St. Francis Episcopal Church in Rutherfordton, NC

The Life Journey of Nell Gaither

As the daughter of an Episcopal priest, Nell was pleasantly surprised when her Roman Catholic, second grade friend, Mary, asked Nell to spend the night with her at her house. She remembers kneeling at the foot of a grand mahogany four-poster bed and lighting a candle as they said their prayers before going to sleep. The humbleness and devotion of that home stayed with Nell. It was a spiritual home.

Another friend, who was Jewish and in the third grade, invited her to a Seder dinner. It was a beautiful meal. Nell was struck by the beauty of the mother and the way the family respected and honored her. Many years later, the next Seder dinner Nell attended was our Seder dinner at St. Francis. It brought back wonderful memories of her friend’s generosity and hospitality.

Nell GaitherNell, the oldest of six children, was born to Penelope and Burgess Wood Gaither. Although her father began his priestly ministry in Charlottesville, Virginia, Nell was born north of the Arctic Circle, in Alaska. She was delivered by a Canadian doctor. Nell was baptized by her father; in fact, it was her father’s first baptism as a priest. Most of his ministry was at St. Paul’s mission in Ft. Yukon, Alaska. Nell remembers that her grandmother was very religious and it seemed that she almost always carried her Bible with her.

Nell was born with golden blonde hair that stayed blonde when she was a child. One of Nell’s fondest memories as a child has to do with that blonde hair. Her father was in the church delivering a sermon to the Indians of Alaska when little Nell opened the door to enter the church. All that could be seen was a very light skinned, tow-headed child with the sunlight back-lit on her head as she entered through the door. Since her father had been preaching on the Holy Spirit at the time, the Indians thought this was the Holy Ghost at the door! Her father told her that it was quite a startling moment for the Indians.

Nell loves the church and the people in it. She fondly remembers Calvary Episcopal Church in Tarboro, North Carolina, where her ancestors grew up. She remembers being on top of a mountain outside a mountain chapel when she started sliding down the side of the mountain. Bill Gordon, minister of another church, luckily saw Nell begin the slide and fall and he tried to catch her. It ended up that Bill slid down the mountainside faster than Nell and he ended up catching her as they hit the bottom. Bill Gordon became the Rt. Rev. William Gordon, Bishop of Alaska.

Bill, and a friend Sid, loved to study the Bible together. They were always supporting each other and “stomped” their way throughout the country with their ministry. They began the Young People Service League in Alaska.

Nell has many nephews and nieces whom she loves very much and who love her. And she dearly loves her friends. Many friends are like family to her. In fact, Ruth Bell was the first friend that Nell met when she moved to Rutherford County. She stays in daily contact with many of her friends.

Even though Nell was a P.K. (a preacher’s kid), she was never made to go to church, she went on her own. She was confirmed in the Episcopal Church at age twelve. Nell was very, very shy in high school, but that all changed her senior year. When Nell was a junior, the seniors contributed to a Last Will and Testament as part of the school yearbook. A gorgeous brunette senior left to Nell her vivacious spirit. And indeed, Nell became that vivacious spirit her senior year. She became a member of the speech choir and toured the state . . . in fact, she had a “screaming part.” Nell loved studying and reading and was a member of the National Honor Society.

After high school she attended Guilford College, a Quaker school in Greensboro. At the college, being a Quaker was a way of being . . . one had to “breathe it.” This time was an important influence in her life. She studied English Literature and loved it all, including Shakespeare. She remembers one professor who helped her immensely and she also remembers with great fondness the play “Unto These Hills.” Her thesis, and still her love today, was on the study and research of dolphins.

Always a free spirit, Nell loved to dance. She fondly remembers the years she lived in New York City. One day Nell was to meet a friend outside of the friend’s office building, at 342 Madison Avenue. In the same building was the Arthur Murray Dance Studio. While Nell was waiting for her friend, a man came out and invited her in to dance. What a surprise when she discovered that the man was one of the dance instructors! Soon after that Nell was invited to become an instructor herself.

Her many other interesting occupations included working as a library administrator in Rocky Mount, North Carolina. While there she remembers the USO dances at Camp Davis. When asked to name some of the favorite things in her life Nell replied: “The opera, the arts, life in New York City, eating Baked Alaska, dancing, my many churches and friends.”

Nell grew up with the 1928 Prayer Book and still prays from it today. The prayers are so very comforting to her and she loves the language of the book. When talking about her Christian friends and St. Francis Church, Nell said she would never forget two special events: the prayer vigil that The Daughters of the King held when her brother died and the dedication celebration of the new organ. The coordinated effort and hospitality made the evening so wonderful for her. Actually, Nell says that she is supported by her Christian friends and the church all the time.

Nell continues to have the tender spirit of that beautiful blonde child, the graciousness of a dancer, and is a Christian friend to many. She believes in the goodness of people and will write letters to the editor of the paper to affirm that.

When asked to name her favorite hymn she reaches for a copy of the Episcopal Hymnal published in 1916 – Hymn 331.

Here are the first two verses:

O Saving Victim, opening wide                             All praise and thanks to thee ascend,
The gate of Heaven to man below,                          For evermore, blest One in Three;
Our foes press on from every side,                             O grant us life that shall not end,
Thine aid supply, they strength bestow.                        In our true native land with Thee.

 Thanks be to God for the life, ministry and friendship of Nell Gaither.


{Editor's Note:  Nell went to meet our Savior on July 22, 2005.}

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