Florence Clothier Wislocki
1905 – 1987
In 1925, Florence “Fliss” Clothier stepped out of an open rowboat onto the wharf at Sops Island, Newfoundland. At twenty years of age she was embarking on the adventure of a lifetime, one that would influence how she would live the rest of her life. So significant was this experience, Fliss requested that excerpts of her letters written from Newfoundland be read at her memorial service. When she died in 1987, sections of her correspondence with her family were read by her son, George Wislocki, at her memorial service at the United Congregational Church in Little Compton. In 2015, George oversaw the publishing of It’s A Glorious Country: Letters from Newfoundland 1924-1925, a collection of Fliss’s letters.
Fliss’s two summers in Newfoundland took her out of her wealthy, privileged life in Philadelphia into a community in northeast Newfoundland. Sops Island was one of the most isolated, sparsely populated and impoverished areas of Newfoundland which already ranked well behind the other parts of North America and modern Europe measured by the average standard of living. She went as a member of the Grenfell Mission, a religious and philanthropic institution. Fliss had been recruited to be one of their 15 summer volunteers during her second year at Vassar. In December of 1923, Elizabeth Page, a Grenfell employee, had visited the Vassar campus. She traveled to Poughkeepsie with the founder of the Grenfell Mission, Doctor Wilfred Grenfell. Page had a single purpose – to sign up members for her summer volunteer program and in the young Florence Clothier, Page found an enthusiastic recruit. All volunteers were to be self-funded.
These summer teachers were expected to “do any and everything for the physical, mental and moral uplift of the hamlet to which they are sent”, according to Grenfell’s mission statement. Fliss had the temperament, the skills and the open mind to live up to the mission. From her letters home, it is clear that the Gales, her host family, helped her not only to survive but to thrive. In particular Johanna Gale, the 49 year old mother of nine children, was a major influence in Florence Clothier’s Newfoundland experience. Her older daughter Johanna Mackenzie was named for Fliss’s Sops Island mentor and friend.
In an occasional journal of memories, written almost sixty years after leaving Newfoundland, Fliss speaks of who was the real teacher on Sops Island:
I was supposed to be the teacher, but I learned more than I taught. These people, wonderful, simple and wise were they….I was lonely when I first arrived with [the Gales]. It took me two weeks to understand their dialect and get used to their food. Mostly Codfish. Mrs. Gale did make delicious bread which we spread with suet and molasses. I learned to love thes people and their rocky island.
George Wislocki, in 2015, writes of how his mother’s experience affected all of their lives.
We always knew about Mother’s adventures in Newfoundland, she talked about Sops Island and her host family the Gales. Mrs. Gale embodied the sprit Mother emulated throughout her life — how in spite of impoverished circumstances, the Gales created lives that were different from her own family. In many ways my mother never returned to Philadelphia after those summers. When she left Newfoundland, she did everything: medical school; psychiatric work with orphaned children; fighting for reproductive rights. Our house was always illed with the orphaned, the reugees both young and old, and after the war many dispaced European scientists who were seeking place in America. She shared with Mmrs. Gale the capacity to create a successful community whereever she went.
Florence Clothier Wislocki spent her adult years working in Boston as staff psychiatrist at the New England Home for Little Wanderer. The Home had a venerable history as Boston’s leading child welfare agency. She also took on private patients and taught at several Boston area universities including. Harvard Medical School. From the ’40s on she played a leading role in Planned Parenthood and the right to die movement. After her husband George Wislocki died in 1956, Fliss went to work at her alma mater Vassar College.
Fliss retired in 1968 from Vassar and moved to Little Compton, long a beloved summer place for the Wislocki family. Her two daughters eventually came to live nearby, Johanna in Rhode Island and Edith in Massachusetts. Her two sons, Louis and George, as well, lived not far away in Massachusetts. Fliss bought a house on South of Commons where she lived for the rest of her life. She practiced psychiatry part time and worked at the Corrigan Mental Health Center in Fall River. Fliss loved her job of assisting the Fall River police in finding and helping the homeless who needed mental health care. She traveled throughout the city during the night in a patrol car. In Little Compton, she was active in the United Congregational Church.
Fliss and her husband George had bought a summer house in Sakonnet in 1939. There is a story that George the son tells about wartime summers in that house.
During the war, when we summered in a small seaside cottage in Rhode Island, many nights Mother suggested that the entire family should swim off the rocky shore in the dead of night. I thought it very scary; it was, after all, war time and in sight of our house were two gun emplacments to protect Newport Harbor, a strategic Naval Station, should there be an invasion. I was seven years old and I worried about U-boats. The swims taught me that I did not have to be afaid of a darkened sea. With some humor my father informed me that if a U-boat should show up and we were to fall in the ray of their spotlight the sight of the entire family swimming in the buff would probably be sufficient to turn them back — one of the ways that Mother helped in the war effort.
Fliss never seems to have lost the spirit that sent her off to Newfoundland and brought her back a changed person. In a letter written in August, 1924 Fliss tells of swimming in phosphorescent waters off Sops Island.
Have you ever swum in really phosphorescent water? Come to Newfoundaland and try it. The night before last…the water was more phosphorescent than I have ever seen it….I only took two plunges but I wish you could have seen them. Every stroke was followed by red, green, blue and silver sparks, thousands of them, sparks that did not go right out but kept on in the current I made swimming.
It was her many experiences in a glorious country that made Florence Clothier Wislocki into the committed and caring woman she became, the woman who created sparks of energy in the current of her own life .
Excerpts from It’s a Glorious Country: Letters from Newfoundland 1924-1925 edited by Mark Graesser, forward by George S. Wislocki
Published in 2015 by DRC Publishing, St. John’s. Newfoundland
Johanna Wislocki spoke with me about her mother’s later career.
Other biographical information appears in the background provided by Mark Graesser and George Wislocki in the notes for It’s a Glorious Country