Elizabeth Louise Averell (1877-1886)

Elizabeth Louise Averell (1877-1886)

Emily Sibley Watson’s oldest child, Elizabeth Louise, was born in Nice, France, where Emily and her first husband Isaac Averell lived following their 1876 Rochester wedding. Just shy of a year after her birth, she was joined by a baby brother, J.G. The two, so close in age, were the light of their mother’s life and her letters reflect her love for them. When Emily’s marriage broke up by 1883, her vigilantly protective father Hiram, founder of Western Union, swept the entire family off to Europe, including the 5 and 6 year olds Louise and J.G.,to escape the unwelcome presence of their husband and father. Upon their return to Rochester in 1884, a magnificent new home awaited them at 11 Prince Street and Averell was off to far-away San Francisco, where he resided until he died in 1909.

Two years later, Louise became ill with diphtheria, an often-fatal childhood disease of the respiratory tract. Now preventable thanks to a vaccine, there was nothing to be done for Louise in 1886, and she died on April 2. Her brother was sent to his grandparents’ home around the corner in the hope that he would not succumb to the same dangerous illness. Less than two weeks later, Louise’s ten-year-old cousin died of another highly contagious disease, scarlet fever. Louise was buried in Mount Hope Cemetery on April 3, 1886. Her grave is marked by a simple stone cross.

Word travelled very quickly, by newspaper and telegraph; many letters of condolence were written the same day that Louise died. Many of the letters, in addition to expressing sympathy, reminded the bereaved and grief-stricken mother that Louise was beyond suffering in the hands of Jesus, and that she must be comforted by that. Several writers shared their own experiences of losing young children. Some expressed concern that Emily might lose her remaining child to diphtheria, hardly a consoling message.

One eye witness to the mourning ritual was Madame Augusta Pardow, Sister Superior of the Sacred Heart Convent across Prince Street from the Averell home. The day following Louise’s death, April 3,1886, she wrote:

The little white streamer floating from your door, announcing that another angel had gone to join the happy band above caused many a feeling of sorrow to rise in our hearts, and many a time did we pity the poor sorrowing mother and long to speak to her words of sympathy and consolation. Would that I might raise for a moment the curtain that separates us from our heavenly home, that I might cheer you with the sight of your lost little one, transplanted from this cold dreary world of ours, enjoying the sunshine of Jesus’ smile, and interceding for those she has left behind. Could you have the heart to call her back? Should not your tears be tears of Joy – and while your heart almost bursts with grief, should not the thought of her happiness draw your thoughts heavenward and bring peace to your soul? Jesus has said “Suffer little children to come unto Me for of such is the kingdom of heaven.” He then must console the sad hearts of the parents who grieve for their loss. I send a simple little poem that seemed to me appropriate. I was reading it when the little casket was carried out this morning and the thought came to me to send it to you it might help you say “Thy will be done.” Pardon a stranger for intruding into the sanctuary of your sorrow….1

In the letter that Emily Sibley Watson wrote to her mother on December 21,1892, telling of her shipboard miscarriage en route to Egypt, she said:

I am awfully disappointed naturally, although when I was told that it was a boy it did not seem quite as sad as though it had been a girl…2

Perhaps the grief recalled by the loss of yet another little girl would have been more difficult for her to bear.

Louise’s memory has been overshadowed by the much greater visibility of her two brothers, J. G. Averell, for whom the Memorial Art Gallery was named, and her half brother James Sibley Watson, Jr., physician, publisher, film maker. In addition to her gravesite, childhood photographs, and two folders of condolence letters, only two reminders exist of her short life. One, a stained glass window at St. John’s Church (now All Saints Berkshires) in North Adams, Massachusetts, is traditionally said to have Louise’s face in the visage of the angel.3 The other is a golden oak bench at Calvary Saint Andrew’s Church in Rochester, New York, formerly Saint Andrew’s Church. While the bench had been on the altar for over a century, its association with Louise had been long forgotten⎼as indeed, Louise had been long forgotten by nearly everyone in Rochester. In looking for gifts at the church from the Sibley and Watson families, the former pastor and current church historian bent down to examine a tarnished strip of metal on the side of the bench⎼and discovered that it had been given to the church for Christmas, 1889, in memory of Louise.

1. From the collection of Sibley and Watson papers at the George Eastman Museum, Moving Image Stills Archive, Box C375, Emily Sibley Watson letters of condolence March - April 4, 1886

2. University of Rochester Department of Rare Books and Special Collections, Sibley Family Papers D226 10:52. Accessed September 4, 2019 https://dslab.lib.rochester.edu/esw/exhibits/show/nile/item/2.

3. History of St. John’s Church, North Adams, Massachusetts. Elizabeth Tinker Sibley, originally from North Adams, Massachusetts, made several significant monetary contributions to the enlargement of the church during the late 1800s. This window was probably given by Louise’s mother Emily Sibley Watson.