Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father's care. Matthew 10:29
Research for the next book has me plumbing the depths of my hometown’s history in the late 1800s and early 1900s. This exploration of another time has also jarred loose some memories of people who influenced my life in the 1960s. They were quite old at that time—or at least it seemed that way to me. One such person was a tiny, gray-haired lady called Mrs. Norton.
Her hair was parted down the middle and it was scraped back into a bun held in place by hairpins and hairnet. She had a thin face and sharp eyes aided by wire-framed spectacles. Her voice wasn’t what I’d call melodic, but more like an irritated chipping sparrow. Her clothes were old-fashioned; a long dark skirt with a white blouse was often her ensemble. Despite her diminutive size and drab appearance, she was a force to reckon with when it came to storytelling.
My fondest memories of Mrs. Helene Norton were during summer Vacation Bible School at our church or during Released Time on Friday afternoons. Released Time was an hour of religious education on Fridays—probably from 1pm to 2pm throughout the school year. With parental permission, students in grades one through six walked from the school to either the Baptist church or Community church for this hour away from school. Sidewalks on opposite sides of the street were filled with kids trooping down to either the red church or the white church (as the two churches were referred to) in the village whether in sunshine, rain, or snow. It was good to flee the classroom on Friday afternoons.
Mrs. Norton regularly taught at the Baptist church which I attended. She either told us a Bible story full of adventure or a missionary story equally exciting. This tiny woman commanded the attention of all when she began to put flannel-graph figures and elements on the big board. The scene would be set either in the desert, the mountains, a pasture, or on the sea. Then she’d place the animals in the scene along with the people. Sometimes she used colorful cutout figures glued to toothpicks to stick on foam boards for a more 3D telling of a story. Boy, did I love those multilayered scenes! And I listened to every word.
In her reedy, chirping voice she recounted Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden, Jonah, David, Jesus walking on the water, and many more. Even those troublemaker-type boys were mesmerized by her storytelling. Sometimes they got a bit out of line, but Mrs. Norton could bring them back to the fold with a wagging finger and a stern warning without missing a beat. Her warmth and passion in teaching us the most important stories we’d ever hear was evident in her delivery and the care with which she had prepared.
These memories of Mrs. Norton surfaced when I ran across her name and that of her husband in a local history book. I’d never known the details of her background—which was always a bit mysterious and being one who enjoys solving a mystery, I began digging into her past.
The first appearance in official records of Mrs. Norton was when she was eight years old and was Helene Daily. She lived at the Castile Sanitarium, Castile, NY in 1900 with her adopted mother who was employed at the Sanitarium. The Sanitarium is a whole other story, but it was specifically for women who had various ailments (some quite serious). They were under the care of Dr. Cordelia A. Greene and Dr. Mary Greene, who I’ll tell you about another time. They were fascinating people as well.
The census record has Helene Daily born in Canada of a Canadian father and English mother. Her adoptive mother, Jennie Daily was from Ireland and a single woman. Helene immigrated to the United States from Canada in 1897 with her adoptive mother when she was five years old. Time went by and eventually Helene was sent to Smith College in Geneva, NY for her education. She returned to Castile and became the librarian of the Cordelia A. Greene Library which was located right across the street from the Sanitarium. Helene was also an active member of the Castile Presbyterian church and was heavily involved in its activities. It was during her time as librarian that Mr. and Mrs. John Norton arrived in Castile and they became acquainted.
Mrs. Norton was seriously ill and was a patient at the Sanitarium for over two years. She was confined to a wheelchair and her bed, but she was known for her cheerful and positive outlook despite her ill health. The Nortons had come from Canada where John had been an organ designer and builder. As you might imagine, he was also an organist. He was a native of England and a member of the Anglican Church.
In May of 1924, Mrs. Norton died and the funeral services were held at the Sanitarium. In September of 1924, the engagement of Helene Daily to John Norton was announced in the paper. By December, 1924, they were husband and wife. This was when a new adventure began for the new Mrs. Norton. John felt a call to become an evangelist and the couple soon left for Moody Bible Institute in Chicago. They both graduated and returned once again to Castile where they made their home on South Main Street. From about 1929 until 1939, the Nortons traveled around the United States and Canada—he to preach and Helene to teach the children with Bible stories and object lessons. John was known for his wit and sense of humor in preaching the gospel and Helene for her teaching ability.
In 1960, when John was 86, he took a fall and passed away a few days later at the Sanitarium. Helene, who was much younger—about 17 years younger, continued to teach children at the churches in Castile throughout the 1960s. The Community church (now Castile UCC which was previously the Castile Presbyterian church) and also the Castile First Baptist church down the street, welcomed her to help with children’s ministries.
She and John never had children and in the late 1970s and early 1980s, the local churches helped her secure healthcare and assistance as her health failed. The Castile community became her family in those difficult years. Mrs. Norton went to meet her Savior in 1985 having lived a long and full life of service to her Lord and to the children of Castile.
I’m oh, so grateful for Mrs. Norton’s humble and faithful retelling of the stories of Jesus and those heroes of the Bible. She made them come alive and I can still see her on the platform, pressing the next figure on the scenic flannel board. She may have been a sparrow in appearance and background, but extraordinary as a daughter of the Heavenly Father.