The Fact of the Matter Is. . .
From the Files of Gustavus Historical Archives & Antiquities (GHAA)
Q. Who were the earliest missionaries to Strawberry Point and where did they come from?
A. The earliest known “missionaries” to Strawberry Flats came all the way from New York! Their names were Charles and Florence (LeFevre) Personeus. In time, their gentle spirit and servant’s heart would have a lasting impact all over southeast Alaska.
Florence was born in 1888, the daughter of a well known country gentleman, lawyer and publisher. She was raised in a 27-room country mansion on a farm that had been deeded to the family by William Penn in the 1600’s. In spite of her father’s objections, Florence left home at age 21 to prepare for life as a missionary and was immediately disowned. She was never allowed to return to the home she dearly loved.
In 1916, at a Bible School in Rochester, New York, she met and married Charles after finding that they shared a mutual “calling” to the Far North. It was a match made in heaven. Immediately after graduation they set out for Juneau, Alaska, arriving mid-November, 1917 with little money and no support. Their 1-room apartment was so cold that water froze on the floor as wind blew snow through the cracks. Cigar smoke pouring through holes in the wall nearly choked them to death. It was a far cry from the country estate Florence was use to, and for a moment Charles groaned “To think I would bring my wife to a place like this!” But Florence, though reportedly frail and with her hair turning prematurely white, never looked back. Together they faced hardships and remained cheerful through thick and thin.
In 1919 a flu epidemic hit Juneau (and the entire nation) and the death toll was high. Everyone was required to wear masks before stepping outside. All public gathering places were closed. Families that exhibited illness were quarantined and left to fend for themselves. One night Florence felt God was telling her to leave her new baby and husband at home and visit a family quarantined by the flu. Finding the entire family ill and without food, she washed the dirty dishes, cleaned the filthy house, washed and hung the reeking clothes and hurried home to return with a pot of soup. Later, scolded by a doctor, she declared she was not afraid, and the Juneau physician had to admit, “I wish we had a dozen women like you.”
Following the epidemic, Charles and Florence opened a home in Juneau for hungry orphans. She baked 18 loaves of bread twice weekly, washed their clothes by hand on a washboard, and hung them out to freeze or dry year round.
In addition to Juneau, Seward and Valdez, the Personeuses lived and served in 5 small fishing communities in southeast Alaska—including Pelican. During WWII they opened a recreation center for grateful military servicemen in Ketchican and were fondly known as “Mom” and “Pop” for providing a “home away from home”.
During their 65 years as Alaskan missionaries (with two children Byron and AnnaMae) they were in and out of Strawberry Point to visit our settlers here. Great friendships were forged and in 1938, they were fetched by boat to officiate at Gustavus’ first wedding between Nell and Glen Parker on the front steps of Abraham Parker’s Good River homestead.
In 1982 the Personeus’ mission to the North was completed and they left Alaska for the last time. In 1985, Charles and Florence celebrated their 69th wedding anniversary and Florence died of cancer just two months later at the age of 96. Although the last months of her life were marked with intense pain and suffering, she routinely offered a sweet “God bless you” to all who were honored to care for her. Lost without his sweetheart, Charles died soon after.
What a legacy! A lifetime of love and service followed them all the days of their lives. They considered themselves rich in their struggles and it is well known that they would not have traded their sacrificial, meager lives in southeast Alaska for all the mansions in this world.