Wekiva’s Wishing Well – The Background Story
We have been enjoying a new program at Wekiva Presbyterian Church for more than a year now. Sponsored by our Board of Deacons, it is a program that creates and send thoughtful letters to church members who are ill, or homebound, or grieving , or going through some kind of a life-transition. The concept has been eagerly adopted by the church members, both those who sign the letters on a Sunday morning, and those who receive them in the mail during the week. It is a wonderful way to let one another know that they are being surrounded with love and prayers.
Some of you have asked me about the background story of how our Wishing Well came into being. I am glad to share it, because it is touching and far reaching. It goes back to a woman named Kristine Milleville Byrne.
Kristine Milleville Byrne, was born in 1954, the daughter of Bertram J. Milleville and Eleanor Shaw Milleville. Kristine’s father Bert was a brilliant inventor, the Vice President of Valve and Engineering Research for Rockwell International, where he held many patents. Kristine’s mother Eleanor was a gifted sculptor. A graduate of Simmons College (Massachusetts), she was known for her realistic sculptures in bronze. Her best-known work is the bronze memorial to Roberto Clemente, in the city of Pittsburgh.
Kristine Milleville grew up in a busy home filled with brothers and sisters and love and faith, artistic appreciation, and intellectual stimulation. She married and moved east.
On July 9, 1979 Kristine Milleville Byrne was a lovely young woman of 25 with a bright future. About four o’clock that morning, when her husband Vincent was away on a business trip, Kristine was strangled to death by an intruder into their home. Kristine’s murder was a senseless tragedy. Her family was plunged into grief by Kristine’s death. They went through all of the ordeal of her funeral, and the shock and emptiness that comes with loss.
While they were going through that dark time, they experienced something that had lasting meaning to them. Kristine’s family received a letter. The letter was not from one person, but rather, signed by many people, who expressed to them their love and prayers in their time of sorrow. The letter was from a congregation who knew of this terrible event, and who reached out in compassion to let the family know that they were not alone—that others were praying for them, and that God cared for them. Eleanor was so moved by what that church did, that she wanted to thank them and she wanted to learn more about the letter. So in time, Eleanor contacted them, and asked them about it. This was how she learned about that congregation’s commitment to being in touch with people going through tough times, or celebrating joys, through what they called “Letters of Concern”.
Each Sunday, letters expressing concern, congratulations, or sympathy were prepared by the Deacons of that church. Then, on Sunday mornings, the Deacons placed the “Letters of Concern” on a table in the church, where the members of the congregation could take the time to read them, and sign these heartfelt notes of caring. And then, having been signed by the congregation, the letters were mailed to the members and friends to whom they had been written.
The idea was so meaningful to Eleanor that she took its story to her own church. And, inspired by how much it had helped the Milleville family, that church decided that they too would engage in this ministry of caring. That was 1979. That church has been writing letters of concern to many people, every Sunday, for 34 years, ever since.
If you put the words “Letters of Concern” in quotes, and then the word deacons on its own, you will find that there are a number of congregations who have done as Eleanor’s church did, in taking that idea of that first congregation, and putting it into practice in their own. Not surprisingly, they are mostly Presbyterian congregations. For that is where it began, and that is where the idea has spread. I happen to know the story because, for a decade, I served Eleanor and Bert Millevile’s church in Pittsburgh. They were both dear friends as well as church members. A part of my ministry was working with the deacons there. So, I saw at first-hand, that these “Letters of Concern”—these written reminders of love and prayer—build people up when they need it the most. Because of that ministry, I know of many people who have kept and treasured these letters of concern, down the decades, including our own family.
The idea that began at one Presbyterian Church, and continued at another, and another, and another, is now before our own congregation. And while I might be tempted to tell you that “Letters of Concern” was my idea, or some member of our congregation’s idea, that would do Eleanor and Bert and Kristine a disservice, wouldn’t it? “Letters of Concern” are what I call a “God-idea”. An idea that God set into the hearts of someone in that first congregation, and passed along into the hearts of another, and another, and another… including our own.
I am glad that the Deacons at Wekiva are taking Eleanor’s idea of preparing “Letters of Concern” to heart, and have given them a new distinctive name. Wekiva’s “Wishing Well” gives us a way to remember and honor Eleanor and Bert and their daughter Kristine. And out of the Milleville’s family tragedy, it helps us bring the compassion of Jesus Christ very close, into the homes and hearts of those we love.