By Frances Stebbins
Frances Stebbins has been covering events in western Virginia, especially those relating to faith communities, since 1953. She lives in Salem.
My only friend living from the days when our children were young died this past April, not long after her 94th birthday. Last week I was able to share in her family’s private funeral service online which was made available to the many who knew her.
She was Mary North Elder Orville, who was a church-related friend to many besides me. A graduate of the nursing school of Johns-Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore near her childhood rural Maryland home, she served elderly Episcopalians as what was designated as “Parish Missioner.”
In the years after the four children she and husband H. Thomas Orville produced were grown, the nurse became an advocate for members at home or in assisted living facilities. Never ordained, as was one of her brothers, she arranged for Holy Communion to be brought to those who were comforted by it and performed many small but thoughtful acts.
She and her family moved to Roanoke around 1962 in one of the business transfers so common in that era. The children were Elizabeth, Jim, Steve and Anne, who stair-stepped in age with our Julia, Frank and Harvey. They got a house in the newly-developing Northwest Roanoke neighborhood called Norwood. There they would live until well after their children were grown, and Mary, who had suffered several serious accidents in her long life, could no longer care for a home.
I first met the new family in the Williamson Road church in which Charlie and I were becoming increasingly active after the furlough we both had taken as young adults from the denomination of our ancestors.
Having picnics in late spring as Sunday school closed for the summer had become a welcome tradition; a founding family who lived at Cloverdale offered a suitable farm where the many children of the “Baby Boom” generation could work off steam while their parents chatted or played a sport. Anne Orville and Harvey Stebbins were among the toddlers.
Soon Mary Orville became the Sunday School superintendent, somewhat displacing an older couple who, although they had retired voluntarily, seemed to resent the new young mother who was eager to become involved in several parish activities.
After a year or so, Mary called me one day for a chat. Why, she asked me, did people seem to feel she was taking the jobs of charter members? I couldn’t tell her, but she was clearly committed and used to getting the work of a church done. The visit helped us get acquainted, and we remained friends until the last time I visited her in the nursing home bed at Richfield Retirement Community in Salem.
As years went on at our little church, she and I shared in nearly every ministry it offered; clergy came and went and we were on search committees and the Vestry governing board together.
We gradually discovered we had (male) clergy relatives back to times in the British Isles. We grew the vegetable “tomato” and called it with an “ah” sound common to folk who settled near the Chesapeake Bay. She and her husband Tom, a longtime Sunday School teacher of junior high youth, were near the same age. He remains in an assisted living apartment at Richfield where their daughters, Liz King and Anne Schleckt, visit him often. Sons Jim and Steve live in Richmond and in Coastal Carolina. There are now several great-grandchildren.
We did have some marked familial differences. She was the youngest girl in a rural Maryland family of eight children while I was an only child reared by a middle-aged widowed mother who supported us on a small poultry farm.
Though the Episcopal Church was a strong religious influence, especially in her family, named Elder—something of an oddity since her legacy was to be a missioner to senior adults—Mary’s large group of siblings represented a more traditional household than the adult-centered one in which I grew up.
Several in Mary’s family lived into their nineties and took care of one another.
It was Mary who sponsored me for a Cursillo spiritual growth weekend more than 40 years ago. In turn, learning from her connection with downtown Roanoke’s St. John’s Episcopal Church of an intensive seminary-based theological education program for lay leaders called Education for Ministry (EFM), she opened the door to an activity I led in the Roanoke and New River Valleys for 20 years.
By her nineties, it was evident that her earthly ministry to the elderly was clearly over; she died quietly of the cumulative effect of age and injuries leaving for me an unforgettable legacy.