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Multiplying Gifts

One was the archivist; the other, the artist. One carefully preserved decades of family letters, documents, and household ledgers. The other created family occasions.

Calvin alumnae Jennie and Sylvia Stielstra were sisters, the oldest and next-to-youngest of ten children born to Nick and Kate Stielstra on a celery farm north of Holland, Michigan. When Jennie died in March 2001, it was in the same room where she'd been born 96 years before—cared for night and day, in her last months, by her younger sister. Sylvia would spend only one of her 80 years alone in the homestead. When she died suddenly of acute leukemia a year and a week after Jennie, she'd been in the hospital less than 24 hours.

As different as they were in personality, the sisters were alike in their devotion to family and in their energetic and vibrant outreach to others.

Jennie Stielstra left for Nigeria in 1932; she was one of the Christian Reformed Church's first female missionaries to Africa. She'd met other missionaries as a student at Moody Bible Institute, and once she understood mission work to be God's call on her life, she was, according to family members, unstoppable. A woman who mowed the lawn well into her nineties, she was a vigorous trekker and worker in the African bush, despite having one leg weakened by childhood polio.

Home on furlough in 1956, Jennie saw that Sylvia—working full time as an art teacher in the Holland Christian Schools while also caring for their aging parents and a disabled sister—needed help. So Jennie sent to Africa to have her things shipped home. She, too, took a job teaching in the Holland Christian Schools.

For the next 40-plus years Jennie and Sylvia taught hundreds of children; they also volunteered at their home church, Harderwyk Christian Reformed Church, and for numerous community organizations. Sylvia became a sort of "missionary at home," learning Spanish and working with Holland's migrant community.

Christian school teachers, such as the Stielstra sisters, have modest salaries and retirement funds. But family members describe the sisters as utterly content with what they had and with their simple, even frugal, lifestyle. Moreover, as with their time, the sisters were generous with their resources, giving regularly to favorite causes.

Upon Jennie's passing, all of her assets went to Sylvia; upon Sylvia's, the vast majority of their assets were distributed to four Christian organizations. Calvin College was one of them.

At their passing they wished to benefit institutions that would educate and train God's servants in the next generation, and by so doing, to multiply the gifts given to them.


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Sylvia and Jennie Stielstra
Sylvia and Jennie Stielstra
The William Spoelhof Society