Mary Constance Moniz Lewis

Mary Constance Moniz Lewis

1883 – 1970

Essay by Nancy Catherine Willett

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

Mary Constance Moniz Lewis, early 1940s. Courtesy of Nancy Willett.

Essay by Nancy Catherine Willett

Mary Constance Moniz Lewis was born between December 1883 and December 1886 in Ribeira Grande, St Michael’s, Azores.  At a very young age, she traveled from the Azores across the Atlantic Ocean with her father, Joseph J. Moniz, headed for California. From there, she traveled again with her father across the United States, bound for Little Compton. As a young child, she arrived in Little Compton and was one of the many people who came from the Azores to settle in the town in the late 1800’s. After arriving in Little Compton, it was there that she spent her entire lifetime.  This is a story of her life, the way that she told it to me and as I remember it. This also includes some of the memories that were shared with me by some of her children, grandchildren, and others who knew her.

Mary Constance Moniz Lewis was my grandmother. I remember so very well sitting beside her and listening intently to her most interesting stories of how she came to Little Compton. She spoke of how her father, Joseph J. Moniz, brought her from California by train and then by stage coach to Little Compton when she was a very young girl. For reasons that she did not reveal to me, her father, Joseph, left Little Compton to go out West, leaving her with Abby Wilbor and her husband Oliver. The Wilbors lived on West Main Road, in the house that is now known as the Wilbor House. She spoke very fondly of the Wilbors and affectionately called Abby Wilbor, Aunt Abby. Grandmother Lewis spoke to me of how Aunt Abby treated her as if she were one of her own family. She also spoke of how Aunt Abby taught her to cook on an open hearth and explained the location of her little bedroom. It was just off of the room where the big open hearth fireplace was. I could see it in my mind’s eye as she explained each and every detail, telling of how she would swing the big black kettle, which hung from a cast iron arm, over the open fire. This large kettle would be filled with a hearty meal. Aunt Abby also taught Grandmother Lewis many other essential domestic duties that every young girl would have learned from her mother. She could cook, sew, make clothes without a pattern, do hand work, knit, make soap, garden, can vegetables, and many other duties that were part of everyday life at that time. I remember Grandmother Lewis mentioning that she would walk to the Number 2 School, which was located on the corner of the West Main Road and Taylor’s Lane.

When my daughter was a small child, I took her to visit the Wilbor House, which was open to the public as a museum. I looked for those things that Grandmother Lewis had so vividly described to me, such as the open hearth fireplace and the little bedroom off of the room where the hearth was. It was exactly as she had described it to me. I saw the very hearth where she learned to cook and the little room that was once hers.

Even though the Wilbor family treated Grandmother Lewis with such kindness, I cannot imagine a little girl being brought to a distant land and then left alone with a family that she did not know. She was alone without her true family. Grandmother Lewis grew up and lived her life never knowing her grandparents, aunts, uncles or cousins.  Aunt Abby Wilbor was a very kind lady. She was the one who reared Grandmother Lewis, and it may very well have been her influence that formed the remarkable lady that was Mary Constance Moniz Lewis.

Recently, I asked someone who knew the culture and history of that time, what they thought of the circumstances that surrounded Grandmother Lewis being left with the Wilbor family. The answer was very clear and made perfect sense. During that period, the islands of the Azores were going through some hard times. Many people left for the United States to obtain work opportunities. It was also explained to me that in that era, it would have been very difficult for a man alone, to care for a little girl. A sacrifice was made on Grandmother Lewis’ behalf, to leave her with a family that would take care of her, give her a proper home, instruction, and education. Knowing this was such a comfort to me.

As time went on, Grandmother Lewis reached the age of courtship and marriage. Aunt Abby introduced her to a young man who lived and worked as a farmer and hired hand at the Gray Farm that was located on the Commons Road in Little Compton. That young man would become her loving husband.  They courted, fell in love, and in early April of 1902, Mary Constance Moniz married Manuel Marshall Lewis, who was the love of her life. She told me how they went by horse and wagon to St. Michael’s Catholic Church that was in Fall River, Massachusetts, to be married. She described how it was a very long ride, and how the entire trip took most of the day. Aunt Abby Wilbor gave Grandmother Lewis some necessary household things to start her married life, just as a mother would give to her own daughter. After my grandparents married, they lived in the Betty Alden House, which was built by Betty Alden’s husband, William Pabodie. They rented the land and house. It was there in that very historic home that most of their children were born.  They lived off the land, while rearing their growing family. When I was a young girl, Grandmother Lewis told me that she was so happy to have lived in that very old homestead, which was once owned by people who had been residents of Plymouth, Massachusetts. She explained to me who Betty Alden was, and told me to be sure to visit Betty Alden’s grave, which is located in the old cemetery on the Commons. After becoming an adult, I did indeed visit that grave, just as she told me to do.

My eldest uncle Edward told me the story as it was told to him by his father, of how his father came to the United States from Liverpool, England. Edward explained how one day while in Liverpool, England, his father was shanghaied and put on a whaling ship that was headed for parts unknown in search of whales. He ended up coming to the United States via a whaling ship and eventually settled in the town of Little Compton. Grandfather Lewis was a very hard working man. Besides farming, he was also a gardener and did gardening for many local people that lived in Little Compton. He also went to California from time to time to work in a vineyard, perfecting grapes.  It is known to me that Grandfather Manuel Marshall Lewis had British ethnicity.

Grandmother and Grandfather Lewis had 12 children. They were: Edward Marshall (Ed), Georgianna Helen (Georgie), William (Bill), Agnes (Agie), Elizabeth Alice, Manuel Marshall Jr. (Manny), Elsie Louisa, Cecilia (Cee), Edna Abby, John (who passed away at birth), Edith Marjorie (Edie), and Dorothy Carole (Dottie). Dorothy, is the youngest and is my mother. Edna’s middle name was after Abby Wilbor. My Aunt Elizabeth told me that she was named after Elizabeth Gray. She said that Elizabeth Gray was very good to her mother. I am not sure if it was Bessie (Elizabeth) Gray or her mother Elizabeth that my aunt was named after.

In 1915, Grandmother and Grandfather Lewis purchased a thirty plus acre farm on the corner of East Main Road and Maple Avenue, also called Elms Corner. The house is known as The Elms. Grandmother Lewis told me that many years ago the house had been raised. The original home was a cape style and built sometime in the 1700’s. The first floor of the house was built in the early 1800’s. The detail of the moldings, hardware, and floors are very different from the first floor to the second and third floors. The differences are clearly visible.  The last four of Grandmother and Grandfather Lewis’ children were born at The Elms. They were: Edna Abby, John (who passed away at birth), Edith Marjorie, and my mother, Dorothy Carole.  Together at their homestead on Elms Corner, Grandfather and Grandmother Lewis farmed, lived off the land, and continued to rear their family.  They had saved their money for a long time to buy their very own farm. They worked very hard for what they had and their work days were long. Besides having a huge garden for vegetables, they had cows, some horses, chickens, and sometimes a pig. Grandmother Lewis took care of her children, did the washing by hand, kept her house impeccably clean, cooked wonderful meals using a cast iron stove, tended her large garden, canned vegetables from the garden and fruit from the fruit trees, made jelly from the currant and raspberry bushes, as well as many other chores that would help her husband run the farm. Everything she cooked was from scratch.  She made her own lye soap from meat drippings. She made a lot of the clothes for the children without using a pattern, and once told me that she cut up her wedding dress to make dresses for some of her little girls. She was a very hard worker indeed. There was not much that she couldn’t do in the way of running a house and living off the land. As far as I know, Grandmother Lewis did all the business end of running the farm.  Grandmother and Grandfather Lewis worked together and had a very happy life. They enjoyed helping people. There was always room at their table for anyone that needed a meal. During the depression, my mother remembers her parents giving away vegetables from their own garden to anyone who needed it. Sometimes folks would drive their cars to The Elms, and my grandparents would fill the trunks of their cars with vegetables.

Some of the children went on to higher education. Georgie went to nursing school and was studying to be a midwife. Agnes went to the Thibodeau Business College in Fall River, Massachusetts. At a later date, Edna went to a dental nursing school in Boston and became a dental nurse.

Besides helping her husband with the farm, Grandmother Lewis got a job outside of the home.  She cooked for a family, by the name of Waters, who lived on the West Main Road. They were very good to her and her family.  

Grandmother Lewis could hitch up a team of horses and drive a wagon. My mother remembers when her mother would go out, hitch up the horses to the wagon and drive it to Gray’s Mill in Adamsville to get corn meal. She used some of the corn meal to make Johnny Cakes.  My father once told me a story that Grandmother Lewis had told him. One day, she hitched up the horses to the wagon and headed for Adamsville as she had done so many times before. Upon reaching Adamsville Hill, the horses got spooked and started running wildly down that very steep hill. She told my father that she was so frightened, and she didn’t think that she would reach the bottom of that hill in one piece. By some miracle, she managed to get the horses under control and reached the bottom of Adamsville Hill, unharmed.

September 11, 1935, was a very tragic day for the Lewis family. Grandfather Lewis went out to the pasture to give the bull water, and on that warm September day, Grandfather Lewis was violently attacked by his own bull. A friend and neighbor that was passing by the farm that day, saw what was happening. He stopped his truck, and he and the man that was traveling with him, helped Grandfather Lewis into the house. Very sadly, however, it was too late. He passed away in the house shortly after.  It was a terrible tragedy and shock to the family as well as to the community.  My mother remembered that the funeral was very large, and so many people came back to the house for lunch, which my grandmother had prepared. She remembered that the two sitting rooms, dining room, and kitchen were overflowing with people that day. Grandfather Lewis was very well liked in the community. He was a kind and dear man. When I was older, Grandmother Lewis told me how she was extremely devastated by this sudden and heartbreaking loss of her husband. She told me that there could never be another man for her.  His death was so unexpected and horrifying. When she spoke of it to me, so many years after, she would have tears in her eyes. Words cannot express the pain she had felt and also carried with her over the years. The loss was beyond measure, yet through it all she pressed forward with her life. She was the strongest woman that I ever knew. After the death of Grandfather Lewis, Grandmother continued to run the family farm, care for her children, and went out to work for the Waters family.  Through the grief that she endured, she persevered. She never gave up and kept on course, knowing that she had to triumph through it all. She truly was a remarkable lady. I cannot help but think of how she was again alone. She was first left alone by her father and now alone and widowed with several children still at home, a farm to run, and a job to go to every day.

Not long after WWII broke out, Bill left the family farm and enlisted in the Army. He was in the 18th Army Airborne Corps, Sky Dragons. Bill was a paratrooper and parachuted into enemy territory. He was in the Battle of the Bulge as well as other battles during WWII.  Manny Jr. also was away in the Army. With all that Grandmother Lewis had to deal with, she also had the worry of her two boys being away at war. Thankfully, both Bill and Manny did come home when the war ended.  Edward was the only son that did not enlist because he stayed at home to help his widowed mother. He also helped her with the two younger children, Edie and Dorothy, who were still at home. Grandmother Lewis also had taken in one of her young grandchildren. His mother, Agnes, was living and working in Providence, Rhode Island.  Georgianna, Elizabeth, Cecilia and Elsie, were also married and out of the home by this time, and Edna was away at school in Boston.

At the outbreak of WWII, a fort was to be built in Little Compton. This would later on be called Fort Church. It was a WWII U.S. Army coastal defense fort that was located in Sakonnet Point.  Many farm houses opened their doors as boarding houses at that time, to help accommodate the workers that would be coming to town to build the fort. Grandmother Lewis welcomed the opportunity to open her home to those workers.  She put a sign out in front of the house, “Rooms for Rent,” and before too long the extra rooms that she had available in her home were being filled with workers from different parts of the country. By doing this, it provided her with the opportunity to make some extra income as well as contribute to the war effort. She made hearty meals for the boarders and did their washing. Grandmother Lewis had a hired hand to help with the farm because her two boys were off to war. She still managed the farm, cared for her children, went to work for the Waters family, and now ran this boarding house. At this time, Edith and my mother, Dorothy, were at the age where they could help with some of the cooking of the meals, under their mother’s instruction. Grandmother Lewis also rented out some rooms to those in the area in need a place to stay. One day as I was going to Providence to work, I was riding on the bus that ran from Little Compton and Tiverton to Providence. I sat near a lady that lived in Little Compton. We began to talk and when she realized who I was, she remembered how kind Grandmother Lewis was to one of her family members. She told me that Grandmother Lewis took her family member into her home in their time of need and treated this person like her own family. It didn’t surprise me at all to hear this, but I was honored that she shared this story with me. This is the way Grandmother Lewis was. She treated everyone with kindness, respect, and welcomed everyone into her home. She had a true gift of hospitality.

After WWII ended, Bill bought a farm of his own in Massachusetts. He and his wife farmed that land. Manny had married and tried farming at The Elms, but before too long, he fell on hard times with this venture. The cows took ill, and as a result Manny lost the herd. He did not farm any longer.

After the cows were gone and Grandmother Lewis’ barn was empty, she rented out the fields to a farmer, who lived in town. He would bring his heifers in the spring, they would graze in the pasture all summer long, and in the fall he would take them back to his farm. He also plowed Grandmother’s large garden for her as well as plowed some of her fields for himself, which he used to plant corn for his herd. This continued throughout the 1950’s and very early 1960’s. It was a little bit of extra income for Grandmother Lewis. She still continued to keep a few chickens for fresh eggs.

A few years after WWII ended my mother, Dorothy, married my father. They lived in Grandmother Lewis’ farm house while they were saving money to buy a house of their own. I was born a year or so after and was brought from birth to The Elms to live there. I am so grateful to have had my first years of life in that loving home. My grandmother’s influence was priceless. From birth, I was shown by her example in which I learned valuable lessons in my most formative years. I saw her kindness at work, and how she treated everyone with respect and love. She had the most wonderful manners and had such a sweet disposition, always speaking with a soft voice.   As I grew older, I watched her with intent as she worked in the garden, did the canning of the vegetables and fruit, made clothes from scratch, do her housework, cook delicious meals, make bread, and so many other household chores. Her house was impeccably clean, and I remember the excitement of spring cleaning when everything was made fresh. The lace curtains were washed by hand and put on curtain stretchers. Everything was washed and sparkling. When Grandmother Lewis had company and on special occasions, she loved to set a beautiful table in the dining room, using her most lovely dishes and table linens. Her beautiful Victorian furnishings were very well taken care of. She did everyday chores with happiness, and she loved caring for those that were in her home. For it was that home that she and her loving husband had worked so hard to buy, diligently maintain and lovingly reared their children. She was so very happy to carry on what they had begun so many years before.

My parents and I moved to Tiverton, Rhode Island, by the time I started first grade, but when I was nine years old we spent an entire summer with Grandmother Lewis at The Elms. I was so very thrilled to be back in her home and spend time with her. I was old enough now to help her prepare fruit for pies and help with some of the chores. Together, we picked currants, and I watched her make currant jelly that was so delicious. She showed me how to make braided rugs and knit. She loved her garden and very much loved the English flower gardens that her dear husband had hand dug, so many years before. Those English flower gardens were beyond beautiful. She loved to be out in nature, working amongst those gorgeous flowers. What a lovely memorial to Grandfather Lewis, to have those special gardens that he had hand dug and cared for. Out of all of the most lovely flowers that grew, I was told that Baby’s Breath was her very favorite.  I can remember Aunt Cecilia’s husband, who was a gardener by trade and had once worked in Newport, Rhode Island, for the Vanderbilt family, would come to The Elms on the weekends and helped maintain those most special gardens for Grandmother Lewis.  There were perennials of many colors and species. The ones that stand out in my mind were lilac and hydrangea bushes as well as hollyhocks, iris, foxgloves, daffodils and tulips.  The roses that grew up and blanketed the stone wall, that was in the front and alongside of the house, were so beautiful. The fragrance from those roses was so much better than very expensive perfume. When the wind blew just right, on a warm June day, the heavenly scent from those lovely heirloom roses filled the air.

My mother, Dorothy, told me that when she was a young girl, two ladies came calling at The Elms. She remembered that they were well dressed women. Her mother greeted them, and they went into the parlor to talk. The ladies stayed a long time, and after they left Grandmother Lewis told her daughters Dorothy and Edie that those ladies were her relatives from California. She did get their addresses, but I do not know if they kept in touch. Grandmother Lewis spoke of her half siblings to me and how they lived in California. She also told me of how her father played guitar very beautifully.

A few years ago, with the help of and a DNA test, I was able to find the family of my grandmother’s father, Joseph J. Moniz. I found family trees and I traced the information back, proving that it was indeed my grandmother’s family. It was through those family trees, I learned that after leaving my grandmother in Little Compton, her father did go out West. He went to the state of Washington. There, he met a young woman, and they were married about 1892. They had four children of their own out in Washington state. Their last child was born there in 1897. After those children were born, Joseph J. Moniz, his wife, and their four children traveled back from the state of Washington to Little Compton, Rhode Island. They arrived sometime just before 1900. There in Little Compton, two more children were born to Joseph and his wife. The last one was born in the fall of 1902, just months after my grandparents were married in the early spring of 1902.  Not long after the birth of Joseph and his wife’s baby in 1902, Joseph and his family went back to the West Coast and settled in the San Francisco Bay Area of California. He never returned to Little Compton again.  I would like to believe that when he left Little Compton that last time, he did so knowing that his daughter, Mary Constance, was well cared for. He must have known that she married a wonderful man and that she was so very happy. It gave me such peace to know that my grandmother’s father, Joseph, did indeed go back to Little Compton to be with his daughter. Although it was brief, she did have some time to spend with her father.

Through, I have contacted some of the family of Joseph J. Moniz that live in California, and I do keep in touch with a few of them. They now know the story of my grandmother Mary Constance Moniz Lewis and how she came to live in Little Compton. One of the Moniz cousins that I keep in touch with visited Little Compton some years ago.  She came to visit the town where her grandfather was born. He was one of the two children that was born in Little Compton. She told me some stories of our great grandfather, Joseph J. Moniz. She spoke of how he had his own ship and could speak five different languages.  She also sent me several pictures of the family, and looking at them I can see many family resemblances.  I am so very happy that I have found the lost relatives of Great Grandfather Joseph J. Moniz.

Grandmother Lewis had several grandchildren. In conversations I have had with some of her grandchildren concerning our grandmother, we conclude that we all have a common love for her. We all feel that she was the true matriarch of our family.  Some of us spent a lot of time with her. Some of us lived at her home, whether it was full time or summers. Some of us lived in town or the next town over, some lived next door, and some lived across the state.  We all remember our dear Grandmother Lewis as being the best of the best as far as a grandmother goes, and we all feel so very blessed that we had such quality time with her. The time spent with her seems as if it was not enough, yet that time that we did spend with her is treasured.  Each of us has our very own personal stories and memories of her that are etched so permanently in our souls. She touched all of our hearts so very deeply. She was a very dear soul and grandmother. We can never thank her enough for all that she did for us. I know that I cannot ever begin to thank her enough for the way she touched and influenced my life by her loving example. I will forever love her and be grateful to her.

Grandmother Mary Constance Lewis passed away in April of 1970. It was one of the saddest days of my life as I am sure it was one of the saddest days for others who also loved her and held her dear. She was not a woman of material wealth or riches, but far beyond the riches of material things she had the riches of a kind heart, generosity, respect, hospitality, love, and so much more. These are the kinds of riches that last forever. She leaves a legacy to those who love her, of those fond memories of how she lived her life so simply and fully every day, how she treated us and others with love and kindness, how she showed love to her family, and the sacrifices that she made for her loved ones. We have her example of hard work and perseverance through hardship. She never gave up. Mary Constance Lewis loved all of her children and grandchildren. She truly loved us all, and we love her. Love never dies and it goes through eternity.  I am so honored and proud to call Mary Constance Moniz Lewis my grandmother. She will be in my heart and soul forever.

Nancy Catherine Willett, Granddaughter

April 2020

Outdoor exhibit panel from the 2020 special exhibition, The Little Compton Women’s History Project.

Exhibit Text from 2020 Special Exhibition

One of Mary Moniz’ first memories was traveling with her father Joseph from California to Tiverton by train and then by stagecoach to Little Compton. Her father returned west, leaving Mary to be raised by “Aunt Abby Wilbor” of the Wilbor House. Mary spent the rest of her life in Little Compton. She raised 12 children with her husband Manuel Lewis, first as tenant farmers and later at the Elms, their own farm, at the corner of East Main Road and Maple Avenue. In 1935 Manuel died as a result of a bull attack. That tragedy left Mary to provide for the family with the help of the older children.

Then came WWII. Two of Mary’s boys enlisted and left to serve in the Army. Closer to home, the Army began constructing Fort Church, a massive coastal fort, at Sakonnet Point. Workers poured in from around the country, and like many of her neighbors, Mary rented rooms to the men. The extra income helped, and Mary was proud of her contribution to the war effort. She was even prouder of her sons’ service and grateful they both returned safely from war.

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One thought on “Mary Constance Moniz Lewis

  1. This is a wonderful account of your grandmother’s life. You should be very proud to have memorialized her in this beautifully written essay.

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