Elmer E. Parker

Contributed by Allison (Armstrong) Keef of Bangor, Maine


On May 25, 1967, the Rev. Elmer E. Parker received the Christian Citizenship Award from Sheldon Jackson College in Sitka, Alaska. Elmer was then nearly 80 years old and he and his second wife, Mayreld Ramquist Swanson were residents of Haines.

I met Elmer first when I was about three years old. He and his wife Clara stayed in our home, the Presbyterian manse in Anchorage, for over three weeks while they waited for air transportation to St. Lawrence Island in 1944.

Through the years Elmer was in and out of our family’s life. Always a welcome guest in our home, short of stature, big of heart, his smile and laugh infectious, I remember him always with white hair, and so it probably was. Born in 1888, Elmer was already 56 years old when he came to Alaska for the first time. 

While my memories of Clara are not as vivid, I remember Elmer’s second wife, Mayreld Swanson. Mayreld was employed, I believe by the Board of National Missions, as a Christian Education specialist, working and traveling in southeastern Alaska. Our family moved to Juneau in 1950 when my father, Rolland “Army” Armstrong became field representative for the Board of National Missions. At first there was no Board housing available so my parents purchased a home that was later rented. Around 1952 we moved to a house, next to the manse of Northern Light Presbyterian Church, that had been occupied by Paul Prouty, skipper of the mission boat Princeton Hall.

The house had three bedrooms and Mayreld Swanson rented one of the rooms. I don’t remember the details of the arrangement, but know that she shared some meals with us when she was in town.

The following biography, author unknown, was prepared for the 1967 ceremony during which Elmer received the Christian Citizenship Award. I can hear Elmer’s “voice” in this document. Of his years of service Elmer said, “...it has been a glorious walk with my Lord, and if I could have another 80 years, I would give them all to Him.” 


“A Glorious Walk with My Lord”

The story of The Rev. Elmer E. Parker

 The time was the early 1930s. The place, Kama, a small village in Africa. Awakened by a commotion in the hospital yard, the mission doctor called to his wife, “I guess Parker’s gone” and hurried outside to where the elders stood following a full night of prayer in the village church. “Who told you Parker has died? Was it Sahani?”

“No,” said one of the elders. “We came to see him get well.” His faith and the all-night prayer vigil were rewarded, because Elmer Parker did get well. It wasn't the first time prayer had been an important element in his life--nor was it to be the last.

Elmer Parker was born January 22, 1988 in a log house on the Colorado prairie near the little town of Timnath, the grandson of one of the three original settlers of that Northern Colorado area. The twelve Parker children filled the little country school near the cattle ranch which was their home. (Of the 12, five brothers and one sister survive today.) Following eighth grade, Elmer attended high school in Timnath, returning to the ranch after his high school years. It was during this time that he was converted, at age 21, under the ministry of Rev. John Baxter, father of Mrs. John Holic now of Sitka.

Elmer’s brother Ed was his inspiration to attend the Pittsburgh Bible Institute, and he started eastward, delaying along the way in Indiana. Here he worked in a blacksmith shop, learning to fashion and repair any part of a carriage. By the time he arrived in Pittsburgh to enroll in the Bible Institute, World War I had started and shortly Corporal Parker was serving on the staff of the training center at Camp Lee, Virginia. Following the Armistice, Elmer returned to Timnath, setting up for a time as a blacksmith. But with the new year, the Northern Colorado Sunday School Missionary came with a suggestion: “I’m resigning. I think you’re the man to take my place.”

This was a matter for prayer, and Elmer wrestled with the call. His mother, too, urged him to accept the call, and eventually he agreed. The National Missions executive appointed Elmer to serve in Boulder Presbytery, which he did for six months until he was reassigned, this time to the entire northern half of New Mexico.

His parish was enormous in size, with settlers scattered sparsely over the arid country. But the years here coincided with drought and dust storms; and as the marginal croplands vanished into wind-blown dust, so did Elmer’s flock. The mission executive refused to believe Elmer’s report at last: that of a promising circuit, only one family remained to call on!

When he accused Elmer of neglecting his duty, Elmer simply stuffed his missionary commission into an envelope and sent it back. Then he took a job on the Santa Fe railroad to earn enough to get back to Pittsburgh and finish his course. 

Elmer graduated from the Pittsburgh Bible Institute, was ordained in February, 1928, and followed his brother Ed to the Foreign Mission Field. He spent five years in Africa, three at the districts capital of Shubunda in the Belgian Congo (note--in 1960 the country was named Congo; in 1971 named The Republic of Zaire; in 1997 it became the Democratic Republic of Congo), and two at Kama 100 miles south . His most active function in Africa (as has been characteristic of his entire ministry) was building churches and mission stations. First, he trained a work force of about 50 men. 

The men learned everything from carpentry to brick-laying. Boards were hand-sawed with whip-saws from the native timber by five trained sawyers. Others learned to make and bake bricks from the native clay. Two churches and 16 houses, all of brick, remain as his monument on the Congo field.

Illness was a contributing factor in his return from the field. A severe dysentery epidemic, with a mortality of fifty for every hundred who contracted it, raged in the provincial capital. Elmer and his crew, however, using strict sanitary measures, escaped the ravages of the disease, as did 100 students in the mission school. But on a forest trip, when Elmer was sent to examine boys for their achievement with a view to bringing them to the central school, a careless porter served him unboiled water, and before the party had returned to the mission, Elmer was ill with the disease. He was sent to the government hospital, where he apparently made a rapid recovery, but upon return to Kama the disease recurred. The mission doctor told the elders of the Kama church that he could see little hope, and Elmer, with full realization of his condition, composed a letter to his family, bidding them farewell. There followed the all-night prayer vigil and Elmer’s recovery.

Shortly after this, Elmer returned to Timnath, taking the long way home--around the world by ship. He found the little church in Timnath in trouble. With only eleven members left of a congregation which had been driven away by the radical preaching of his predecessor, Elmer took over as interim pastor the difficult task of rebuilding the church. It was during this pastorate that he persuaded his long-time friend Clara Watson, to come to Timnath when the mission she had been serving in India was closed. They were married, and for a while continued to serve the Church at Timnath. From Timnatht he couple went to Idaho, where Elmer served as Sunday School Missionary and then, in 1944, came the call to Alaska.

Six years on the stormy and isolated St. Lawrence Island followed. Here, as in Africa, Elmer built and repaired--a church in Gambell, and a school house in Savoonga. Some quotes from letters written Mr. Parker to Dr. Jackman in New York, give a vivid picture of the isolation, the difficult travel, the problems, and the rewards of these years:

“Last Monday night at the church officer’s meeting there were some things came up they wished me to write to you about. Since the roofing did not come, they asked that metal roofing be considered even if it took a year or two years before it could be supplied. They said it was about six years ago that they put new roofing on more than half of the building, taking in the south side of the manse. This is the worst side of the roof again. The snow drift over from the north side and then the warmth from the house and what warmth comes from the sun in March and May seems to melt the snow into great cakes of ice. When this ice slides off the roof it takes the paper with it . . .

The stove we are now using in the Sunday School room belongs to the Government. Our coal stove was used by the Government daily for school purposes and was well burned out. When the new school house was built and the teachers moved into the new quarters, the oil stove was moved to the Sunday School room from the teacher’s old quarters....There was never any rent charged for the use of the mission in all the years the Government used the building.

One never knows when a teacher might come in and think best to take care of the Government property in a different way than it is being cared for now. In such a case we would have to close the mission for the winter; one stove will not heat even the one room used for services.

“We are back in Gambell after four months and 15 days in Savoonga. We made the trip by dog sled the 15th. The day was calm in early morning, but before we arrived we were in a snow storm. We had to take the mountain trail and come down on the tundra near the center of the Island and then turn north after crossing the rivers near their sources.

The trip took 13 hours. Clara made the trip very well. The snow storm raged all day the 16th and calmed somewhat the 17th. Esther Iworrigan died that afternoon, and then we were made to have more sorrow the morning of the 18th when they came and told us that elder James Aningayou had passed on at 6 o’clock. He had cancer. He had been at the Indian Hospital in Tacoma for treatment but was too late. We had not received mail for over two months and that makes it rather hard to get things straightened up. We hardly know what to do first with sorrow and anxiety all around and the days so short . . .” 

“ . . . We have been greatly distressed by the conduct of some of our girls. The soldiers from the camp have been a good bit of bother here in the village. They have been removed from the Island now, and we hope they will not return. Yesterday we were greatly encouraged at the close of the services. Clarence (note - probably Clarence Irrigoo) and I worked out a sermon and he preached it with real power, and when I gave a call for repentance and return to the Lord, four girls began to weep. Several men raised their hands. Clara took the girls into the manse and dealt with each one. They were real repentant and each one prayed for forgiveness. There are three more the elders we will deal with, and I hope this will be a lesson they will not forget. We do praise the Lord for what He did yesterday . . . Clara should have seen a doctor for a check-up by last December 6th. She is real well so far as we can tell, but I feel that she should see a doctor by the last of this month or the first part of February at the latest . . . “

 In June, 1950, the Parkers relocated at Hydaburg:

“Our first six months at Hydaburg were about like any newcomers’. We were busy getting settled, making friends with the village folks, and learning where each family lived. But by Christmas and New Year the Haidas began to take us in as belonging to them. From then on our church services increased in attendance...Now I think you would like to know more about the new church building. When we arrived, the framing was completed and the siding was on and the windows in. Rev. Alvin Gall had had one meeting on the sub-floor before he left. The sanctuary had some of the wall board on it and it looked very nice. I was anxious to get at it, but the salmon fishing was on and everyone was busy night and day. They all said, ‘Wait till winter’.

Well when winter came we worked all right, sometimes till 12 midnight. Every night at 9 o’clock the women came with refreshments. Before Christmas we had the floor finished, the wall board on, made our own pews, and the sanctuary was beautiful for our Christmas service. After the holidays we worked as before, and finished the Sunday School rooms and the chapel in time to invite the Presbytery of Alaska to move the place of meeting from Klawock to Hydaburg for the dedication of the new church. Presbytery voted to accept the invitation. About 75 guests came April 8th . . . “

 In March, 1951, the illness which was mentioned in some of the earlier reports claimed Mrs. Parker, and Elmer reported, “This is the hardest thing the Lord has called on me to do, go on without her. Yet He is wonderfully sustaining.”

He continued on in Hydaburg, and his report in 1954 begins:

“Again a year has passed and it is time to send greetings from our beloved Alaska. We had a very pleasant winter and villagers were in good health.

Last summer we had plenty of sunshine and a good catch of fish, and we had much to be thankful for in November. The Christmas season was gay with dinners and timely giving. Our School program at Christmas was one of the best I have seen since coming to Hydaburg. Our Church Choir gave a good program Christmas Eve, and on Sunday, the 20th, I baptized five babies, making 17 for the year 1954. 

“In January I made a trip to Sitka by plane to visit our young people at Edgecumbe High School and Sheldon Jackson Junior College. A number of our Eskimo children from St. Lawrence Island are in Edgecumbe High. They were little folks when we first went to St. Lawrence over ten years ago. On Saturday evening I had a waffle dinner with the Hydaburg young folks, and Sunday morning I was with the Eskimo boys for breakfast; after this we all went to Sunday School and Church in Sitka . . . ” 

He goes on to tell the story of one of his Eskimo boys from Gambell who had been orphaned ten years earlier during a harrowing journey through a blizzard. Illness had struck the little family at their trapping camp, and when they had improved a little, they set off for Gambell for medicine. There followed--a blizzard; loss of father, then mother; the end of the storm; an upset sled and loss of the dogs when they chased a fox; an all-night walk; rest in the snow which nearly ended in death; rescue by a trapper; and amputation of the right hand. In 1950 he entered Edgecumbe High and now he was about to graduate. Mr. Parker writes,

“ . . . Just before I left to return home, Ed said, ‘Dad, you must come see me graduate.’ What a thrill to hear that boy make the request. He has been working during the summer vacation time and has a nice bank account. He is an orphan, so I am his Dad. For all the disappointments that come in this frontier work, the Lord gives us these experiences of victory for someone the world scarcely takes notice of.”

On his way back to Hydaburg, Elmer visited the hospital in Ketchikan, where Mrs. L., one of his congregation lay ill of cancer. The doctor held forth no hope; her son had purchased her burial dress; the patient was tired and weak--ready to rest. But she agreed that if God willed, she was also ready to live to His glory. Again, prayer was indicated, and at Hydaburg that night Mr. Parker told the group of his visit.

“We began to pray and they bombarded heaven that the Lord would get glory to His name and show the careless ones that He does answer prayer and send her home to us. It was a wonderful time of fellowship. The next word we had from the hospital was that she was up and walking. The doctor told her that ‘only your God could do this for you; I thought I’d send you home in a casket, and here you fly home.’ Our next prayer meeting was at her home, and it was a time of rejoicing and praising the Lord for his mercies . . . “ 

Elmer planned to go to the States on furlough during 1955, but when Presbytery asked him to go to St. Lawrence Island while the pastor in Gambell took his furlough, he joyously accepted, and in June he was on his way. In his words, “I left Nome the tenth for Gambell, 180 air miles over the Bering Sea.

I gave the morning devotions over the radio in Nome; the Eskimos heard me and were all at the air strip when I arrived. When I stepped into the manse, there were two loaves of homemade bread awaiting me, a fire in the stove, and the tea kettle boiling. O those wonderful Eskimos! There was very little sleeping done the first three or four days, for at that time of the year there is not night. When finally I came to the end of my endurance, I fell asleep for hours and hours. Our first worship service together was refreshing; the charm of the island life was as rich as it was when I first set foot on it in 1944 . . .The regular Gambell pastor returned on November 22, and I left for Fairbanks on the same plane he came in on. In Fairbanks I took over the native work and found it very interesting. I found a side of Eskimo and Indian life I had not known before.

The transition from the simple life of the past to this mad rush we so glibly call ‘abundant life’ has a tremendous impact on the native Alaskans. They are not standing up to it. Our government is giving all native young folks a high school education, and many of them are passing with good grades. They are then sent back to the village with nothing to do; they work their way back to the city, expecting to get work; but with no experience, the chances are they will soon be drifting. While in Fairbanks we set up plans for a center or hospitality house where the natives could be directed to small jobs where they would soon get experience enough so they could apply to the big contractors for work. The center would also help patients who pass through on their way to and from hospitals. At present there is no place for them to stay if they are stormbound. The need for such a center program will increase from now on as the young people return from school. They will not return to the village just to count the winters on the tundra . . . “

Elmer served in Fairbanks two winters as pastor of the Eskimo section of the Presbyterian Church and also supplied the Petersburg Church during the summer of 1956 so the pastor there could go on furlough.

The following four years, 1957-1961, were spent in the Thlinget village of Klukwan, 22 miles north of Haines. 

1961 marked the beginning of another joyful relationship; on August 13th, Elmer was married to Mayreld Ramquist Swanson, a long-time friend whose husband, Verne, also a Presbyterian missionary, had perished at sea near Hydaburg in August 1950. For many years their paths had crossed and re-crossed in the Alaska parishes they had served. 

A year’s pastorate at the Hillcrest Church in Anchorage brought Elmer’s long missionary career to a close, with his retirement in June, 1962. The Parkers now live in Haines. Once again they have fought a victorious battle with illness, and although he is now nearly 80 years old, the Rev. Elmer Parker confidently expects to travel to Sitka to receive his plaque at Commencement Services on May 25th.

He says, “ . . . it has been a glorious walk with my Lord, and if I could have another 80 years, I would give them all to Him.”

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