OCEAN SPRINGS, Miss. (BP)–At 102 years old, Ruth Carlisle still knew the power of prayer.
When one of the hospice workers tending to Carlisle told her about a grandchild who had been diagnosed in the womb with a serious birth defect, Carlisle did not hesitate.
“Let’s pray,” she said.
Seven months after birth, the baby was completely normal.
The faith in prayer, concern for others and trust in God that Carlisle showed in that moment were constants in her life, which included 29 years on the mission field. The longest-living retired IMB missionary, Carlisle died June 5 at the age of 102. Her passing sealed the legacy of an unassuming woman whose life and ministry continue to astonish those who knew her.
Carlisle, a native of Shawnee, Okla., and her husband Robert were appointed as missionaries to Uruguay in 1940 by the Foreign (later International) Mission Board. Their orientation was a 30-minute chat with the board’s president, followed by a journey by ship to Uruguay.
Arriving in Uruguay with no Spanish language or cross-cultural training, the Carlisles learned on the job while planting churches. In 1956, they started a Bible institute in their home.
It was difficult work in a country where most people were agnostic.
“Little by little, people came to the Lord. It wasn’t fast,” Carlisle told a reporter in 2007. “Uruguay has never been an easy place to win people.”
In addition to raising a family that expanded to eight children, she managed a multitude of other tasks.
“I am the administrator of the kitchen, dietitian, adviser to the counselor of the students, teacher of various courses and, in case of sickness among the students, I help in the diagnosis and consultation with the doctor,” Carlisle wrote in a 1964 report.
Her son Jason, Hispanic mobilization consultant with the IMB, remembers her devotion to her family, even after long days of work.
“Sometimes in high school when I was studying for a test, I would come downstairs around midnight to get a glass of water,” he recounted. “My mother would be ironing clothes for all of us. Then I would get up in the morning and the biscuits would be made. It was just amazing.”
Carlisle’s service in Uruguay was punctuated by times of suffering, which included absence from family. She was notified by letter when her mother died, the only time Jason recalls seeing her weep. A devastating car accident left her and Robert in the hospital for weeks. It was all part of the calling that she willingly followed.
“It took a lot of hard work, a lot of loving the Lord and trusting Him,” Jason said of his mother’s time overseas.
The Carlisles retired from missionary service in 1969, returning to live in Louisiana. Carlisle supported her husband’s ministry until his death in 1978, an event which drove her to rely even more on the Lord.
“I remember after my dad died, [my mother] told me, ‘That was the time when I felt God’s closeness more than any other time in my life,'” Jason Carlisle said.
She devoted herself to prayer, spending hours each day interceding for her children, Uruguay, people she knew and other things dear to her heart.
“We would ask her to pray for a new believer or someone who came to our church,” Jason said. “Six months later, she would ask what happened to them when we had already forgotten.”
Even though Carlisle lived on a fixed income, she continued to give generously. Jason recalls that his mother, then in her 90s, wrote him to announce that she had reached her annual goal of giving $3,000 to the Lottie Moon Christmas Offering for International Missions.
Carlisle’s physical toughness was legendary among her children, some of whom jokingly called her the “comeback kid.” She survived the car crash, a crushed pelvis doctors didn’t even notice and a heart attack in 1969 that nobody knew about until years later. She initially refused to have open-heart surgery at 90, claiming it would likely add only “a year or two” to her life. Eventually she relented.
She avidly read news and updates on international missions. Her longevity and mental sharpness allowed her to continue to minister to women. Carlisle frequently visited hospitals and invited other women to her home for a favorite activity: English afternoon tea.
“She used to go out and visit everybody,” her son said. “Then when she couldn’t go out as much, she would call everybody and check up on them.”
But she was, after all, only mortal. Jason recalled his mother’s final moments, surrounded by family, and the unexpected way in which her life ended. As she approached death, the family began singing some of her favorite hymns. But there was one they couldn’t remember.
“Finally somebody remembered it,” Jason said. “When we started singing that song, she opened her eyes. She just looked straight up. When we finished singing, she almost closed her eyes, looked around, closed them, and that was it. It was almost like she was waiting for that hymn.”
Marcus Rowntree is an intern writing for the International Mission Board.