First Churches of Northampton loses partners in the pew Vivian Eastman and Edna Michalowski

March 25, 2015

NORTHAMPTON — For decades, Vivian Eastman and Edna Michalowski sat together in the same wooden pew at First Churches, about halfway back toward the left of the historic building’s ornate sanctuary. Eastman never drove, so Michalowski usually picked her up at her Florence home to ferry her to Sunday services.

The two women died within six days of each other last month, Eastman at 98 and Michalowski at 95. And First Churches of Northampton lost two titans.

“They were the oldest active people, and to lose them both in the same week felt like a real passing of an era,” said the Rev. Todd Weir. Michalowski had been a church member for 70 years, and Eastman since 1974.

Weir said the two women, both teenagers during the Great Depression, “had the greatest-generation energy about them,” he said.

Both were longtime widows who were fiercely independent, outspoken, and good friends to the end.

“Edna would say her opinions out loud; she’d tell parents what they needed to do with their kids,” he said. “She was very opinionated.”

Edna

First Churches Member Edna Michalowski

She had raised three children as a single mother.

“Edna could fix a car and change a tire,” said Weir. “She was a very independent, I’m-going-to-do-it kind of person.”

After a stroke 10 years ago, Michalowski was in a semi-coma for a couple of days, after which her doctor tried to break the news to her that she might not regain her mobility. Weir said Michalowski told the doctor: “Watch me,” wagging her finger at him.

“They were both finger-pointers,” Weir said, smiling at the memory.

The first thing he noticed about Eastman, a tiny woman who was always impeccably dressed, was her handshake.

“I was not ready,” he said. “She had the toughest handshake. It was astonishing.”

While the two women were good friends, they were quite different from each other — what Weir called “our yin and yang.”

Vivian

First Churches friend Vivian Eastman

 

Eastman never went out unless she was dressed to the T, say those who knew her, while Michalowski had a more New England style of fashion.

“Especially in her 90s there was no way Edna was getting in high heels,” said Weir.

Michalowski could be sharp-tongued, he said, while Eastman was rather proper, never going out without a dress or skirt, hosiery and heels. She liked to pour tea at special church functions.

“Whenever we brought out the china, she did the pouring,” said Weir.

Quiet Leaders

The Rev. Peter Ives, pastor at the Main Street church from 1989 to 2010, said the two women sat together on Sundays for the 21-year duration of his ministry. He said they were natural leaders, though not in the traditional sense of serving on boards and committees. It was their longevity, frankness, independence — and the fact that they showed up Sunday after Sunday.

“They were not the traditional kind of pillar, but they were pillars because people trusted them, and if they said it was the right thing to do, people believed it,” he said.

Ives said Eastman and Michalowski were instrumental in his effort in 1994 to declare the church a welcoming and affirming congregation, which signals a congregation’s unqualified support of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender members.

At the start of the process, Ives knew convincing church members like Eastman and Michalowski would be key to winning over the entire congregation.

“They were fundamentally conservative and they were traditionalists and change was not very easy for them,” he said. “It was a change they didn’t understand … It just wasn’t part of their world view.”

Ives set about holding a series of conversations in the parlor, where he invited gay students, gay couples, and other gay people from within the church and wider community to share their stories with small gatherings of church members. Ives said the speakers addressed two questions: how did you discover your sexual orientation, and what role did the church play when you came out.

Eastman and Michalowski, he said, “listened to the whole conversation.”

He noticed a shift in them after a session in which four families from First Churches talked about their experiences having their children come out as gay or lesbian. These were people the congregation had watched be antsy children in the pews, take part in church activities, join the choir and youth group and grow up.

“These were the kids that were in their Sunday school classes,” recalled Ives. “That changed them.”

Ives said the year-long process was a difficult one that involved uncomfortable conversations. There were times, he said, when he thought he might lose his job over it.

In the end, after all the groundwork was laid, the actual vote was solid. The congregation voted 110-5 to become a welcoming and affirming congregation.

“In order to have a church like First Churches that has the reputation now of being a community-minded, open and affirming, progressive church, you have to have people like Edna and Vivian who will have your back when you share that vision with the congregation,” said Ives. “Those of us in a leadership role in congregations really need people like Edna and Vivian.”

Delightful Friendship

Ives said he appreciated the simplicity of their friendship.

“They had a wonderful sense of humor; they would laugh and laugh,” he said. “A friend is someone who we just delight in their company, and they just delighted in each other’s company.”

Like all friends, they bickered at times.

Weir said Michalowski would sometimes complain that during the “passing of the peace” community greeting during Sunday service, she’d want to get out of the pew to connect with others, but Eastman blocked her way.

“Edna would say ‘she won’t let me out of the pew to say hello to people — she stands here like the queen,’ ” Weir recalled.

And yet, they did things together. Both were members of a church group called the Dorcas Society, which met for regular dinners out.

They both did volunteer work in the community, sometimes sitting together at the Ward 1 polling place at Jackson Street School.

“As soon as someone they knew came in, they were both waving at them,” said Barbara Parsons, a member of First Churches congregation.

Parsons said of Eastman that volunteering “was her whole life.”

She was a stalwart Red Cross volunteer, and a beloved volunteer at Cooley Dickinson Hospital, where she logged 3,700 hours over 13 years in her main job as a greeter at the front entrance.

“Vivian was exceptional at her job. She was always enthusiastic and interested in getting to know you,” said Robin Kline, director of volunteer services at CDH. “She would welcome you and tell you something about herself and find out something about yourself.”

Active until the end

In recent years, Eastman moved from her Florence home to Michael’s House at 71 State St., from where she walked everywhere — including taking her folding metal grocery cart to Stop & Shop. Parsons said she sometimes saw Eastman walking on King Street, and would stop to offer her a lift. Occasionally she would accept one, but often she’d say she was close enough to home to continue walking.

Weir recalls the last time he saw Eastman walking. It was December, just before Christmas, on a day when there were snow flurries, and she was heading up Center Street.

“She was wearing high heels and hose,” he recalled, dressed impeccably as usual, and leaning on a walker. She died Feb. 6.

Michalowski, he said, died on the back steps of her Henry Street home less than a week later on Feb. 12.

“As far as we know, she was out shoveling. That is the way Edna would want to go — while out shoveling,” he said. “That was how Edna wanted to live her life.”

Laurie Loisel can be reached at lloisel@gazettenet.com.