Elise wrote, “How little we know! She ate no breakfast but drank some warm tea — she complained of feeling ‘ill.’ Her last words were ‘I am going to my Papa at St. Olaf College.’ Then in a few minutes, about 8:30 a.m., she was taken with a spasm [which left her unconscious for several hours] until her soul awoke in heaven about 5:30 p.m. Oh that terrible day! God grant I may not see many more such days.” The sun streaming through the train window warmed Elise’s face and soothed her nerves slightly. The warmth reminded her of happier days …

The train whistle blew and awoke Elise from her daydream. If only . if only she lamented to herself. Elise wrote: “All our efforts to bring Agnes to consciousness were in vain – God wanted to wake her up in a happier home, where he will wake us up too some day. How beautiful she looked in death! Nothing could be more beautiful to behold than to see this innocent little darling so peaceful and quiet and such a happy look upon her face — sleeping so peacefully after that terrible day’s struggle – her death was so quiet that I could not tell when the angels really took her soul away from us.”

The train headed north into Minnesota; golden fields yet to be harvested swayed in the distance; unruly children played in the aisle almost waking up the baby; and the engine exhaled mournful clouds that dissipated in the far reaches of the horizon.

Little Agnes was carried to the Main and placed in the Ytterboes’ sitting room where, she, in Elise’s words, “slept till the next day.” On All Saints Day, the funeral service took place in the Main’s hallway on the first floor. Prof. Felland spoke of the reaper that cuts the grain and also the flowers that grow between. He said little Agnes was one of the flowers that had been cut down in all its glory.

Elise concluded the journal with these remarks: “It was hard to have them cover you over and take you away from us — we loved you so much and our home is so lonely without you — God give us strength to bear it patiently! God’s ways are wonderful . we can not understand them all . all we can do is to say ‘His will be done!’ He knew what is best for us all . though to us it seems so strange.” Her daughter’s death was but one stop on Elise’s faith journey. She would suffer greatly in the years to come with the death of Halvor in 1904, followed shortly by the death of their only son, Norman in 1908. Yet, she continued in her resolve to trust and honor God in her life.

Elise died November 17, 1944. When Dr. Aasgaard, president of the Norwegian Lutheran Church of America, preached at her funeral, he said, “Mrs. Ytterboe’s life is the history of St. Olaf. In her death a chapter is finished in the history of the college. She was the last link in the chain of pioneers whose devotion to St. Olaf dated back to its beginning.”