Women of History: Marcella Craft

February 26, 2021

Marcella Craft
Portrait of Marcia Craft, circa 1895–1905. P00487. Photo by Apeda of New York.

A melodic voice can do more than just create beautiful notes. It can also elevate beautiful and inspired messages—especially those found in hymns.

Like many Christian churches, The Mother Church for a number of years had a choir that participated in the Sunday services, singing both hymns and anthems. In 1898 that practice changed in the Boston church, which turned to a service that included congregational hymn-singing and a selection performed by a soloist. Within a few years, this became the standard for Christian Science branch churches as well.1 One of the first such individuals was the operatic soprano Marcella Craft (1874–1959).

Born Marcia Craft in Indianapolis, Indiana, she moved with her family to Riverside, California, at the age of 13. There she began her singing career as a choir soloist at the Riverside Baptist Church.2 Noticing her talent, the community sponsored her study in Boston with Charles R. Adams (1834–1900), an internationally accomplished opera tenor and actor.34It was likely during this time that Craft became interested in Christian Science. She never joined The Mother Church, but served as its soloist from January 1898 to October 1900.

While her introduction to Christian Science is not readily documented, we know that Craft was a friend and patient of Christian Science practitioner Laura E. Sargent, who worked on Eddy’s staff for many years.5Her talents and convictions are noted in this church memorandum, dated October 26, 1898:

Mrs. Eddy says the Earl of Dunmore has been a composer of music and he was delighted with Miss Craft’s singing, Mother is informd that Miss C. is deeply interested in C.S. and takes our textbook with her when she travels.6

Eddy recognized Craft’s talents. One notable occasion involved appreciation she expressed early in 1900. This followed a performance Craft gave in Concord, New Hampshire, where Eddy was then living:

Last night I received from you the most beautiful basket of flowers I ever had, and I want to thank you for them.78

That fall Craft handed in her resignation as lead Mother Church soloist to her “beloved mother,” in order to shift the focus to pursuing her self-proclaimed gift of God:

For many years, ever since I first began to study music earnestly, it has been a hope of mine someday to become a great singer and a good woman whose singing would carry over uplifting thought to those who should hear, which they would feel, even if they could not understand…Today singers cannot attain the position and be recognized in the first rank of singers, without European study. Until now, the opportunity for this has never been mine.

She continued her letter by expressing gratitude for The Mother Church:

But the years spent in technical work, have not been lost, and the past two years and a half spent singing in the Mother Church have given me the greatest help in the very time I have most needed, preparing me for better and broader work. I cannot tell you how much Christian Science has meant to me, nor how I have been helped to love more understandingly in the spirit.9

She moved to Milan, Italy, where she studied under Francesco Mottino and Enzo Guagni. Later she would be one of three substitute soloists for The Mother Church, between 1905 and 1915.10 And she would continue to stay connected to Eddy after taking her leave as a permanent soloist.

In 1900 she offered to sing for Eddy, who initially declined, writing that she had lost her “love for material music.”11 Craft responded that she only wanted to sing if Eddy had the “desire to hear the music of the Mother’s Evening Prayer or the Communion Hymn, not to display what small degree of skill” she had.12 (She was referring in this letter to two of Eddy’s poems set to music.)

In fact Craft did sing a piece from Felix Mendelssohn’s oratorio Elijah for Eddy in 1909—a privilege granted to few. William Rathvon, who was one of Eddy’s secretaries, remembered this:

[Marcella] was presented and soon was deep in “Hear ye, Israel,” with Mrs. [Ella] Hoag accompanying her. The room being small only [Adam H. Dickey] and [Calvin Frye] went in, [Irving C. Tomlinson], [Laura Sargent] and I standing in the open doorway. Along the hall and on the stairs were grouped the rest. After one high sustained note our Leader applauded. I can see the erect figure raising her hands high in vigorous clapping. Afterwards she greeted the singer with “You richly deserve all the fame you have received.” [Marcella] kissed her hand and was quite overcome….13

Shortly after that performance, Craft returned to Europe, where she went on to become a famous and accomplished opera singer in Germany.1415 There she sang at the opera houses in Elberfeld and Kiel, as well as in Munich, where she ended up settling.16 Critics gave rave reviews, particularly for her performances as Salome in Richard Strauss’s opera Salome and Butterfly in Giacomo Puccini’s Madame Butterfly.

During those years Craft stayed in touch with Eddy, sending letters that she appreciated receiving. In 1910 Rathvon wrote this to Craft:

You will be gratified, I am sure, to know how pleased Mrs. Eddy was When I handed her your letter this afternoon. As [she] read it through her satisfaction was plainly apparent, and when she handed it back to me it bore a written comment that few letters passing through her hands are given.17

The onslaught of World War I forced Craft to return to the United States. And although she continued to perform to much critical acclaim, she did not reach the same level of fame as she had enjoyed in Europe. Eventually she returned to Germany.181920 In the 1930s she retired to her hometown of Riverside, California. During retirement she continued to be active, founding the Riverside Opera Company and teaching her skills. She passed away at the age of 85.21

Marcella Craft’s talents and appreciation of Christian Science helped communicate the messages of the Bible and Science and Health to congregations at The Mother Church. Although her passion for singing carried her to other shores, she never forgot her faith in pursuing her operatic dream.

 

Listen to Women of History from the Mary Baker Eddy Library Archives, a Seekers and Scholars podcast episode featuring Library staffers Steve Graham and Dorothy Rivera.

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  1. William B. Johnson to Mary Baker Eddy, 13 September 1898, IC001dP1.01.016.”
  2. Hal Durian, “Marcella Craft: Talented and Crafty,” True Stories of Riverside and the Inland Empire (United States: Arcadia Publishing Incorporated, 2013); Finding aid, Marcella Craft papers (MS 071), Special Collections & University Archives, University of California, Riverside.
  3. Finding aid, Marcella Craft papers (MS 071).
  4. Granville L. Howe and William Smythe Babcock Mathews, “Charles R. Adams,” A Hundred Years of Music in America (G. L. How, 1889), 218.
  5. William R. Rathvon, “Reminiscences of William Roedel Rathvon, C.S.B. Volume I,” 28 March 1941, 211; Mary Baker Eddy Library, “Soloists of the Mother Church,” updated June 2005.
  6. Calvin A. Frye to Albert Metcalf, 26 October 1898, L06672.
  7. Marcella Craft to Mary Baker Eddy, 26 January 1900, IC 424. 52.002.
  8. “Concert at Concord, N.H.,” Christian Science Sentinel, 1 February 1900.
  9. Marcella Craft to Mary Baker Eddy, 4 September 1900, IC424.52.004.
  10. Clifford P. Smith, “As I Recall It,” 1952, Reminiscence, 42.
  11. Mary Baker Eddy to Marcella Craft, 25 January 1900, L10810.
  12. Marcella Craft to Mary Baker Eddy, 25 January 1900, IC424.52.001; Marcella Craft to Mary Baker Eddy, 26 January 1900, IC 424. 52.002.
  13. William R. Rathvon, “Reminiscences of William Roedel Rathvon, C.S.B. Volume I,” 212–213.
  14. Finding aid. Marcella Craft papers (MS 071).
  15. Ednah Aiken, “Two California Songbirds in Europe,” Sunset, January 1914, 535.
  16. Durian, “Marcella Craft: Talented and Crafty,” 535.
  17. William R. Rathvon to Marcella Craft, 4 January 1910, L13990.
  18. “Marcella Craft, Gifted Soprano, Los Angeles Artist,” Los Angeles Herald, 6 November 1914, 17.
  19. “Marcella Craft Again Delights Worcester,” The Musical Leader, 25 May 1922, 502.
  20. “Marcella Craft Triumphs in Three Cities” (advertisement), The Musical Leader, 12 January 1922, 34.
  21. Finding aid, Marcella Craft papers (MS 071).