1843  — 1907

Louise Desgraz

Faithful member of the early CIM team in China; head of the Chinese children’s home and school; devoted caregiver for Hudson Taylor’s children; “executive secretary” of the CIM in London while Taylor was in China; tireless nurse to Hudson Taylor and his children in times of illness; leader of the Girls' Department of the Chefoo School.

Note: Several members of the Lammermuir party are pictured above, and Louise Desgraz is standing on the far right in the photo. The entire photo is shown at the conclusion of the story.

Louise Desgraz was Swiss. At some point, she became the governess to the children of William Collingwood, whose wife was Swiss. He was an early supporter of the new China Inland Mission. When Hudson Taylor visited Liverpool, where the Collingwoods lived, in February, 1866, he met Louise, who shared the Collingwoods’ concern for China. After Taylor’s visit, she offered to go to China with the first party of missionaries. She moved to the CIM office and home in London shortly afterwards. In the coming years, her letters were to become an invaluable source of first-hand information about the early years of the CIM. During the eventful voyage of the Lammermuir, she made herself useful by reading with four crew members who were Swedes. When they arrived in Shanghai, the strange sights and sounds hit the new missionaries in different ways.

For Louise Desgraz it was watching a Chinese funeral that was most striking. Fire-crackers “to frighten away the evil spirits”, counterfeit paper money being burned for the dead man’s use in the other world, lanterns to light his way; “what with the noise and the glare of the fire, it was an awful sight … I was glad to go away.” To her it was a lurid demonstration of the enslavement by Satan of those who were “without God and without hope” (Broomhall 4.222-223).


A few days later, as they were setting up temporary housekeeping in a warehouse that had been opened to them, she wrote to friends at home, “Your letters found me very busy looking after the washing, which was not a small one after our long voyage, and for so many persons [around 30] … We often wished our friends at home could have had a peep at us, and see how happy we all were” (Broomhall 4.224). The novelty began wearing off as they travelled up the river in two large houseboats, however. “Privacy was limited. When the sensitive Louise Desgraz tried to escape and be alone and when she was on shore from time to time, half a dozen spectators would be sure to follower her and stare. When the Chinese clothes were all made for the new missionaries and on November 2 they put them on, she did so with ‘mauvaise grace,’ she confessed… Such annoyances were intolerable for some, and Louise, a first-rate missionary in the making, was at odds with Emily [Blatchley] and Jennie [Faulding] for a few days” (Broomhall 4.234). Because of her native fluency in French, she played a role in the conversion of a Chinese man who had spent time on French ships and had learned coarse language from the sailors. Once, when he had cursed a fellow Chinese at the CIM premises, Louise rebuked him. Startled, he realized that there must be a difference between pagan foreigners and Christian foreigners. After hearing the gospel from a Chinese Christian, he eventually believed in Christ also. In August of 1867, the Taylors’ little daughter Gracie became seriously ill. As she approached death, several people came alongside to help. Meanwhile, “inconspicuously efficient as always, Louise Desgraz had all along been catering and running the cooking and laundering. For the whole party of twelve adults, five children and several Chinese” (Broomhall 4.363). By now she had become an integral part of the Taylor household. When, for example, Hudson Taylor decided that everyone needed a break from their routine, he took Maria and the children, Emily [Blatchley] and Louise with him, again in two boats. But Louise was more than just an essential part of the household; she burned with missionary zeal. When Taylor, against the advice of some, was making bold plans for advance, he could count on a few key people to go with him: “Where they went Emily Blatchley and ‘good and kind’ and competent Louise Desgraz would go with enthusiasm” (Broomhall 5.51). “Good and kind” show up often in descriptions of her by others. In early August, 1868, Louise and the Rudlands, CIM missionaries, along with their Chinese helpers, set out for Zhenjiang, intending to set up the printing-presses there. They were turned away, however, so they went instead to Yangzhou, where Hudson Taylor had already rented premises. Three weeks later, an angry mob, incited by the literati, stormed the mission buildings and broke through the front door. The women, including Louise, sought safety on the second floor, joined by Rutland. Then one of thugs got into their room and searched the women for money. Emily Blatchley described the wild scene: Maria Taylor held him off for a while, but then he turned on Louise. “He next tore off Miss Desgraz’s pocket, and took away her hair-ornament; and then being soon satisfied that nothing was concealed about the thin summer clothing we wore, he turned to the boxes and drawers” (Broomhall 5.97). The assailants set fire to the building. As smoke filled the room, Louise was able to escape through a window and by a sheet-rope made it safely to the ground. Bruised and exhausted, they reached Zhenjiang safely by boat and were taken in by the foreign community. Before long, however, another riot took place. Finally, when intervention by the British consul had brought a restoration of safety, Taylor continued his initiatives to advance further. They had moved back to Yangzhou, which became his base, where “Charles and Elizabeth Judd and Louise Desgraz, with Mr. Yu’s help after he joined them, … supplied the continuity at Yangzhou, inconspicuously giving the gospel to inquiring Chinese no longer afraid to visit them” (Broomhall 5.189-190). “There was a good spirit among the missionaries and the handful of Christian Chinese at Yangzhou. The Judds’ zeal and Louise Desgraz’s stability made them a good team” (Broomhall 5.206). In the spring of 1869, a growing dissatisfaction with their current level of spirituality led a number of missionaries in the CIM to seek the “higher” or “deeper” or “exchanged” life that became associated with Keswick teaching. News and a letter from England reinforced this longing. “William Collingwood, Louise Desgraz’s former employer, wrote to her on the subject and in Yangzhou she and the Judds were ‘seeking holiness’” (Broomhall 5.211). After Taylor had found a deeper level of peace and of rest in Christ, relying on him for daily strength to manifest his character, he wrote to Louise but she “had found the answer before him. ‘I have seldom seen so remarkable a change in anyone as has taken place in Miss D … Now she is calm and happy’” (Broomhall 5.213).

The educated elite were always circulating wild rumors about missionaries. One of the most persistent was that they were kidnapping Chinese babies and children and then using their body parts for various potions. Since Chinese parents often deposited their infants at the doorsteps of missionaries, or gave them openly into the care of the foreigners, caring for such children became extremely dangerous. Like others, Louise Desgraz received several babies, whom she very wisely gave over to the care of Chinese women, to reduce the chances of misunderstanding.

Like Emily Blatchley and Jennie Faulding, Louise had virtually a member of the Taylor family. Hudson Taylor could share with her his “discovery” of resting in Christ in a letter because “their friendship was deep” (Broomhall 5.248).

Amidst her other duties, Louise somehow managed to collaborate with Maria Taylor on the transliteration of the Gospels of Luke and John in the local dialect, published in 1869-1870.

In July 1870, when “excitement” occurred about alleged missionary kidnapping and other causes of tension between Chinese and foreigners, especially the French, Louise had to leave Hangzhou to take shelter with the Taylors and others in Zhenjiang. She and Maria Taylor shared a room while Taylor and another man slept in the common living room. Then Maria gave birth to a baby boy, Noel, who died soon afterwards. Maria herself became very ill; soon it was clear that she was dying. Hudson Taylor and Louise took turns nursing her as her life slowly ebbed away.

Six months later, the strain of leadership combined with overwhelming grief broke Hudson Taylor’s health. He came down with acute bronchitis for ten days in January of 1871, “nursed by Louise Desgraz” (Broomhall 5.290).

Anti-foreign feeling flared up again in the spring of 1871. “Charles Judd, Louise Desgraz, her Chinese language teacher, his mother, wife and children, and a Chinese Scripture-reader or ‘Bible woman’ and about fifteen girl and boy boarders in the Missions remained on the Yangzhou premises” (Broomhall 5.298). When the danger became too great, she was told to go to Zhenjiang, where Taylor and others were staying.

In 1871, with funds donated by friends for his personal use, Hudson Taylor purchased property in Zhenjiang and had buildings constructed for a girls’ school. Before he left for furlough in England, Louise Desgraz and Miss Bower were “comfortably settled in and their work fairly commenced” (M. Broomhall 76).

Over the years, Louise Desgraz proved to be a faithful and consistent worker. For example, when Hudson Taylor visited Zhenjiang after a long absence, he found that the resident missionary had left his work, adopted foreign dress, and moved into the home of missionaries from another society. Taylor wrote to his wife Jennie, “The (Christians) have been perplexed and disheartened, and the wonder is that there ‘are any of them left.’ Their survival could be attributed to Louise Desgraz who, responsible for her school, had done what she could to hold them together” (Broomhall 5.361). He wrote later that “but for her the Chinese Christians would have given up … in despair” during their time of neglect by the male missionaries (Broomhall 5.393).

A new assignment

In the early months of 1874, a number of parents in the CIM were wanting to send their children home, as the Taylors had, to protect them from the diseases that had already taken so many young lives. Emily Blatchley, who had been caring for the Taylor children while also handling the business affairs and correspondence of the CIM, was dying. Hudson Taylor “needed an efficient, balanced member of the Mission in London to take over Emily Blatchley’s work and responsibility for his own children who were ‘like orphans.’” Louise Desgraz was ideal and agreed to take on these new tasks.

Writing to one of the Mission leaders in London, Taylor said, “You will find her somewhat reserved in manner, and at first sight might fail to duly estimate her sterling worth. For humility, fidelity, truth and conscientiousness, for perseverance in spirt of difficulties and discouragements, few equal her. Our work in (Zhenjiang) owed its continued existence to her, and her alone” (Broomhall 5.401).

When she arrived in London, she moved into a house that had been rented exclusively for her and the Taylor children, though she went often to the CIM office on Pyrland Road to conduct mission business. Naturally, when the children became ill she nursed them, often without help from others, because several CIM friends had died or had other pressing responsibilities.

Hudson Taylor and Jennie returned to England n 1874, Taylor being crippled by a serious injury to his spine. “Then on Sunday, December 13, a sudden onset of severe ‘enteritis’ struck Hudson Taylor. Jennie was expecting her baby at any time and avoided infection by keeping away from him. Once again the devoted Louise nursed him until his mother arrived to share the work. But during that week they thought he might die, and together witnessed his signature to a new will… By then the children had been scattered to the homes of several friends in order not become infected” (Broomhall 5.427).

On the morning of January 7 [1875] Jennie suddenly went into labor. When one of the children realized what was happening, Louise was sent for at once. Louise later wrote: “When I reached the bedside the baby was already born. I ran across (to Mr T’s room). He could not possibly walk so I wheeled a small sofa by the side of his bed and … he rolled himself slow onto (it), then I wheeled him … to Mrs T’s bedside. Sitting up with great difficulty, he did what was absolutely necessary, then threw himself back utterly incapable of doing any more… Then I wheeled him back to his bed” (Broomhall 5.429).

As part of the Taylor family, she shared in the daily family devotions. In March and April of that year, she went away to nurse Hudson Taylor’s mother “through pneumonia and then Hudson Taylor, suffering a relapse” (Broomhall 5.336).

Return to China

In the fall of 1876, Hudson Taylor returned to China, taking Louise and two single women missionaries with him. The women settled in Yangzhou to resume the work Louise had left several years before. As more and more Chinese Christian women asked for their daughters to be educated, and as the great famine created more and more orphans, Taylor expanded the girls’ schools in Yangzhou and Zhenjiang, with Louise in charge of both. Taylor authorized her and other CIM missionaries to take in even more destitute girls who were famine victims in the spring of 1878. For him, Christians must show their love by their actions.

Though he was constantly on the move, Taylor maintained frequent communication with Louise, seeking to encourage her as much as he could. Thus, in the summer of 1877, “’because she was being introspective again,’ he wrote to her, ‘The world is unsatisfied, too large a proportion of the Church is unsatisfied … all Christians should be satisfied, filled full and overflowing beyond self.’ And from Saigon, on his way home in November, ‘forget there is such a person, good or bad, as Louise Desgraz; ignore her will and wishes…’ She kept his letters. He was helping each of his growing mission family in the same way” (Broomhall 6.157).

Marriage

In 1882, Louise married Edward Tomalin, a fellow CIM missionary who had arrived in China in 1878. For a while, Tomlin had served as Hudson Taylor’s secretary. In 1896, he was one of several men who oversaw the construction of new buildings for a school for the children of CIM missionaries, later to become known as the “Chefoo School.”

Evaluation

Louise Desgraz was one of four women (with Maria Taylor, Jennie Taylor, and Emily Blatchley) who provided indispensable care and help to Hudson Taylor and his children. Without her, he could not have functioned as leader of the CIM in its formative years. Indeed, without her nursing at critical times, he would have died. As an educator of Chinese girls, Louise introduced them to the love of God and the truth about Christ. Later, she played a major leadership role in the Chefoo School.


Sources

Broomhall, A.J. Hudson Taylor and China’s Open Century. London: Hodder & Stoughton. Book Four: Survivors’ Pact, 1884; Book Five: Refiner’s Fire, 1985;

Broomhall, Marshall. The Jubilee Story of the China Inland Mission. London: Morgan & Scott, 1915. Reprinted by Ulan Press.