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Ruth Willard Merritt oral history interview, February 2, 1977

Date: Feb. 02 1977 | Identifier: OH0039
Miss Merritt was a Methodist missionary to Brazil from 1926-1930. She discusses life in Brazil, the school in which she taught, the background and experiences of her students, and problems encountered. Interviewer: Donald R. Lennon. more...



East Carolina Manuscript Collection
Oral History Interview #39
Miss Ruth Willard Merritt
Lexington, N.C.
Missionary to Brazil, 1926-1930
February 2, 1977
Interviewer is Donald R. Lennon

Ruth Willard Merritt:

I had a short period of service in the missionary field. I was limited to only one five year term of service, because of my health. I tried for two years to get my doctor to reverse his decision, but he wouldn't do it. He wanted me to gain weight.

Donald R. Lennon:

When were you in Brazil?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

I went to Brazil in January of 1926 and came back in December of 1930. I have one friend, a former student, who I have kept up with. She was very fond of language and helped me with my Portuguese. She was a bright girl and could detect many of my errors in class. I have kept up an intermittent correspondence with her. She has taught English for forty-six years and now writes most of her letters in English. I am not aware of any further studies she may have; however, she has dug it out and done remarkably well.

Donald R. Lennon:

Where were you stationed in Brazil?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

I landed at Rio. After a week, I went from Rio to the city of So Paulo for my first language study, which took up the first half of that year. After the language study, I went into the school in Piracicaba where I stayed the rest of the time. The school was called Piracicabano. It was the first school our church had in Brazil. It was founded by a Miss Watts who was evidently a person of vision and great ability. The school was started with only two students. She did so well in building up the school, after a relatively short time,



the president of the state of So Paulo asked her to become Minister of Education for that state. Miss Watts was an American and also a missionary, so she couldn't consider taking that appointment. She laid a wonderful foundation for the school and three or four American missionaries headed up the school administration at different times. Now the school is headed entirely by Brazilians and it has continued to grow.

When I was there, we were faced with the task of deciding whether to accept students who were preparing for professional schools. It was called the gymnasium. Taking them in would mean we would lose some of the authority in our school, because the examinations were given by the state. We didn't know if that was a good thing or not. But if we decided against accepting these students, it would mean that we were not feeding the professional life of Brazil; so we decided to take on the additional responsibility. Everything did work out in an interesting way. For instance, once when an examination was being given, the men who were presiding asked to be given some alcoholic drinks. The head of the school, Miss Stradley (?), was a very efficient and fine person. She summoned up her courage and went to the men and told them it was a school tradition to give no countenance to the use of alcoholic beverages and it would break a very cherished tradition. This act was more impressive in Brazil, than it would have been in the United States, because in Latin countries, women have less authority. The men didn't order those drinks.

The examinations were very rigid. They were not very creative but instead factual, which was the tendency at that time. I imagine the school system has been somewhat liberalized since then. In fact, a lot of the students came to us, because the parents wanted their children to have a more liberalized type of schooling than was being offered in the Catholic schools. When we learned about the rigidity of and the almost moment-by-moment supervision by the Catholic schools, we could understand. From my observation, those students who came from the Catholic schools did not know what to do with their liberty. They had to be taught. The students had been so repressed, after they got into an entirely different environment, they didn't know how to handle it. I think we made progress.



As far as the persuasiveness toward Protestantism, we did not proselytize; although we did require our students go to our Protestant service, unless they made quite a plea about not going. We had one girl who was very disturbed by this fact. I told her I would go with her to her Catholic church if she liked. It worked out and she finally went with friends or relatives. Our students, almost without exception, did attend Protestant services which, in our case, were Methodist. We were the only Protestant church in the city.

Piracicaba, a city of some thirty thousand people, was the educational center for the area. There was a state normal school and an agricultural school. The students were so avid to learn and to do the job in what they thought was the right way. There was a revolution while I was there towards the end of the year. The agricultural school decided, since the times as well as the minds of the students were so disturbed by this, they would let the students graduate without examinations. The students petitioned to have examinations. In my teaching here in the States, it is unheard of to encourage a student not to study so hard, but there were some cases in Brazil where I thought the student really ought not to study so hard. They were largely motivated by their very great patriotism. They wanted Brazil to have a place in the sun and thought what they could do with their education was a step in that direction. The extent to which they studied was really impressive.

Donald R. Lennon:

Would you consider these children upper or middle class children?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

We had some students from very wealthy homes. I visited the home of two students that was really like a big hotel. They were Arabs. Their father had built an estate so that the relatives could come for extended visits. I had one meal in their home, and it consisted of six courses. It was the most elaborate meal I have ever eaten anywhere. The waiters were in uniform.

We also had students from deprived circumstances as well as some from the middle class, although the Brazilian society doesn't have much of a middle class. At that time, we had quarters to house only the women students, but since then, they have provided for men students, too.



Donald R. Lennon:

Could you describe the facilities?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

Considering the generality of Brazilian life, we had good facilities. Most of our women students lived in the dormitories that had accommodations for twelve. We also had two dormitories with accommodations for four. We had the usual run of servants in the Brazilian scene, and we had good food. Food was relatively cheap. There was one aspect which was very interesting. Our school started buying calf and beef liver which, before then, was practically not bought in the market, but became increasingly popular when we started buying it.

The Brazilians eat five times a day, but three of those times are light. The afternoon and bedtimes snacks are light as well as the breakfast, which they call coffee, and consists of coffee, bread, and perhaps jelly or butter. There are two real meals: the first around eleven o'clock and the second around seven or later.

In our physical facilities, we had grounds around our buildings; that made us distinctive. Even in the public schools, the children did not have grounds on which to play. In a way, they didn't need the playground. The school had the boys in the morning and girls in afternoon and when they got through with their four hours, they went home. The students didn't have much in the way of a recess. We had enough grounds to say we had a campus. Our building was pretty. It was a four-story building with a porch above the third story. We had social rooms and an auditorium where we had chapel.

Donald R. Lennon:

How large was the enrollment?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

It was about one hundred students. The overwhelming majority of those in the gymnasium were men students. They didn't consider women for going into the professions. I'm sure there weren't any women. I substituted for a while in the gymnasium, teaching English. It was really amusing. The teacher who had taught them for a long time was from a city called Villa Americana; Villa Americana was established by a colony of people who had left the United States when the slaves were given their freedom. This teacher was a descendant of the colony and I think she knew a lot of English, but her accent was very



Portuqueseized. One of the boys in the gymnasium came to me and said, "We suppose you know your English, but we can understand Miss ? better." I was used to teaching students advanced enough in their English where they didn't have the trouble these gymnasium boys had with a more elementary vocabulary. The students I taught were well advanced. There were only a few from the Villa Americana colony.

When I had been there thirteen months, I was told that I would have to teach ethics in Portuguese. I was really appalled, because I had landed with knowledge of only a few Portuguese words. I had studied with a tutor, in the city of So Paulo, who was highly regarded, but he didn't know how to teach a foreigner. He would give me lessons like a fourth grader. I knew a lot of other languages and, at times, I would assign myself my own lessons. The English I taught took up half my time, until I was assigned to teach ethics in Portuguese. I was told by one of the Brazilian teachers that ethics was hard to teach in Portuguese, because some terms used in a conversational way didn't mean the same thing in the moral science. Of course, it was doubly hard for me, because I didn't know the other meanings well enough anyway. I really struggled. Our textbook was English, but our communication had to be in Portuguese. It was against the state law for any course to be taught in a foreign language except the foreign language itself. This was understandable of course.

At the end of twenty-five months, I was told I was to take on a course in comparative religion and psychology. I was appalled again, but I managed to get through. As I began to understand the vocabulary, certain words in Portuguese got to be more familiar than in English, even though we still had English textbooks. There were no treatments adapted for class use in Portuguese in these courses.

One memory I have was when I attempted to give a true/false quiz in an ethics course. One question, which I thought was simple, came back with everybody getting the answer wrong. I found out the statement I had made was one that conveyed the entirely wrong idea to them. I couldn't count the wrong answer against them, because it was my



error instead of theirs.

I had another experience entirely separate from the school. It was down in the slum area and it involved a little boy who was so far from a Sunday school that he didn't go. I went down there on Sunday mornings and had a very small Sunday school hour. Someone told me I shouldn't be going down in that slum area. I told them I wasn't afraid and I was going by streetcar. They said it was because the language was so bad. I told them, since I didn't understand that kind of language it couldn't hurt me.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did the mission complex have any other function, other than school? Was there a mission hospital?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

School was the only thing. In fact, our Methodist mission has done nothing with medicine or the hospital. One reason is because the Catholics have done a good bit of that type of thing. The Presbyterians have been more venturesome into the hard spots in Brazil than we have. In fact, the Presbyterians have paved the way for Methodist services. Our function, however, has been more of an educational and evangelistic approach. We had the theological school and about half a dozen schools from the south all the way up to Rio. We don't have any north of Rio.

We have a school in the Diamond State of Brazil at Belo Horizonte which means "Beautiful Horizon." It's a beautiful city, and its very typical in a way because there is the beauty of a part of the city and then just wretched conditions elsewhere. I have a little foster son in Belo Horizonte that I was assigned when the little girl I had moved away. He is from a poverty stricken home just as the little girl was. It's under the Christian Children's Fund sponsorship.

Donald R. Lennon:

Was there much opposition from the government or the Catholic Church to a Protestant denomination opening a school?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

Being in this educational center, I was in a much more advanced environment than in some of the other places. I never got into the area of Brazil where there was great opposition. A friend of mind told me about one place where the people were told not to



even drink a drink that was offered to them. There was very strong opposition. I remember one day I went down to mail a package and I had forgotten my purse. The mail clerk didn't know me, but he knew I was from the Protestant school, and he told me that he would just give it to me. I suppose he took it out of his own pocket.

Latin American Catholicism has been very lenient in some ways, but very rigid in others. For instance, one official in a Catholic church in Argentina made the statement that Protestantism was worthwhile only if it were for nothing but to help the Catholic faith gain some of the benefits and corrections of Protestantism. An outstanding example is a clipping from a paper which said, in a scornful way, the Protestants allowed their followers to read the Bible and make their own interpretation. It was mentioned as something perilous to the cause. Another clipping said the Catholics must learn their Bible as well as the Protestants have learned theirs.

Protestantism has made its gift to Catholicism there, but the devotion of the Catholics is a challenge to Protestants. For instance, those Catholics who go on long, tiring pilgrimages to shrines may be saving up the better part of the year to make this pilgrimage. The trip itself might be very arduous, but they take it just that seriously. Protestantism can certainly learn from that.

There is also the other side of what we can give to them. I was really appalled once when I walked in to observe the very prestigious cathedral of So Paulo. In the vestibule was an offering box. A notice on the box read that prayers would be said according to the amount of the offering week by week. It was appalling to me.

Donald R. Lennon:

Do you remember any other incidents involving your school or your stay there?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

The Brazilians' love of beauty was impressive to me. Following the customs of Brazil, our students were not allowed to go walking alone. They had to be chaperoned. I would be walking along with a group and the students would sometimes stop in awesome admiration of a sunset.

I also taught physical education. When I took over physical education, we didn't



have a gymnasium, but the weather was mild enough, year round, that we seldom needed indoor exercise. We had several practice rooms and I got my students to go into those practice rooms and exercise to music. In connection with their physical education, I gave one or two May Day occasions. Since it was in October, it wasn't May Day; so I just called it a spring festival. I got the physical education assignment in a round about way.

The physical education course, when I went there, was taught by a German who gave Swedish gymnastics only. I had never had much experience in Swedish gymnastics. It was highly regimented, and I went out and took it with the students. The students hated it and after some time, I was asked to take the women students. I loved physical education in my own school days and I hated to see them hate it. I organized their physical education in a manner patterned after a point system, as in some of our American physical education programs. I consider that as some of my best work. It was a different approach from the classroom and I got a lot of pleasure out of it. I brought them around to an entirely different view concerning physical education. I gave them some of the formal exercises, but I also had games and made it more what the American system calls for. The last class I taught there, the seniors, did a beautiful thing when I was leaving. They put on a program that picked up what they had learned in their physical education. It was just really magnificent. In certain ways they are quick learners. They put so much of themselves into it.

I also have an example of a child's love for pictures. There was a little girl in our school who was supposed to be seven years old. However, we often wondered if she was just six instead. The young girl wanted a subscription to the Ladies Home Journal. We knew the family had the money, but her older sister thought it was foolish for the little girl to want the magazine. She said, "My sister can't read so she doesn't need to take the Ladies Home Journal. We were quite sure she wanted the magazine for the pictures, so we got her a subscription.

I have another story which tells about the social life in Brazil during the time I was there. We were trying to raise money for something and I suggested that we have an



historical pageant. A young pre-law student (not one of our students), who was on the committee to help decide, thought it was too fantastic of an undertaking, but I was fascinated with the idea, because Brazil has such a beautiful history and so different from our own.

The committee agreed to let us attempt the pageant. We were going to begin with the Indian phase of Brazilian life and go on through. In one episode, Napoleon was threatening the Portuguese crown so much that the Portuguese royalty fled to Brazil as an exiled kingship. I had picked one of our students to play the queen of Portugal, who had come to Brazil. She lived across from the school, but when her father found out about it, he would not let her come for rehearsal, because he didn't want her to be associated with the boys in the play. I had to find someone else. It so happened the very boy who had thought it was too great an undertaking played the part of the king. He and the girl, who ended up playing the queen, later married. I thought if the girl I had first picked had married, as a result of that play, I would have had to have left. It really was an amusing incident.

Donald R. Lennon:

Are the boys and girls segregated and not allowed to socialize?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

No, but if they dated, someone else had to be present. The romances were manipulated to an extent. The boys would stand on the sidewalk, outside our building, and look up at the windows, hoping some girl would appear. When we went walking, the girls always wanted to go around the square. For a long time, I didn't know why. I finally discovered they wanted a chance to see the boys. As a result, both the girls and boys would somehow finally get together. I always wondered how a proposal was made since they were never supposed to be alone.

Donald R. Lennon:

Did they have to go through their parents for a wedding proposal?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

I never knew if that was true, but I think it must have been.

One of my students married an Argentine and they carried on their courtship in English. I always wondered how she could speak English so well since she wasn't one of my star pupils. I would have thought they would have made out better with her speaking



Portuguese and him speaking Spanish. When I got an invitation to their marriage, they had each set of parents to announce the marriage. It was very interesting. It ended with a definite announcement on each side. When my sister designed her wedding invitation, she designed it after my student's wedding announcement. I think it was a lovely thing to do, because the girl's parents should not be the only people to announce the marriage. I think it ought to come from both parents. I liked it.

The local church pastor, who lived only two or three blocks from the school, was from a quite outstanding family of the state of So Paulo. His family was Catholic and he had been in the process of preparing for the Catholic priesthood. As he went to school and studied, he eventually discovered he was not going to be content in the Catholic priesthood. He went to one of the Catholic officials and told him. The official was very broad-minded and told him if he couldn't find his place in it to do what he had to do. His family did not take such a liberal view and ostracized him from the family. He later joined the ministry.

He was always trying to be as economical as he could in order to have more money for the cause. At times I thought he was kind of severe on his family. He had three children at the time. One day he decided his children would have coffee and bread for breakfast, but no butter. Butter is thought of as a necessity by the Brazilians for their first meal of the day. In fact, our students would not think of taking a hike before their first meal and the butter was practically a necessity. Even though he had tiny children, he decided he would make the sacrifice. He was a wonderful person, however. He traveled to the United States when Brazil had no stoplights and when he came back, one of the stories he enjoyed telling was how marvelous it was that Americans stopped for stoplights.

While I was there, a committee of Brazilians came to North Carolina to study the North Carolina highway system. Brazil was unique in that there are parts of the country that had airports but did not have roadways. Making the roadway was too laborious or too lengthy a process. Brazil has an interesting saying: The South American will choose the most beautiful route for a highway and the American will choose the shortest. This is



indicative to the extent of how we are more practical and they are more artistic. Cultural life in Brazil was largely patterned after the Europeans; however, I think Brazil leans more toward the United States now.

Donald R. Lennon:

Was there any political turmoil while you were there?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

Yes. A revolution started over the possibility that a South Brazilian might be the president. Brazil is quite politically-minded. Many of my women students were quite stirred up over the whole situation. We didn't dare utter an opinion at all. The night before the election, it was almost bedlam. Everyone was so excited. We had boys who ran away to the woods to avoid getting into the army. I don't think there was any bloodshed, but there was great excitement of what may have happened. After the election the next morning you would never have known anything had happened. Everything returned to normal when the vote was taken. Brazil has always been a peace-loving country. They received their independence without any bloodshed. The son of the emperor, who had fled to Brazil from Portugal, left his son to be his representative. His son had lived in Brazil long enough that his sentiments were with the people. He went out one day and threw up his hand in a gesture of enthusiasm and said, "Independence or death. Independense or Morte." He was like Patrick Henry. That was just about it. Of course, they freed their slaves in the same way with little disturbance. Traditionally, they have been rather distinctive for their peace.

Brazil still has traumatic feelings about being so dependent financially and technically. For instance, the railroads in Brazil were largely built with money from outside the country.

I asked a dear friend of mine if she would love me in spite of the fact that I am a North American. She told me one day that she was a full-blooded Brazilian. I asked her what she meant by that. She said that it meant she had black, Indian, and white blood. She was very proud of it.

In the town where I was, the pride of a second generation Protestant was great. I don't mean it was a pride that you could not appreciate. It was more a thankfulness that they



were second generation.

In one way the men in our church surpassed us in that they were as organized in the missionary endeavor as the women. They were joined together in their work. This union was even more remarkable, because of the isolation of the boys from the girls and the men from the women. The isolation, however, was not maintained in the church life.

One of the regrettable facts, I observed, was the extent to which the Protestants went in their efforts to not crowd their churches with images and ornamentation. They ended up with bare churches. The church in Piracicaba was totally devoid of beauty. With the Brazilians' love of beauty, it seemed a shame that there was not a stained glass window of any kind. It was just frosted glass. There was an arrangement of flowers every Sunday. We even hesitated to use candles, because they were associated, in the minds of our students, with Catholicism. To light a candle was to light a candle for a death like it is done in the Catholic faith.

Donald R. Lennon:

What other Protestant churches were there?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

There was only our church in the whole city. Some of our hymns were even translated into Portuguese. Except for the bleakness in the worship place, Brazil patterned their Protestantism very much after ours. I think as time goes on, the Protestants will surely turn to more beautification; however, Brazil has tried to make the break very distinctive to show that it is different. They did have "I am the truth and the light" arched over their pulpit; if you eliminated the flowers, that was the extent of their ornamentation.

Their devotion to church life, however, was really beautiful. They put more Protestantism into their home life; they might hold a service for someone going away or some event. In a sense, they got some of their religious thinking from the Catholics, because it would be impossible to go into a Catholic home and not find some little nook that had a small worship center. The Protestants preserved the idea, not with a worship center, but with the thought and the practice of their faith in the home. As far as seeing signs of Christianity, you just had to walk down the street. For example, the drugstore near our



school was named the "Drugstore of the Good Jesus." They have named so much after the Christian tradition. In some of the stores, there might be the Catholic representation of Christ on the cross or a room crowded with the symbols of Christianity. Out in some remote roadway, a cross and other symbols of the crucifixion (such as a cock to memorialize the crowing of the cock that alerted Peter) might be posted along the trail. When we used to pass the cathedral, riding on the streetcar in the city of So Paulo, the men would tip their hats. There was an awareness of their faith the Protestants had not yet openly adopted.

Donald R. Lennon:

How many teachers did the school have?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

We had a dozen full-time teachers, three Americans and three Brazilians. We had part-time teachers also. The use of part-time teachers in Brazil was a common occurrence. For instance, a doctor might come in from town and teach hygiene, or a lawyer might come in and teach a course in social science. I don't remember how many people we had who were part-time teachers. Since the school has become a university, there is probably a much larger percentage now.

Donald R. Lennon:

Is it still supported by the Methodist Church?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

I asked that question in a letter I wrote to Brazil in the fall. The answer I got was really not conclusive to me. The person said they still had an excellent Christian leader there.

Donald R. Lennon:

Are there any missionaries there?

Ruth Willard Merritt:

I don't know. I am sure no missionary is the head there. Brazil became a separate church about the time I left in 1930. It was remarkable they chose an American missionary for their first bishop. Ever since then, they have had Brazilian bishops. Brazil still feels they need missionaries, but they want to take the top positions for their own people.

One service I undertook, for our students, was a devotional book in which there would be scripture, some quotations from literature, and a hymn for each page. We got those books printed and distributed them to our students for their own devotional use. After



I left, I was told that in one of the revolutionary periods of Brazil, the book was taken and revised to be used by soldiers of a certain unit. I do have a copy of the original book. It was a tiny thing. There were thirty-one readings, a reading for each day of the month. I was impressed that someone got hold of it and enlarged it for the soldiers to use.

[End of Interview]

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