Viola S. Henry (1922-1999)

Henry was born Viola Susannah Noel-Hutchinson to Leanora Noel and Peter Hutchinson on Union Island, St. Vincent, West Indies, on June 18, 1922. Her mother died when she was only 10 years old, but her last wish and desire for her daughter was for her to become a teacher. At age 12, Viola went to live with a family who introduced her to the Seventh-day Adventist message. She embraced the faith and was baptized.

Viola was a very ambitious young woman and so she left Union Island at the age of 16 to visit an older brother who lived in Aruba. There, she met Thomas Adolphus Henry-Phipps, who had just returned home after working on an assignment in Mexico for a few months for the Shell Oil Company.  On his way home he said he prayerfully wondered when he would find a wife and have a family of his own.  As if in answer to his prayers, when he arrived home he saw a beautiful young woman in his house. Viola married Thomas at age 16 on May 2, 1939.  

The young couple lived in Aruba and started a family there. Viola was very active in the church and was known for reciting long poems. Viola and Thomas, ambitious and adventurous, left Aruba in 1954 for St. Kitts with their seven children. After living there for only a short time, and after discussing a plan with Viola, Thomas decided to leave St. Kitts for England because he heard that there was work there, and he desired a better life for his children. So, he left for England in September of 1955, and Viola and their eight children—they had one more in St. Kitts—followed in early 1956.

Soon after arriving in England and settling in the city of Birmingham —the second largest city in England—Viola joined the Handsworth Seventh-day Adventist church, located on Nineveh Road at the time. While Handsworth church was and still is the second largest Adventist church in Birmingham—Camphill SDA church being the largest, formed almost 60 years ago—it is the oldest Adventist church in that city and was founded almost ninety years ago.

Viola threw herself into church work. Her desire was to work fulltime for God. She held numerous church offices which included: Community Services Director, Stewardship Ministry Leader, Sabbath School Superintendent, Choir Director, Adult Sabbath School Teacher, Personal Ministries Leader, and Deaconess.  She became a prodigious soul-winner, bringing hundreds of people to God and helping to plant many churches, which included Northfields, Newtown and Smethwick churches.  She also advised, encouraged and comforted ministers and their wives.

In the surrounding communities Viola was known for her love, patience and kindness, community work, godly advice and Bible studies. She was also known for encouraging people to use herbs and natural remedies for healing common ailments, and gave community demonstrations on how to use these natural methods. Additionally, she raised the most funds for Ingathering Campaigns, an official yearly church fundraiser for ADRA—Adventist Development and Relief Agency, an international humanitarian agency in operation since November 1956.

In the late 1950s the Handsworth church on Nineveh Road became dilapidated and was no longer fit to worship in. Viola, a woman of action, went looking for a new location for the church. She found a building on Hutton Road, and sought ways for the conference to purchase it. She raised funds through her grand concerts and her husband Thomas—though not a Christian at the time—can remember going with her to pay for the building. The Handsworth church building on Hutton Road was bought on December 19, 1966, for £9,500. The building was renovated and the Handsworth church members soon occupied it and had a wonderful dedication service to celebrate this occasion.

Handsworth and Camphill were the leading churches in the Conference in soul-winning during the late seventies and early eighties. Viola made an outstanding contribution through her Bible studies and soul-winning efforts. In the 1960s and 1970s she pioneered hosting grand musical concerts and raised hundreds of pounds for church building projects. Soon, whenever a group of Adventists wanted to plant a church they would call on Viola to plan one of her grand concerts to raise funds for their church ventures. She became known for raising considerable amounts of money for buildings to be renovated and converted into places of worship.

Many churches became filled with new converts from Viola’s parttime soul winning efforts; yet she still said, “I want to work for the Lord, fulltime,” since at that time she worked full time at the John Lucas factory in Newtown, Birmingham. One minister recalls Viola’s enthusiasm for soul-winning: “I began to work in Handsworth [SDA church] about 1972. Before I began [as senior pastor] Viola was always busy giving Bible studies in the afternoons. [After] I arrived she continued her missionary work. Consequently, every baptism I had she had someone who was ready for baptism.  Soon we were having baptisms every three months and the number of candidates grew. By this time I needed help more than what the elders could give and she was the most qualified lay person. It was an accepted fact that whether she was employed or not, she was going to work for her Master. After each baptism she would visit those who had made decisions.  We had a Pastor's Bible Class in the Minister's Vestry which grew so large that it had to be transferred to the Choir Vestry.”

By the encouragement of the first Black office secretary to the Stewardship Departmental Director of the North British Conference—a young lady who Viola adopted—Viola applied for a Bible Instructor’s Correspondent Course and completed it. She was then interviewed by Bryan Ball, the President of the North British Conference at the time. Her application was accepted and on October 1, 1973, she became the very first Black Bible Instructor to ever work for any conference in England. During her ministry she also accepted preaching appointments from churches across the North British Conference.

Some of Viola’s favorite hobbies included: singing—from dawn to dusk—music, reading, writing, studying, poetry, fashion designing, tailoring and sewing—she often sewed clothes for her ten children—cooking and baking—she became internationally famous for her vegetarian cooking, and ministers from different parts of the world would encourage other visiting ministers to make sure they got invited home for Sabbath dinner by Sister Henry—speaking, preaching, teaching and Bible research, crocheting and knitting. She also loved God’s nature, enjoyed going on outings and meeting new people.

She memorized and recited long poems in the grand concerts she would organize, and was invited to churches to speak and recite these long poems, because she had a knack for reciting them with humor and sprite.  She also adopted young people who had no parents or whose parents were not Christians, and her home was a refuge for the youth and the friendless.

Viola was a miracle woman to many people.  Even though she had never studied psychology, she was advisor and counselor to many. Even though she never saw the inside of a seminary, she was known as a great preacher. Even though she never received any conventional training as an evangelist, she won hundreds of souls to the Lord as long she was able to work for Jesus. Even though she never went to school to learn music, she received and taught piano lessons and today there are people who are accomplished pianists who were once her students. She also directed choirs even though she was never taught how to direct. She sang, acted and was a playwright, even though she had a minimal formal education, but she also took college courses and owned the Bible Commentaries, Bibles for Bible research and owned and read the complete library of Ellen G. White.

With their children all educated and grown up, in 1987 Viola and Thomas decided to immigrate to West Palm Beach, Florida, America, because of Viola’s health. In 1994 when she went to Loma Linda University Medical Center because of her advanced heart disease, the attending Cardiologist had to call the students to come and gaze upon a miracle woman. He stated that Viola’s heart had made its own bypass several different times, and that by rights she should have been dead a long time ago.

After diagnosing her with multiple heart disease and Alzheimer’s they told her that there was nothing more that they could do for her. Even after that, Viola lived until Friday, April 16, 1999, when she quietly passed away in Jesus at the age of 76, in Colombia Hospital in West Palm Beach, Florida, surrounded by her husband of 60 years—who by that time had accepted Jesus because of Viola’s spiritual influence and exemplary Christian lifestyle—and most of her ten children, who sang her favorite hymns in her last Sabbath evening worship on Earth, as she fell asleep in Jesus. She truly was a miracle woman, saved to serve by the Miracle Worker Himself, King Jesus.

-Rosita P. Antonio