Rebekah Peterkin, daughter of The Reverend Dr. Joshua Peterkin (rector of St. James’s 1854 – 1892), will be honored as an Outstanding Woman of Virginia in the 2015 Virginia Women in History Program sponsored and organized by the Library of Virginia. The 2015 Virginia Women in History program culminates on March 26 with an inspiring evening program recognizing the honorees. The ceremony begins at 6:00 PM at the Library of Virginia and will be hosted by May-Lily Lee, with a reception to follow. The program and reception are free to the public. To RSVP, contact 804-692-3999.
Rebekah and her sewing circle at St. James’s founded Sheltering Arms Hospital in 1889, which was inspired by Rebekah’s experiences with Sally Tompkins, a St. James’s parishioner who organized and oversaw care for wounded soldiers in the Civil War. Today, 125 years later, Sheltering Arms continues to provide physical rehabilitation with financial assistance to those in need.
Johnnie Lou Terry will make the following remarks at the March 26 event:
On September 24, 1849, a beautiful baby girl was born to The Rev. Dr. and Mrs. Joshua Peterkin in Berryville, Virginia. They named her Rebekah.
The family moved to Richmond, Virginia, when her father accepted the call to become the rector of St. James Episcopal Church in the heart of the city. (5th and Marshall Streets).
Rebekah grew up sharing her parents’ concern for the physical as well as the spiritual wellbeing of their parishioners. While visiting the sick, she saw that many were unable to afford proper medical care. The dream of a hospital that would provide free care to those in need began to form.
Persuasive as well as visionary, Rebekah shared her dream with her sewing circle at St. James. They resolved to become a chapter of the International Order of King’s Daughters and their mission would be to found the hospital. It was a leap of faith, indeed.
For a vision of that magnitude to become a reality required sturdy faith and sheer hard work. The hospital would be no exception.
Rebekah didn’t falter. With the zeal that accompanies a noble quest, she persuaded a noted physician (Dr. Moses Drury Hoge, Jr) to volunteer his services, and the owner of an old boarding house (on 17th Street) to rent it for a pittance.
Rebekah and her sewing circle mopped the floors, scrubbed the walls, sewed newspapers between sheets for blankets, and prayed. They begged funds and supplies from friends, collected broken and discarded kitchen utensils, and found a kind plumber to solder them back together.
A near-miracle occurred on February 13,1889: The Hospital opened its doors for service. It had one doctor, one nurse, and six patients. They named it Sheltering Arms, and it soon became known as “The Hospital with a heart.” Rebekah Peterkin was the intrepid leader.
“A great cloud of witnesses” had begun to form-caring, serving, giving-unselfishly and unstintingly of themselves for others.
Sadly, Rebekah died just two years after Sheltering Arms opened, and it seemed her dream might die with her. However, the devotion of many people, inspired by Rebekah’s pervasive spirit and Sheltering Arms’ pure purpose, helped the Hospital to rally and move forward. Rebekah’s mother, Elizabeth, was a standard bearer.
Countless groups and individuals, including former patients and those of different faiths have provided essential support for Sheltering Arms through the years:
- from the floors first scrubbed by volunteers to the free care given by doctors;
- from back yard sales and bake sales to champagne fashion show luncheons and Bal du Bois benefit balls;
- from Sunday School pennies to bequests in wills;
- from boxes of tissues and cakes of soap to state of the art equipment and stained glass windows for the interfaith chapel.
Every gift, large and small, has been treasured.
Through the years, Sheltering Arms has changed locations and types of health care to meet changing needs and to better serve.
Today, “the mission of Sheltering Arms Hospital is to provide comprehensive physical rehabilitation of the highest caliber with compassion and respect, to enhance the quality of life for those persons experiencing disabilities, and to offer financial assistance to those in need.”
Rebekah’s basic mission is alive and well.
As Sheltering Arms concludes its 125th anniversary, it honors the past and invokes Rebekah Peterkin’s faith, vision and courage for the future.
In closing, I would like to read excerpts from Rebekah’s obituary in the Richmond Times Dispatch (died July 26, 1891):
“The world is a better place for the life of Miss Rebekah Peterkin. There can be no greater tribute than this, there can be no surer claim to blissful immortality … few lives indeed have ever been more earnestly … devoted to ministrations of good than that which has just ended. The greatest pleasure of her life found origin in the joy and comfort she brought others.”
Now, it is my pleasure to present George Booth, great, great nephew of Rebekah Peterkin and member of St. James Church. George is also the great, great nephew of the Rt. Rev. George Peterkin, Rebekah’s brother, who was the first Bishop of West VA, where he founded a free hospital and named it Sheltering Arms!
The vein of service runs deep in the Peterkin family.