Joseph's descendant writes music to preserve legacy

Twenty years ago this month, a great-granddaughter of Joseph Smith Jr. sat down at the piano and composed a song reflecting the love she felt for her kin, including other members of Joseph's posterity.

Lorena H. Normandeau, then not a member of the Church, had just returned from the second Joseph Smith Sr. family reunion, held in Independence, Mo."This was in 1973," she recalled. "I was impressed with an idea from the program, a filmstrip with music and narration called `The Seeds of Greatness.' And I realized that it is probably true, that Joseph and Emma, wherever they are right now, are probably praying for their posterity. Especially at a time when these reunions were just getting under way, they would really be aware of what we were doing here."

The idea stirred her creative juices, and the result was the song, "And When We Gather," telling of the joy the family will have in being together at last in the eternities.

On May 9, 1979, Sister Normandeau became the first of Joseph's and Emma's direct descendants of her generation to be baptized into the Church. (Her daughter, Gracia N. Jones, joined the Church years earlier and was the first direct descendant to become a member. Today, there are more than 100 in the Church.)

At age 78, Sister Normandeau lives in an apartment in Salt Lake City, where she strives to fulfill what she deems to be her special mission in life, preserving the Joseph Smith legacy through music.

Four of her songs have been arranged and recorded. They were released last year on cassette. "And When We Gather" is the album's title song. The other songs are "Tenderly Tenderly," reflecting the love between Joseph and Emma; "Hyrum's Song," recalling the dedication of the Prophet's brother during their final hours; and "Make Us As One," a song she wrote for the wedding of her daughter, Gracia, at her request.

Described by her daughter as having talent that is "untrained, yet unchained," Sister Normandeau declared, "I was born with tunes in my head. I grew up not realizing that not everybody heard tunes in their head all the time."

Childhood experiences - some funny, some sad - would prompt her to compose songs.

"I remember one time in particular, after a fight with a boyfriend, I wrote a little ditty called `Better Fish Are in the Sea Than Were Ever Caught,' " she said. "But I was a Depression kid. There just was no money for music lessons."

Sister Normandeau is the granddaughter of Alexander Hale Smith, third son of the Prophet Joseph Smith and patriarch of the Reorganized Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints. But she was not raised in that church. Her mother, Coral Cecil Rebecca Smith, married Louis H. Horner, a Methodist.

The family lived for a time on dairy farms in Iowa, later moving to Nebraska and Wyoming. They eventually settled near Ronan, Mont. There, Lorena met Rupert Normandeau, and they were married Dec. 25, 1934, in the Methodist Church in Ronan.

Living on a farm, the couple raised four children, one of whom died in adulthood of cancer.

When the last child was nearly grown, the Normandeaus were fortunate to sell some real estate to the Catholic Church in Ronan.

"We had decided, `If that property sells, let's take the money and go to school,' " Sister Normandeau remembered. "And thus, we started as rank freshmen in college.

"He was 49 and I was 47. We started in January 1962, and by August 1963, we were teaching in a little town in eastern Montana on what they called a `classified provisional teaching certificate.' You had to have two years of college, or the equivalent of it, and we did."

The Normandeaus taught in a two-teacher, eight-grade school, teaching the children of people who had been his customers when he managed a grain elevator.

"This was out in the wheat country, 30 miles from Great Falls. And we loved it; the kids were so bright. All we had to do is stay out of their way and they learned."

The couple taught one week before her husband was diagnosed as having lung cancer. He died that December.

She took courage and completed her degree, graduating with honors. She taught sixth grade in Polson, then in 1969, returned to Ronan to teach at her old high school.

Gracia had joined the Church while her father was still living. Because of misconceptions, the Normandeaus were not happy at first about their daughter's decision. But their attitude changed.

"She married a member of the Church who had not been active, but he became active, and we saw what it did for her," Sister Normandeau explained. "Her husband had worked for my husband, and so we came to love him and appreciate him, and we got a good impression of the Church. We could see there were many good things. But I don't know how many sets of missionaries we wore out."

Slowly, after the death of her husband, Sister Normandeau was prepared for eventual conversion. Her daughter became intensely interested in Church history, lecturing on the life of Joseph and Emma. (Sister Jones' writings include a cover story in the August 1992 Ensign about Emma.)

Sister Jones recalled an incident in 1978, when she took her mother to church, in the ward to which her mother would belong if she were to join the Church.

The circumstances at that old building embarrassed the daughter. A huge American flag covered the front of the chapel, left there from a patriotic program the previous evening.

"It looked like a legion hall," Sister Jones recalled. "It echoed and roared, and if I remember right, a baby dropped his bottle and it smashed on the floor."

Sunday School class featured a less-than-spiritual debate on wicked practices in Old Testament times. "And sacrament meeting was absolute bedlam with babies crying. We came out of the chapel and my mother said, I've never seen anything like it in my life.' Then her next words were,All those children! And how did they get those teenagers to come to church?' Then I realized she was praising it, not complaining! I was so overcome I could hardly speak."

"It was alive!" Sister Normandeau reflected about the experience.

The real turning point, she said, came in 1979 when she attended a baptismal service at which her daughter gave a talk on baptism. "She said to that young boy, Shane, you haven't lived long enough to have done very many bad things but you must understand that when you come up out of that water, everything that you've ever done that was wrong will be washed away, and you'll be starting over with a clean slate.' And I sat there thinking,I want that. I want that.' "

She was baptized that May.

While she was anticipating her baptism, an experience seemed to parallel that of her great-grandfather just before the First Vision in that she felt tormented by the adversary. "But I knew where that was coming from," she said. "When you hear the term the buffetings of Satan, I think I experienced that physically. It was a horrendous experience. But where that sort of thing seems to scare a lot of people out of the Church, it scared me right on in."

But, she said, she also had some wonderful experiences. "One farmer, a high priest, left his tractor sitting in the middle of the field on a beautiful April day to drive 35 miles to come and talk with me, helped me get some things straightened out and give me a blessing."

In 1981, she moved to St. George, Utah, where she began to write music prolifically about her family heritage.

In 1985, Sister Normandeau became the first descendant of the Prophet Joseph Smith to serve a full-time mission for the Church. She served one year in the Missouri Independence Mission. She returned to St. George, then served as a Family History Missionary in Salt Lake City in 1989-90.

For the latter mission, she moved to Salt Lake City and remained there when the mission was complete.

"Two years ago, during a long winter night, I learned what I was supposed to be doing. It's this music. I'd get a blessing where I'd be promised health and strength to complete the mission that the Lord put me here for. Then I'd have a heart attack or some other thing. And it dawned on me: If I'm still breathing, I can still hear tunes in my head. And so I've had to accept it as fact."

In one priesthood blessing she was promised that people would come forth to help her with that mission. Later through Steven and Claudia Goodman and their children, a musical family, she met LDS music producer and studio owner Dan Whitley. Together, they have produced the first cassette tape of Sister Normandeau's music. Another is already planned that will contain a song called "Cumorah," focusing on Emma's feelings as she sat in the wagon waiting for the Prophet to obtain the Nephite plates. Other songs will deal with the First Vision, with Joseph's experience in Liberty Jail and with the "voice of gladness" proclaimed in D&C 128:19.

"I did a fireside one time at which I said I'm a conduit," Sister Normandeau said, "because I don't even feel like I create this music. I hear it and I try to put down what I hear."

Subscribe for free and get daily or weekly updates straight to your inbox
The three things you need to know everyday
Highlights from the last week to keep you informed