Mary Neil Harper served as a nurse and midwife for decades abroad
Westminster Presbyterian Church's longest-attending member has inspired others by sharing her faith on missions all over the world and bringing the stories of her work home.
Mary Nell Harper, who turns 89 on Sunday, has been attending the Everett church since she was a month old. Now, the 114-year-old church is working to preserve its sanctuary for future generations.
Over the years, Westminster Presbyterian sent Harper on missions to faraway places, such as Ethiopia, Malawi and Kenya. Harper worked abroad for four decades as nurse and midwife.
“I decided that's a thing I ought to do,” she said. “It was God's will for me.”
Harper earned her nursing degree before leaving her family to embark on her first mission to Ethiopia in 1949.
“It was harder on my mother than me,” she said. “She left me in the charge of God.”
In Africa, Harper put her nursing skills to the test as a midwife. She estimates that she helped deliver some 2,000 babies during her career.
“It's so exciting to deliver a baby and hear it cry,” she said. “Sometimes it was sad because people came too late.”
Harper raised a girl named Lydia who was injured in a fire and had both of her legs amputated. Harper, who never married, took on the challenge of caring for the orphan.
During her time as a missionary, Harper came home to Everett only once every four or five years. She would travel around to different churches to raise money to continue her work overseas.
She brought back stories of her experiences, such as learning to drive the dusty, rut-filled roads of Africa. She encountered exotic animals, such as elephants, crocodiles and hippopotamuses. She once watched two leopards devour a zebra.
Harper lived in a house with no running water or electricity. She still managed to meet African dignitaries, such as the emperor of Ethiopia.
But Harper found the most meaning in her work when she was ministering to others. She shared her faith with many of her patients.
“Some people had ready hearts,” Harper said. “You were always so glad when somebody left their heathen ways.”
Sometimes, she said, she was the first to tell a person about Jesus Christ. That often resulted in questions about her beliefs. Occasionally, they would decide to join her in the Christian faith.
“It was a wonderful life,” she said. “Forty years went awfully quick.”
Barb Johnston, of Everett, grew up receiving postcards from the exotic places Harper visited. She is a family friend who also attends Westminster Presbyterian.
Johnston, 59, has a stack of postcards she saved from Harper's travels dating from 1967 to 1990.
“We were always thrilled to know her and be a part of her experiences,” Johnston said. “Her strong commitment to the Lord has been a good model for me and many people here.”
Now, Harper and the Westminster congregation are working on a new mission. They're set on raising about $130,000 to renovate preserve the church for future generations.
“This building means a lot to many of us who grew up here,” Johnston said.
A group of Presbyterians in Illinois put aside money to establish the Everett congregation in 1900, according to church records. They sent the Rev. R.L. Lanning here to work on it. By 1902, people were worshiping in a building at the corner of Everett and Colby avenues.
The church moved into its present sanctuary on Hoyt Avenue in 1929. Harper recalls that first service in the new church.
“It was beautiful,” she said. “I remember it because the church before was kind of simple.”
So far, Westminster has raised more than $68,000 to put toward its renovation project. Clint Kelly, a church elder, said the work is expected to ensure the building's use for the next 100 years.
He also remembers Harper's stories about her missions abroad. She detailed experiences, such as eating fried ants, in her letters to him.
Now, Kelly sees the renovation effort as a way of reaffirming the church's commitment to its missions and to be a house of worship for the community. Westminster houses a lunch program for the needy and several free music programs for the public.
Harper continues to sing in the church choir.
“She's so dedicated to being here,” Johnston said. “She doesn't miss a Sunday for anything.”
Amy Nile: 425-339-3192; firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @AmyNileReports
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