Finding My Family in Church History—Mary Matson’s Testimony

Diane Matson, Church history specialist, library cataloger
22 October 2019

In this second post about family history research at the Church History Library, Diane Matson explores local records that helped her understand her great- grandmother’s long-term commitment to the Church.

Like many Latter-day Saints, my lack of pioneer heritage has always discouraged me from doing family history research in the Church History Catalog. This changed after I found my great-grandmother’s personal history in my parents’ basement. Reading her story impacted me profoundly. I was humbled when I read her words. I wanted to know more, and I was thrilled with what I discovered in her Relief Society’s minutes in the Church History Library. Finding these minutes enhanced my understanding of her life and experiences.

Mary was born Maria Christina Berg in 1866 in Sweden. Her life was difficult from the beginning. She partially lost her hearing at eight years old, and by the time she was 18 years old her four siblings had died. Mary’s parents divorced when they immigrated to America, and her father remarried. In Mary’s account, she describes herself as having a “wonderful gift of revelation and discerment [sic], and many things have been revealed to me long before actually happening.”1 These gifts blessed her later in life as she would be forced to endure more sorrows.

Her courtship to Matthias Mattsson (1874–1909) was influenced by her gift. One year before she met him, she had a dream of a “young and handsome blond man” (Matt) being robbed on a ship. Matt was “amazed how accuratly [sic] I was able to describe his voyage and experiences.”2 After their marriage, her gift guided her through the loss of two of their children. Nine days before Christmas, her eldest daughter, Julia, contracted diptheria, and the family was placed in quarantine. Julia was three years old when she died.

Mary states that it was a “very trying time for us” and that she was “alone with [her] grief” as Matt was snowed in and unable to be with them. “Trying” is an understatement, as her account states that her other two children were sick as well. She describes Julia’s death: “I had the sad task of washing her withered body and dressing her, placing her into the casket, [and] setting the casket back onto the front porch, where the undertaker came and carried her away to the cemetery without any ceremony of any kind, and this was a blow that I really never was able to over come [sic].”3

Although Mary “grieved for [her] little girl until [she] thought [she] would lose [her] mind,” she had several visions of Julia that comforted her. She states at this point: “I can bear a testimony to all that may read this portion of my life’s story that God does live, that he does answer our prayers; he knows our trials and tribulations and gives us the needed strength to bear our burdens, which I can say I could never have been able to face without the help and mercy of the Lord.”4

Mary had a vision the night before her husband was killed in a farm accident, telling her that she would be left alone with her children. She saw where Matt’s body would be “taken to lie in state,” but she did not have a chance to tell him of her experience. “In May 1909 the Lord saw fit to call my husband from this life. … After the funeral the sad future was to be faced, no money, five small children had to be mothered and fathered by me; I couldn’t leave my home and the children and go out to work, so my only solution was to take in washings, which I did for many years to support my family.”5

Her financial circumstances were such where “there were times when [she] didn't have [a] crust of bread in the house until someone learned of [her] sad situation and would bring food to [them].” Through all of this, she remained faithful. For the first time, I realized that local records from American Falls, Idaho, might demonstrate a simple record of her faithfulness. After reading about Mary’s difficult life from our family’s papers, I was awed at my discovery in her Relief Society’s minutes (LR 10618 14) from the American Falls 1st Ward, American Falls Stake.

Left: Photograph of Mary Matson, 1866–1941; Right: American Falls 1st Ward Relief Society minutes and records

I learned that Mary was the recipient of service. An entry from June 15, 1910, states: “Members met at Sister Mary Cotterels and did sewing for Mrs. Mary Matson,” and on February 19, 1911, they sewed a quilt for her. In spite of her hardships, there is evidence from a May 1918 entry that she chose to serve others: “Mrs. Matson donated a quilt top valued at $3.00 for a Red Cross activity.”6 Little did the secretary know that her statements would be meaningful to one of Mary’s great-granddaughters 100 years later.

In addition to entries about Mary, her testimony was recorded several times in her Relief Society’s minutes. On January 14, 1915, she hosted a Relief Society meeting: “Sister Mary Matson was glad to have the sisters meet with her at her home [and] knew that the lord would help her if she is faithful.”7 My favorite entry is from May 6, 1918, that simply states: “Sister Mary Matson knew that the Gospel is true.”8

Lastly, it was recorded on March 2, 1920: “Sister Mary Madsen [Matson] felt to thank the Lord for the many blessings that he had bestowed on her and her family.”9 I treasure these statements I found in records at the Church History Library; they expand on her personal account and make Mary feel more real to me. The Church has records of these small but meaningful moments in the lives of ordinary members. Mary was part of a community of Latter-day Saints. She kept her faith throughout her hardships. Although Mary is not a pioneer in the traditional and historical sense, she is a pioneer of a different caliber.