July 10th, 2020 / posted by paularath

The Rath Building at Palama Settlement today. It was named after James Arthur and Ragna Helsher Rath.

To follow up on my last blog, how did my paternal grandfather, James Arthur Rath of Madras, India, end up in Honolulu, Hawaii?

Well, after completing his education in Madras, he followed in his father’s footsteps, serving in the British Army from 1888 to 1900. At first he served in the Revenue Police of India (as a sort of tax collector) but hated “this man-hunting” and transferred to the regular Army and took part in the uprising of Chitral in 1895. He was later given a clerical job in Burma (now called Myanmar). In Mandalay, Burma, he contracted malaria. After months of hospitalizations, he was medically discharged from the Army.

Feeling somewhat at a loss, he got a job in the Bombay YMCA, and his interest immediately turned to social work. He was quickly recognized for his potential in the field, and was recruited by the International YMCA College in Springfield, Massachusetts. His plan was to graduate with the credentials required to open and manage a YMCA somewhere in India. So he sailed halfway around the world in hope of a brighter future and better health.

James Arthur Rath

While studying social work, Grandfather made quite a name for himself through lectures and editorials on social issues in several East Coast states.

In 1903, Grandfather met and married Ragna Helsher Rath, a school teacher from a Norwegian family in Concord, Mass., and they prepared for a move to India. But to their dismay, there were no YMCA executive positions available in India at the time, so he took a job with the Lynn General Electric Company, hoping that something in India would open up.

Just as they were settling into life in New England,  Grandfather received a letter from Central Union Church in Honolulu, informing him of a job opening at Palama Chapel in Honolulu, Hawaii.

Nana wrote that they went to the library to look up “Sandwich Islands,” and all they could find was the location, climate, vegetation and “a limited description of the natives.” They courageously decided to travel 5,000 miles on trains and boats to Honolulu “to stay for five years only.”

My grandmother, Ragna Helsher Rath, at her 100th birthday party. She lived to 102.

Well, they stayed a bit longer than five years. Together, they raised five children in  Honolulu and worked tirelessly to create and maintain Palama Settlement, which is poised to celebrate its 125th year in 2021.

Grandfather was the Head Worker (now called the Executive Director) at Palama Settlement until his death in 1929, of heart problems, complications of a life lived with malaria. Nana remarkably lived until 1981, passing away at 102 years old.

I was fortunate to have Nana live with my family for many years. Later, I walked to her little cottage near Punahou after school, where she taught me to sew and embroider. She was a force of nature in a tiny frame. She was 88 when she wrote her 500-page book about Grandfather and their life at Palama Settlement.

Please watch for my next blog, about the earliest days of Palama Settlement. Much of my research comes from Nana’s book.

  • Paula Rath
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Roberta Rath Cullen
July 11th, 2020 at 1:36 pm

Love these blogs. Hate to confess, but I am learning a lot about Grandfather. I have always loved that picture of Nana and that was a heck of a wingding for her 100’th at Arcadia!

July 16th, 2020 at 10:59 pm

We were so lucky to have known her so well, and been able to have her live with us!

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