Edith Florence Ingalls is mentioned only in passing by her nickname, Dolly, in The Little House in the Big Woods, by Laura Ingalls Wilder. She was only a baby in the chapter entitled “Christmas.” But that’s a thrill enough for this great-great-grandchild of hers! But what’s even more amazing is the story of how that branch of the Ingalls family converted to Catholicism, which gave me my Catholic faith.
Edith grew up to marry Heil Nelson Bingham and together they raised 6 children in Oakes, ND. Although not a Catholic family, they chose to send all their daughters to the Catholic school in town. Something must have struck Edith’s husband about the Catholic faith because eventually he converted to the Catholic Church, but Edith resisted. They were married for 38 years before he passed on.
Twenty years after his passing and as her time drew near, Heil appeared to her in a dream telling her, “Edith, you need to make up your mind.” The next morning she requested a priest. The family thought she must mean a minister, but Edith refused to see him and sent him away insisting that she wanted to see a Catholic priest. A priest was fetched and she received her sacraments, passing away the next day.
According to my grandmother’s recollection, all of their daughters converted to the Church and married Irish Catholics. Estella Cora Bingham was one of the girls. She married William Mahoney and together they had four children, my grandmother Dorothy being one of them. Dorothy married Anthony Brack in 1948 and together they had 7 children, one of whom died in infancy. The six they raised together are all still practicing Catholics and have passed on this beautiful and rich faith to their combined 12 children, most of whom are likewise passing along the traditions to their combined 21 children. This year alone, my grandmother had two great-grandchildren receive the sacrament of First Holy Communion, and three more received Confirmation.
The upcoming years will see many more Catholics brought into the fullness of the faith, all because Heil and Edith chose a Catholic education for their daughters. They couldn’t have known how that decision would impact their family legacy.
Like so many before and after me, I fell in love with Laura’s stories. She takes her readers, young and old, by the hand and guides us through those exciting, sometimes dangerous, but always fascinating times of the westward expansion of the United States. Imagine my shock, maybe a little horror, but definitely delight, when at 9 years old after reading The Long Winter my mother informed me that this little family whom I had just suffered with through that horrible, starving winter were my cousins. Tears were definitely involved.
Now as an adult I appreciate even more what Laura has given me personally. She has recorded my family’s history. Of course, the stories focus on her immediate family with only a glance at my branch, but the times, trials, and adventures were not Charles’ and Caroline’s alone. Peter and Eliza shared similar experiences, as did so many others of that time. Laura preserved those common experiences for all future generations.
My fascination with her, and with how I’m distantly related, eventually led me to question how my mostly Catholic family hailed from the Protestant Ingalls family. And now I know.
[See also: The Amazing Deathbed Conversion of Oscar Wilde]