An obscure Palo Alto Unitarian

While researching something completely different, I came upon an obituary in the 1919 volume of The Pacific Unitarian for Helen Kreps. She had been encouraged to enter the Unitarian ministry by Rev. Florence Buck, interim minister in 1910 at the old Palo Alto Unitarian church. By 191, she was a highly promising student at Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry (now Starr King School for the Ministry) when she died in the great influenza epidemic. I make no claims for the historical importance of this story, but its poignancy makes it worth reprinting here.

From The Pacific Unitarian, vol. 28, no. 3, March, 1919, p. 65:

Helen Katharine Kreps

(Editorial Note. — The above article by President [Earl Morse] Wilbur came just too late for our last issue. Since it was written the deeply lamented death of Miss Kreps ended her heroic struggle. Dr. Wilbur now adds a tribute to her memory.)

About three years ago I received from a young woman in Palo Alto, of whom I had never heard, a request for information about courses of study in our divinity school. Shortly afterwards a member of the staff at Stanford university told me that one of their finest graduates was coming to us to study for the ministry, and mentioned her name with high praise. Later in the spring a slight, girlish-looking person appeared at the school, accompanied by her mother, to make final arrangements for the proposed course of study. Thus I first came to know Helen Kreps. She entered as one of our students in the autumn of 1916, and was thus in her last year when death snatched her from us.

The daughter of Lieutenant Colonel Jacob F. Kreps, U. S. A., Helen was born at an army post in North Dakota in 1894, and spent her early life at various posts from Alaska to New York. But a call from Heaven early touched her heart, and under the inspiration of Rev. Florence Buck’s brief interim ministry at Palo Alto in 1910 she determined to prepare herself for the intervening years. Meantime she graduated at Stanford University in 1915 with high honors, and won membership in the Phi Beta Kappa. Then after a year’s employment in the University library she came to enter the Pacific Unitarian School for the Ministry in August, 1916.

Here we soon realized that we had in our new student one of exceptional quality. Long before the first examinations she evinced that fine penetration of mind, that broad grasp of subjects, and that accurate knowledge,’which come of fine endowments joined to industrious study, and constitute the best scholarship. She never failed to deserve a 1 or even a 1* [sic] in every course, and was well on the way to receive a degree summa cum laude. But even more than with her intellectual qualities were we impressed with those finer and deeper traits which make up personality. Quiet and modest in bearing though she was, never asserting herself or her views, yet we instinctively felt that in her there was depth and breadth of character, and as she moved about among us she won a respect and exerted an influence that belong to few. I remember saying to myself at the end of her first chapel service, in which the depth and sincerity of her religious nature were revealed, that I should count myself happy if she might sometime be my minister; and those who were present at the devotional service which she conducted at the Conference at Berkeley last spring will not soon forget the impression she then made. Had she been spared to enter upon her chosen career, I make not the least doubt that she would speedily have vindicated (had it needed any vindication) the claim of woman to a place of respect and power in pulpit and parish.

Last summer Miss Kreps was so eager to try her powers of flight, and to gain some preliminary experience of church problems and methods, that she was glad to spend a part of the vacation she needed by supplying the pulpit at Santa Cruz, where her message in the pulpit and her visitations among the people at once won her admiration and affection, and also brought her the satisfactions that come to a minister. She returned to school eager to finish her course and to begin active work.

With a father in military service and a brother in the trenches, the burden of the war lay heavy on her sensitive heart. She felt obliged to abandon a thesis in the field of critical scholarship where her work might have won distinction, for lack of heart in it, and must choose a new theme lying closer to the acute needs of the world. Already last year she had taken at the university a Red Cross course in nursing, that she might be ready for active service if an urgent call should come. It came in an unlooked-for way. When the influenza became epidemic on the campus in October and hundreds were suddenly stricken and an emergency call went out for volunteer nurses. Miss Kreps was one of the first to respond. Within a week she herself had contracted the disease, which was soon followed by pneumonia. Her life long hung in the balance. Then she seemed to be getting better. But at length, after four months’ struggle, borne patiently and hopefully, her frail body gave out, and her spirit went home. The end came at the Letterman General Hospital at the Presidio in San Francisco on February 23rd, and interment was in the National Cemetery. The Unitarian ministry and the world are great losers by her going so soon away; but those who knew her have been enriched by her presence, and as long as they live will be moved to live more worthily whenever they think of Helen Kreps.