Catherine’s Faith: Vignettes from the Life of Catherine Jane Cottam Romney


It was 1888 and winter in Colonia Juarez, and the Romneys were near starvation. Miles had been gone for several months, trying to find work elsewhere; and despite Catherine’s care and thrift, their food was almost gone. Prayerfully she considered her alternatives and then sent her twelve-year-old, Thomas, and fourteen-year-old, George, hunting. Neither boy had ever fired a gun, and sending them alone into the mountain wilderness placed them in some jeopardy, but starvation was a reality. They took the family’s .44 Winchester rifle and enthusiastically headed up Spring Creek.

A mile or so up the creek they suddenly saw a large buck standing broadside about seventy-five yards away. Excitedly, George aimed and fired. Quizzically, the buck turned his head and looked at them, apparently puzzled by the noise. The second shot struck him squarely between the eyes, even though George had aimed at the deer’s middle.

After their excitement subsided, they realized that they had no knife and no way of getting the buck home. George ran home for a knife while Thomas stood guard—a duty of no small consequence since he was barefoot and had to keep running and walking so that his feet would not freeze.

It was snowing by the time George returned with their two younger brothers, ages ten and eleven, all barefooted. They weren’t strong enough to cut up the animal, so they started dragging it home, four miles away. They had to rest every few yards; and even when Catherine joined them a little later, their progress was still slow. It was with real gratitude that they looked up to see a neighbor, Helaman Pratt, riding towards them with a pack mule. He had heard the shot and had come to help.

At the evening meal they feasted on the sweetest venison any had ever eaten.

This story became cherished by the family, told and retold to the children and grandchildren—among them grandchild Camilia Eyring, who would one day marry Spencer W. Kimball.

But they would tell more than this story when they talked of Catherine. Born 7 January 1855, sixteen months after her pioneer parents arrived in Salt Lake, Catherine was seven when her family was called to help settle Saint George. Catherine remembers that first Christmas in Utah’s Dixie. In her stocking, she found a few pieces of molasses candy, some raisins, and a slice from an apple that her mother had brought all the way from Salt Lake City. Her father carved thirteen dolls, and an artistic neighbor painted hair and faces on them. That Christmas, Catherine and twelve other little girls in Dixie had dolls.

When Catherine was nineteen, she became the wife of Dixie colonist Miles Park Romney in the Endowment House in Salt Lake City. She is remembered as beautiful and rosy-cheeked, brown-eyed, and quiet, with raven-black hair that reached below her waist when it was undone. She was also known for “perfect control over her temper.” Catherine and Miles eventually had nine children.

Catherine’s faith was mighty, and she had many occasions to exercise it. On one occasion when Miles was away, three-year-old Junius, their third child, suffered so terribly with an ear infection that she feared for his life. Desperately she prayed for help and felt inspired to ask the stake patriarch to bless him. Wrapping up her son, she carried him to the patriarch who, in the blessing, promised Catherine that if her faith was strong enough, Junius’s ear would bother him no more and that he would become a great leader in the Church. Even while he spoke, Junius stopped crying and fell into a deep sleep, for the first time in weeks. He raised a family of six children and became president of the Juarez Stake in Mexico before he was thirty.

On another occasion, a son was thrown off a wagon. The iron rim grazed his head, cutting off his ear. Catherine put the ear back on his head and held it in place by pulling a stocking over his head. It healed perfectly; and by the time he was grown, no one could tell which ear had been injured.

In 1881, the Romney family was called to Arizona, a rough frontier at that time, especially with the persecutions against the Latter-day Saints. Shortly after their arrival, a member of the Church, Nathan Cram Tenney, was shot while trying to stop a gunfight between two groups of roughians.

The Romneys were especially singled out because Miles was an eloquent and fearless crusader in his newspaper. One afternoon two roughians beat Miles senseless, leaving the small children to walk several miles for help. At one point, a gang from Saint Johns offered several thousand dollars reward for his capture, dead or alive. At another point, mobsters fired into the house while Catherine hid her children between a couch and the wall.

Eventually Miles went to Salt Lake City to report the situation to Brigham Young, and several more Latter-day Saint families were sent to Saint Johns, which somewhat shifted the balance.

Still, the persecutions continued against the family, and finally Elder John Taylor of the Quorum of the Twelve advised Miles to go to Mexico. While he made a home for them there, Catherine and her children returned to Saint George, where they spent the next two years with her family, meeting President Wilford Woodruff when he took refuge from his persecutors in her parents’ home.

The trip to Mexico could be made by train, but several of the children fell ill with scarlet fever en route and one of them, Claude, died of pneumonia soon after reaching Colonia Juarez.

Their first home in Mexico was a dugout in the river bank, and Catherine’s hunger for beauty found an outlet in walks along the river, picking wildflowers, and weaving baskets. The children remember evenings singing with their parents—Catherine had a sweet soprano voice—picnics, plays, parties, taffy-pulls, and dances. Storytelling and visiting with the neighbors were also part of the family’s life.

In 1902, Miles suffered a cardiac arrest; and although his life was spared, he died two years later of a second attack. A daughter, Lula, remembers that they had no tree the following Christmas, even though there were gifts in their stockings. She recalls, “I fear I showed my disappointment and self-pity, for mother told me I was to go on an errand as soon as I finished my breakfast. I was very reluctant for it was a long way, clear across the tracks, to an elderly couple who were strangers to me, and I was to pull the red express wagon in which my crippled little brother was taken to Sunday School. I watched as my mother put into the wagon a blanket, a pillow, and part of our Christmas dinner—turkey and all the trimmings, doughnuts, butter, etc.

“‘Just knock on the door and say ‘Merry Christmas,’ she said. ‘Then you can hurry home and play.’

“It wasn’t hard to find the place, a little mud hut, quite alone it seemed, on the prairie. A little old lady answered when I knocked.

“‘Merry Christmas,’” I said.

“Why, you’re just like a little Christmas angel,’” she said as she kissed me. There were no steps, so she pulled the wagon inside to unload it. An old man with a long white beard sat staring at the little fire in the fireplace.

“‘See, John,’ she said, ‘what the good Lord has sent us?’

“I thought that was an odd thing to say, for I knew it was my mother who sent it and not the Lord. The elderly man didn’t answer or even look up, so I realized he was deaf. The remains of a meager breakfast were still on the table. Pointing to the tiny remnants, the lady said, ‘See, this was all we would have had for dinner, if you had not cared.’

“As I left the home after receiving another kiss, I had a very sweet, peaceful feeling flood over my body. How glad I was that my mother had sent me to keep them from going hungry on Christmas! I almost skipped all the way home, and I am sure I never enjoyed Christmas dinner more than I did that day.”

During the Mexican Revolution, Catherine left her home on fifteen minutes notice. She buried her silver and dishes and left a cake baking in the oven and chickens frying on the stove. Taking only one roll of bedding and one trunk of necessities, Catherine quietly closed the door on the fourth home she had been driven from because of her religious beliefs. As they drove away, two daughters stood up in the back of the wagon and began singing, “Count Your Many Blessings.” Lula saw her mother, tears rolling down her cheeks, take one last look toward her husband’s grave, then smile at the children.

Catherine worked in the temple in Saint George until she became seriously ill, then she called her available children around her and asked them to kneel around her bed and pray that she either be healed or be allowed to join her husband and son on the other side of the veil. Soon afterwards, she quietly passed away on 6 January 1918.

NOTE: Some information on Catherine is available in Thomas Cottam Romney, Life Story of Miles P. Romney (Independence, Mo: Zion’s Printing & Publishing Company, 1948); most of the material in this article is based on family stories in possession of the authors.

[illustration] Illustrated by Jerry Thompson

Clifford J. Strattan, associate professor of anatomy, University of Nevada School of Medicine, is director of Welfare Services, Northern Nevada Multiregion.

Marsha R. Strattan, a great-granddaughter of Catherine Jane Romney, is Young Women president in Valley First Ward, Sparks Nevada Stake. The couple have five children.