“Elva Cowley is a vivacious, buoyant person. Her love for the Savior, her commitment to the Church, her great support of her husband, and her own life’s work have been examples to the entire Church. She has an absolute commitment to the Lord, and her life represents his teachings in the highest ideal.”
With these words Elder Vaughn J. Featherstone of the First Quorum of the Seventy described Sister Elva Taylor Cowley, wife of Elder Matthew Cowley, who served in the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles from October 1945 until his death in December 1953. Sister Cowley is a strong and vibrant woman with a powerful testimony of the gospel which has sustained her through almost thirty years of widowhood.
Elva was born to Stanley Franklin Taylor and Matilda Elizabeth Sims in Salt Lake City, Utah. From her father she learned faith and integrity; from her mother, love of beauty in all its forms.
It was also in Salt Lake City where she met young Matthew Cowley. With great fondness she recalls their meeting and courtship. She had seen him briefly before his mission to New Zealand, but had never met him. In 1919, after he had returned, Elva was asked to recite on the program of another missionary who would soon depart for New Zealand; it happened that Matthew was on the same program. After they met and talked briefly there, it seemed that wherever she went she would meet him and say to herself, “I wish I could have a date with that fellow.”
Finally he asked her out. Their first date was to the movies. Elva recalls, “We sat down in the show and soon I felt his hand take hold of mine and squeeze it. I felt chills go up and down my spine. I didn’t concentrate much on the picture and can’t remember what it was, but I never forgot that squeeze of my hand.”
After a courtship of more than a year, Matthew sent Elva a diamond ring. She was teaching school in Heber City, Utah, while he was away at school in Washington, D.C. They set the wedding date for July 13, and were married in the Salt Lake Temple by Elder George Albert Smith.
“When he finished with the ceremony,” Elva recalls, “I felt that nothing on earth could ever break our relationship as a man and wife. Matthew gave me a feeling of security, of someone I could depend on, also of someone who would love me, shelter me, and care for me always. I was in love!”
The newlyweds made their first home in Washington, D.C., while Matthew finished his law degree. Although money was scarce and Matthew was busy with school and work, they still took time for each other. They especially enjoyed the theatre. “We would get the least expensive tickets we could and then every once in a while we treated ourselves to a good seat in the downstairs section,” says Elva.
On one occasion during this period, Elva caught a glimpse of something Matthew wrote in his diary: “Elva and I spent the evening at home. Companionship with her becomes more indispensable each day.”
Soon came the time for the couple to return to Utah, where Matthew began a law practice. During this time, in early March of 1926, their only child, Jewel, was born. A great joy to her parents then, she continues to be a source of strength and comfort to her mother today.
“Being an only child for most of my girlhood,” says Jewel, “I became very attached to my parents. We three did much together. Mother’s friends became my friends, and that is still so to this day. She is my mother, my sister, and my friend.
“When I think of my mother I think of her as a very precious piece of dresden with delicate features, pretty feminine adornments, and great poise. Although there is nothing masculine about her appearance, she had great energy when she was younger and could outwork some men. She didn’t walk down the street—she always seemed to run; and as a child holding on to her hand I had to pace my steps to hers, so I learned to run, too.”
While the Cowleys were on their mission to New Zealand, they were given a beautiful Maori boy, Toni, whom they adopted, raised as their son, and loved dearly. Toni currently lives in Australia.
Toni was ten and a half months old when they received him, and he grew up to be a little boy in the mission. The elders took great joy in him, and Jewel cared for him like a little mother. Toni was especially fond of President Cowley, who loved him as his son and spent many enjoyable hours with him.
During the early years of their marriage, Matthew enjoyed his law practice. “He was as honest as the day is long in all of his law cases,” says Elva. “In all of our married life, no matter how tired he was, never did I ever see him get into bed without kneeling and saying his prayers.”
Then came a particularly eventful day. Matthew had a phone call from the Presidency of the Church to come to their offices, where they asked him how he would like to be president of the New Zealand Mission. “It isn’t a matter of whether I would like that position,” he answered. “The important thing is whether I am called.” They said, “You had better ask your wife.” He replied, “I don’t need to ask my wife. I know now what she will say.”
In three days, recalls Elva, he received a letter calling him to preside over the New Zealand Mission. It had been his dream and desire to return to that people and the country he loved so much. “I was so happy for him and knew that I would support him one hundred percent.”
As Elva prepared to accompany her husband, she shopped for clothes. She found one dress she loved, but thought it was too expensive, so she chose another one. “I described the other dress to Matthew and he said, ‘Why didn’t you get it?’
“When we boarded our ship in the San Francisco harbor, I went to the stateroom and opened the closet to hang up my wraps. There hung the beautiful dress I had tried on but didn’t buy. Matthew had found the clerk who had waited on me and had bought the dress.”
This was one of the many times Matthew surprised Elva with something she wanted. “Elva has the gift of appreciation,” says one good friend. “Matthew delighted in doing little things for her because she appreciated them so much.”
During their mission together, Elva had two experiences in particular that helped shape her life. “One day as I visited with Elder George Albert Smith,” she notes, “he said, ‘Elva, if you want to be a good and successful missionary, you must first make friends. People will listen to you if you become a friend.’ Then my husband said to me, ‘Darling, if you want to be a successful missionary, you must love people. It is so important to love. Open your heart to their needs and problems. Accept them as you find them. Make them feel your love for them. Accept their hospitality and eat their food, whether you relish it or not.’
“I knew what he said was right, because that advice has motivated my thinking and my life. In fact, shortly after we were established on our mission, I had a very impressive dream that I accepted as a lesson from a higher source.
“I dreamed that it was the end of the world. I stood with a group of people on a high plateau. We were all waiting for a messenger from the great beyond to escort us to the heavenly realm. I could see the messenger coming through the atmosphere; I felt a touch on my shoulder and I had the same power to travel through the blue sky as did the messenger. As I went along, my entire life was revealed to me as an open book. I had to pass the tests. I felt satisfied that I was doing well. Then the messenger said, ‘Now is the final and most important test of all, the test of love.’ All of a sudden, I had a terrible sinking feeling. I cried in my sleep. I wasn’t passing the test of love. I awakened suddenly with an awful, panicky sensation. From that moment on, I made up my mind that I would love everybody, that I would enrich my life by living God’s great commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself.’ (See Matt. 19:19.)
“I have tried to succeed. I gave my love to the Polynesian people, and they gave theirs back to me in abundance. I have tried to give it to many others as well, and it has brought a special comfort to me, making life worthwhile.”
During their mission, which lasted for seven years, the Cowleys witnessed profound acts of faith and mighty miracles among the Maori people. On one occasion, when Matthew was in a little town about thirty miles from Wellington, a father came to him with his nine-month-old son. He asked Matthew to bless him with a name, as he had not yet been blessed. Then, casually, he said, “While you are at it, please bless him to have his sight. The doctors say he is blind and they can’t do anything for him.”
“My husband told me,” says Elva, “that he had never had such a difficult time giving a blessing for a name. Finally, the Holy Spirit prompted him to bless the child with his sight!
“Matthew often thought about that experience, and sometime later he said to me, ‘Let’s go to Porirua and see the miracle child the Saints talk about.’ We knocked on the door of their home and there he was, sitting on the floor with picture books, turning one page after another. It made our hearts glad to know that he could see,” says Elva.
“Years later, in 1969, I went to New Zealand on a missionary tour. When we arrived at Porirua, the bishop met me at the door of the chapel and said, ‘Sister Cowley, I am going to call on you to speak; and when I do, you go over to that young man on the bench, take hold of his hand, and march up to the microphone. He is the one your husband blessed with his sight when he was a baby. You tell this audience the story.’ I squeezed his hand and told the story. I don’t think there was a dry eye in the room. This young man was strong, handsome, and a good boy—one of God’s miracles.”
Glen Rudd, a missionary under Matthew Cowley in New Zealand and a good friend of Elva for forty-four years, says, “Elva was superb as a mission president’s wife. She allowed her husband to preside over the mission and supported him in all that he did. She showed a great deal of respect and interest in the missionaries and honored them as servants of the Lord. She was a good cook and fixed lovely meals each day. The mission home was always neat and tidy under her supervision.
“She was a missionary in her own right and fellowshipped many nonmember friends and taught them the gospel. She loved traveling with her husband throughout the mission. Wherever they went they were loved and esteemed.
“In my opinion, one of her greatest moments was October 15, 1944. While I was serving as the mission secretary, some elders and I went to the post office where we were given an exceptionally large cable from President Heber J. Grant in Salt Lake City. We took it home to President Cowley. He read it alone in the office and then came out and was joined by Sister Cowley. Soon the elders and the Cowleys had a meeting in President Cowley’s office. He said, trying to hide his disappointment with humor, ‘Well, you birds are going home. I’ve received a cable from the prophet calling all the elders home. The presidents are to stay, but the wives and families can go home if they want to.’ Elva, on hearing this information for the first time, spoke up, ‘If you ever needed me, it’s now. I’m staying with you.’ Without any hesitation, she refused to leave him. Elder Cowley accepted her decision immediately.
“New Zealand had been at war for fifteen months with blackouts and air raids, and the situation was precarious. We missionaries laughed and joked as we prepared to leave, but inside we were heartbroken. We loved the Cowleys dearly. President Cowley was too broken up to see us off at the ship and stayed at the mission home with the excuse that he had to vacuum. Sister Cowley assumed the responsibility of seeing us off; and, although she loved us as sons, she managed to be bright and cheerful as she waved good-by.”
When the Cowleys returned to Utah, Matthew was called to fill the vacancy in the Quorum of the Twelve which occurred when President George Albert Smith became President of the Church. Sister Cowley, who was sitting in a general conference session with the mission presidents’ wives, was totally surprised by the call.
“I can’t express how I felt at that moment, except that a humility enveloped me beyond expression. I felt that had there been a hole in the floor, I would have fallen in it. Whether Matthew was told about this specifically beforehand I do not know, and he never told me. When he gave his response to the call, which expressed his humble spirit, his desire to be forgiven of any imperfections or offenses to anyone, and his love for the gospel, his church, his God, and his fellowman, people’s hearts were touched.”
With the call came the opportunity for much travel throughout the world. On many occasions, Sister Cowley accompanied her husband. One of the most memorable of these trips was their visit to China, where Elder Cowley dedicated the land of the Chinese for missionary work.
In December 1953 the Cowleys were invited, along with the other General Authorities, to attend the cornerstone laying of the Los Angeles Temple. Elder Cowley had been ill with the flu and wasn’t feeling well, but they decided to go anyway. In Los Angeles, the program proceeded as planned and President McKay gave the dedicatory prayer. After the ceremony a number of people wanted to speak to Elder Cowley. Among them was a young woman who had grown up in the Cowley’s neighborhood in Salt Lake and whose father had died several months earlier. She and her husband talked to Elder Cowley while Elva visited with other friends. During their conversation, which the young woman made known later, Elder Cowley told her that he would be seeing her father in a few days and would tell him that he had talked to her. This statement she and her husband found perplexing, wondering what Elder Cowley meant since he knew that her father had died.
The Cowleys had arranged to stay in Los Angeles a few extra days to rest. While there, they also visited his brother, Joseph, who lived in California. That evening, as they were saying their good-byes, Joseph said, ‘Matthew, you must take care of yourself and get well. We want you to stay around a long time. We need you.’ Elder Cowley answered, ‘What does it matter? Life is eternal.’ Those were the last words he said to his brother.
At around three A.M. the next morning, Elder Matthew Cowley passed away. “It was in the middle of the night,” Sister Cowley remembers. “I didn’t know what to do, where to turn. Then I remembered that the Spencer W. Kimballs had the room across the hall from us. I thought maybe they had left, since many others had already gone to their different assignments, but I ran across the hall and knocked on the door. Elder Kimball responded, and he and his wife came as quickly as possible. Elder Kimball got down on his knees and in his concerned, loving way said, ‘Let’s pray.’ And he prayed for my husband. I knew that the Lord had taken Matthew, and that that’s the way Matthew wanted it. I decided that I would rather make the greatest of sacrifices than have him unhappy. I always maintained that he never tasted the pangs of death.
“I can’t describe my feelings, my heartbreak, my devastation, while returning on the train to Salt Lake, alone, with my sweetheart in a closed box. Half of me was gone. At the station, President J. Reuben Clark, Jr., put his arm around me and said, ‘Sister Cowley, what would you like me to do for you?’ I said, ‘Bring him back.’ ‘There is nothing I would like to do more than that, if I could,’ he said.”
After the funeral, something happened that lifted Sister Cowley up in an especially memorable way. “I opened my door and there stood President David O. McKay,” she recalls. “He took a deep breath and said, ‘So, Matthew had to climb all these stairs.’ I invited him in and we sat on the couch. He looked straight into my eyes as if he could see my soul. He spoke words of comfort and consolation and asked me a question or two. I knew that I was in the presence of a prophet of God. We parted and I thought, even in my sorrow, that I was privileged and blessed.”
“Almost thirty years have passed since my father died,” reflects Jewel Cowley Sheffield. “Mother has been amazing. Father’s passing was a bolt of lightening that struck the world of his family, his friends, and the Church. He was so young, too young, and for months we all wondered why his death came so soon. How we grieved! Mother looked like death, and I wondered if she would ever really laugh again.
“The older I grow, the more I realize just what it has meant to her to struggle through this life without him. But she picked herself up from the depths of pain and went to work at the Primary Children’s Hospital, at ZCMI, in the Salt Lake Temple, and at her brother’s medical office. I have never heard her complain.
“In the winter of her life she still is young in heart, alert in mind, and beautiful inside and out. Her eyes are not as good as they used to be, but each day I see her studying the scriptures and writing a letter to a special friend, and to her, they are all special. She has found joy in her family, her friends, the many women’s groups and classes she has belonged to, which have filled her life with much happiness. Her attitude has always been and still is to make the best of everything and find joy each day. It is there!”
Indeed, Sister Cowley has remained faithful and true to every challenge that has come her way. Busy with various activities, she finds time to meet the first Sunday of each month with “their missionaries,” those who served with the Cowleys almost forty-five years ago. The missionaries bring their families and they have a wonderful time.
She enjoys her many other friends and family and takes great joy in her grandchildren. Of Sister Cowley, one especially close friend, Genevieve Hickman Harper, has said: “Elva Cowley is a loving, devoted, and caring mother and grandmother, always quiet in manner and soft-spoken. I know that she has truly tried to live so that she will be able to be with Matthew in our Heavenly Father’s kingdom throughout all eternity. I can see why Elder Cowley was always free to follow the whisperings of the Spirit, for he had chosen an eternal mate who also lived, worked, and taught within the framework of the eternal laws of God.”
The thought is echoed by daughter Jewel: “Mother has that strong spirit of faith in God and you feel it in her presence. Her testimony makes my testimony strong. She knows the gospel is true.”