Augusta missionary Emma Lester had brushes with history

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On Sept. 18, 1904, The Augusta Chronicle noted at the bottom of a long story about the first day of school that one of Houghton School’s teachers was not returning.

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Emma Lester was born in Augusta. At age 21, in the early 1900s, she went to China to do missionary work.  FILE
FILE
Emma Lester was born in Augusta. At age 21, in the early 1900s, she went to China to do missionary work.

Emma Lester, the newspaper reported, was leaving to begin her training as a missionary to China. That the newspaper would report her career change probably indicates that many in Augusta knew Emma and her remarkable family.

Her mother, Martha Lester, was one of Augusta’s most successful teachers of the turn of the previous century, active in city mission work. She was so revered for her selfless teaching of poor mill children in Harrisburg that a decade after she died the Richmond County School System named a school in her honor on Broad Street beside the Augusta Canal.

There was Emma’s older sister, Julia Lester Dillon, one of the foremost female landscape architects in America in the early 1900s. She is credited with giving Augusta its “Garden City” motto.

Emma’s brother, Ben Lester Jr., grew up to become Augusta postmaster. And then there was Emma, who at 21, went to China.

It was not the safest of career moves. These were the days just after the Boxer Rebellion of 1898-1901, times in which more than 200 Christian missionaries were killed. She would be away from Augusta for decades but came back regularly to report on her work and to encourage others toward Christian service.

In China she would teach some of the most influential people in the Far East. One was a young girl who became Madam Chiang Kai-Shek. She invited Emma to her Dec. 1, 1927, wedding to her country’s leader, Gen. Chiang Kai-Shek.

A biography about Madam Chiang in later years relates how she spoke to diplomats in flawless English, but with “a Georgia accent.”
In mid-life, Emma Lester would meet and marry college professor Lewis Chase. They lived in New York and Washington and shared a love of literature.

Chase was a prolific letter-writer who corresponded with the leading authors of his day, including Robert Frost, Thomas Hardy, Conrad Aiken and Edna St. Vincent Millay.

After he died, Emma donated those letters to the Library of Congress, where a printout of their catalog is a half-inch thick

Lester lived her later years in Washington, where she was a family friend of North Carolina Sen. Sam Ervin, who gained national fame during the Watergate hearings.

Lester, newspaper accounts would report, was the 83-year-old passenger in the car driven by Ervin in 1967 when he lost control of the vehicle on the way to a church function and crashed into the U.S. Supreme Court Building.

Emma Service Lester Chase passed away in 1978 at age 95.

Her Chronicle obituary notes her service as a missionary and the honor of the St. James Sunday school class. She was buried next to her husband in Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, N.Y., near the graves of Susan B. Anthony and Frederick Douglass.

Such would seem a fitting finale for a woman born on Augusta’s Ellis Street who went on to teach Madam Chiang Kai-Shek, edit the letters of Robert Frost, befriend Watergate Sen. Sam Ervin and ended up being buried near America’s first great advocates for the rights of women and minorities.

We all are touched by history.

Emma Lester touched it back.


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