Julia Russell Carte de Visite
Sister Julia Russell
Carte de Visite
Notman Photo Co., Boston, MA, ca. 1890
Collection of Hamilton College Library, Clinton, NY.

Eldress Julia A. Russell

Julia Ann Russell, Shaker cook, office deaconess, children’s caretaker, eldress, and nurse, was born March 1, 1839 in Woodstock, Vermont, the daughter of Sylvester W. and Mary (Rand) Russell.

Julia Russell, her parents, and five siblings joined the Enfield Shakers in 1846. Theirs was the last large family to come into community at Enfield, and they contributed greatly to the vitality of the Society during the second half of the 19th century. Julia, her parents Sylvester and Mary Russell, her sisters Isabella and Asenath, and her brother James fully embraced a Shaker life. Sister Ellen, and brother Sylvester, Jr. chose to leave the Society as mature adults.

Julia was seven years old when she arrived at Shaker Village. Although student rosters for her school years are not preserved, Julia would have received much of her formal education during summer months in the Church Family’s one room schoolhouse. In the 1860 U.S. Census, at age 21, “cook” was her listed occupation. The first surviving Shaker record of her work life is dated 1864 when she and Sister Eliza Carlton moved to the office to serve as office deaconesses. Two years later, Julia left that post to “take charge of the little girls.” After six years as the girls’ caretaker, she was released to “take charge of the boys.” Clearly Julia had a nurturing gift.

In 1879, Sister Julia was appointed to serve as the associate of First Eldress Eldress Rosetta Cummings. She continued in those duties until 1888, when she was reassigned to the Church Family Infirmary, replacing Sister Caroline Slack as head nurse.

The duties she assumed throughout her life testify to Julia’s commitment to serving her Shaker family, whether as a cook, a mentor to children, an eldress, or nurse.

In addition, the “Home Notes” that she contributed to the Shaker publication, The Manifesto, give us a sense of her engaging personality, her active mind, her poetic inclinations, and her faith:

“Heavy knit goods (better known as sweaters) are at present date in great demand. So while toiling for the daily bread that sustains life, may we not forget that the growth of the Spirit, which is more than food or raiment, should be the first consideration.” February 1892

“Two of our Sisters, Caroline Whitcher and L. [Lizzie] Curtis have just returned from Boston. During their absence they must have experienced all the weathers accredited to our New England climate; but happily for them neither tempest of wind nor rain harmed them, so we have only thanks to render to the giver of all good for their preservation.” December 1892

“The majestic waters of old Mascoma were chained in ice on the 18th of December, just 13 days earlier than last year. On the 2nd of this month we began cutting ice for home use, 15 inches thick; a good supply is harvested awaiting the days when old Sol shall give us a scorching.” January 1893

“We do not hesitate to say that the clerk of the weather has been pleased to visit us in a manner not to be forgotten for many a day. Snow and hail have fallen, alternating with wind and rain, which have played in fantastic gales, covering sidewalks with a sheet of ice, giving possible delight to the little folks not appreciated by pedestrians of larger growth.” February 1893

Like her biological sister, Isabella Russell, Julia was keenly interested in reform movements being undertaken in “the World.” She urged her extended Shaker family to engage with those struggles for justice.

“Already we have turned the last page, bearing record of the grand old year of 1893, and while we witness its departure, rife with the wonderful events that have marked its progress, our hearts are made glad in the realization that so much is being done by the noble workers throughout the broad universe of God, to spread a knowledge of the truth that maketh free, bringing as a result, righteousness to the hearts of the children of men. Let us awaken, who are called to be the sons and daughters of the resurrection, lest we be found lacking that power which alone gives victory to the soul.” January 1894

Julia Ann Russell continued to care for the sick until own her sudden and unexpected death from apoplexy (a stroke) on May 5, 1897 at the Shaker community in Enfield, New Hampshire. She is buried in the Church Family Cemetery in Enfield.

Her Shaker family felt a keen sense of loss in her passing, as reflected by her obituary published in the Enfield Advocate on May 7, 1897:
“Our community was shocked and saddened by the sudden taking away of a dearly loved sister, Julia A. Russell, who up to a few hours previous to her death was apparently in usual health. Though not physically strong she was very active for good in all the interests of our home, and Oh! we shall miss her loving ministrations so much.”

Original author: Mary Ann Haagen