Martha Teresa Fiske

In the pages of The Home Missionary of September 1908, I came across this passage about the Silver Bay Conference of that summer:

“Perhaps the one hour filled with the most tender memories, especially to Congregationalists, was the hour spent on the lawn just at sunset Sunday evening, in memory of Miss Martha Fiske, of Cambridge, not only a Radcliffe graduate, but a detained foreign missionary volunteer, who gave her strength, her wonderful mental ability, and her beautiful consecrated spirit to building up this Silver Bay Conference. She threw her ‘all in all’ into its foundations, and her life calls us from the realms of higher service to continue steadfast in the faith.”

I wondered who Martha Fiske was, and where she was “detained.” The answer to the second question came first, in the pages of In Royal Service: The Mission Work of Southern Baptist Women (1913) by Fannie E.S. Heck:

“The Detained Missionary — Many a young girl with heart on fire with love vows her life to foreign missions. She finds that vow, made in all sincerity, cannot be fulfilled. It may be her education is insufficient; that her health is too frail; that she must be the only support of aged father or mother.”

And so the young woman is “detained” in the United States. This was the case with Martha Teresa Fiske, but it did not dampen her ardor for missionary work. Elizabeth L. Hiding, writing in The Radcliffe Magazine, told her story:

“Martha T. Fiske was born in Cambridge, January 4, 1877, and spent her whole life in this city. She prepared for college at the Gilman School and took her A. B. degree from Radcliffe College in 1902 and her A. M. in 1904. While in college she devoted herself to the work of the Young Women’s Christian Association, as a leader of the Bible study and Mission study classes and as president of the Association in 1903-4… Those who came to know her felt the inspiration of her earnestness and learned the secret of her peaceful life in her constant prayer. Her gentle dignity and sweet womanliness made her beloved among many groups of the girls at college…

“Realizing that it would be impossible for her to go to foreign lands as a missionary, as did her classmate Miss [Alice M.] Newell [a missionary in Calcutta, India], she devoted herself after leaving college to the work of interesting others in the great work of Missions, and gave her time and her strength to promoting the study of Missions in college and among the young people of the churches in Cambridge and Boston. The year before her death she prepared a little book, The Word and the World, a collection of Scripture passages regarding Missions. The long illness which ended in her death on Dec. 23, 1907, was probably due in part to the exhaustion from a summer spent in teaching Mission study classes at various summer conferences.

“Martha Fiske was one of the rare women whose personality so expressed in all times and places her own Christian faith that one always felt compelled to be one’s best in her company. Her generosity and thoughtfulness for others were so quietly practiced that many failed to know to what an extent she was giving herself for others.”

The 1908 yearbook of The Missionary Herald remembered her in similar terms:

“She was prevented from going out as a missionary, but the more did she seek to make her life count at home. She attended every Silver Bay conference and did much to spread abroad the influence of those gatherings… Blessed by a rarely charming personality and full of quiet spiritual power, her visits to our office came like bursts of sunshine.”

The mention of “exhaustion” in Miss Hiding’s article referred to the summer of 1907, when Miss Fiske traveled from Cambridge to Gearhart, Oregon, on the Pacific coast, to address a student conference on missionary work. It was said that she spent the trip west preparing for her classes and the trip back east writing of the experience. She was ill when she arrived home in Cambridge and never recovered.

After her death, she was remembered at Silver Bay by the evening service mentioned above, but in Cambridge her tribute took a more enduring form: a stained glass window at the Sheppard Memorial Church, crafted under the personal supervision of Louis Comfort Tiffany and donated by Martha’s parents, Mr. & Mrs. Josiah Fiske.


“Saint Catherine of Alexandria,” the Martha Theresa Fiske Memorial window in the Sheppard Memorial Church (now the First Church, Congregational), Cambridge, Massachusetts, circa 1908

St. Catherine, according to tradition, was a young noblewoman who converted to Christianity and denounced the pagan Maxentius for persecuting Christians. She was imprisoned but from her cell converted Maxentius’ wife and 200 of his soldiers. He had them all put to death, and sent Catherine to the spiked wheel for torture and death; when the wheel miraculously broke, he had her beheaded.

The Tiffany window focuses on St. Catherine’s scholarly nature, rather than the circumstances of her death, and includes in the background a bas-relief of Osiris, the Egyptian god of the afterlife.

In her Bible, Miss Fiske wrote, “When my Heavenly Father calls me from this world to higher service there is just one word that I should like to have remembered in connection with my name, and this is ‘Missions,’ the cause for which my savior lived and died.”

* * *

The image of the Fiske window and the quote in Miss Fiske’s Bible are from A Symphony of Color: Stained Glass at First Church (1990) by Patricia H. Rodgers; the photograph is by Allen Hess.


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