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AT EIGHTY, Harriet Bedell broke an arm. Those who thought the spunky Episcopal deaconess would have to retire were wrong; she was back to work among the Native Americans of Florida almost without a “break.” As Howard Harper noted in his short account of her, it took Hurricane Donna to finally force Bedell into retirement by destroying her home. Even then rumor said she insisted on waking her neighbors early for prayer.

Born in New York in 1875, Bedell became a school teacher in the Buffalo public schools. She taught there for eleven years and conducted Sunday school in nearby Lawtons, New York, on weekends. 

Her fame is as a missionary, however. In 1905 she heard Arthur Sherman of the China mission speak. She was filled with longing to join his China work, but her widowed mother said “no.” Harriet, her mom, and siblings compromised: Harriet could become a missionary nearer home. 

She applied with her church in 1905. In the fall of 1906 they sent her for a year of training at a deaconess school. Among her classes were “Cooking for the Sick” as well as Bible studies, missions, church history, bookkeeping and administrative and teaching courses.

From 1907 through 1960, the year Hurricane Donna ruined her home, she worked among Native Americans. Her first posting was to Whirlwind, Oklahoma, where she taught school and won the confidence of the Cheyenne through application of her small but much-needed medical training. She learned their language and was adopted into the tribe. In 1910 she wrote, “We have short Evening Prayer every night at seven o’clock, and the pupils come as regularly as they come to school. We seldom have an absence, and so are always sure of a congregation.”

After fighting off tuberculosis by temporarily moving to sunny Colorado, she accepted a posting to Alaska. Again she ran a school, this time forty miles south of the Arctic Circle. The chief of Stevens Village invited her to tell the Gwich’in people how to live and she accepted the challenge. As much as possible she spent time among them, even in primitive camps: “I strongly feel that knowing all sides of their lives I can help them better.” 

Lack of funds during the Great Depression forced Bedell’s Alaskan school to close. While traveling through the lower United States to raise money, she visited Seminoles in Everglades City. Appalled at their living conditions and the way they were exhibited to tourists, she took over a dying mission work and won their confidence by arranging markets for their crafts. She learned their language, and during a funeral service was asked to “go ahead” (that is, take over). Unprepared, she translated the twenty-third Psalm impromptu into the local dialect. In so doing, she was no doubt following one of her own rules, “Don’t worry. Put all in the hands of God. Don’t think or talk about your troubles.”

She died on this day, 8 January 1969. The Episcopal Church calendar recognizes her on this, the anniversary of her death.

Dan Graves

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