As a Protestant growing up in Northern Ireland, Florence Slease experienced first hand the extreme conflict between people of her faith and the neighboring Catholics. In her highly engaging conversational style, Florence describes her lost Catholic friend, her abusive early marriage, the miracle of joining the Church and the joy and triumph that has blossomed from her colorful childhood.
I was born into a street called Fowler’s Entry in Portadown, Northern Ireland. My mum was a Gibson. Her parents had fourteen children who grew up and married and got houses on this street, and they all had eight, nine, ten kids, so this street was just cluttered with Gibson kids. Everyone on the street was mostly related to me.
The houses were old. No hot water. We had a tiny two-bedroom house, probably about 400 square feet, and there were ten of us living in it. We kids slept four to a bed–two at the top end, two at the bottom.
At the bottom of the street there was a big wall and behind the wall lived a group of wild cats. Have you ever heard a wild cat screaming? They are creepy, eerie things. Sounds like a baby crying. Fifteen or sixteen cats would wail every night. We were told they were banshees come to take the souls of the people.
We’d be all crowded into these beds, and we’d hear these banshees. You’d be afraid to breathe; if you breathed too heavy, the banshee might come and you wouldn’t have time to run. One night my brother said,
“The banshees were at Wee Mary’s last night.”
I said, “What happened?”
“They found her dead at the bottom of the steps.”
I was five years old.
I felt extreme fear as a child. Always afraid to look out from under my blanket, afraid to stay under too long, afraid to breathe.
How did the religious divisions in Northern Ireland affect you?
Fowler’s Entry was all Protestant. I had no idea what a Protestant was, but I knew that I was one of them. I didn’t know there was anything else until our street was demolished and we moved into the housing estates, which at the time had a mixture of religions.
The next day my two brothers disappeared. My parents searched everywhere. Finally they found them tied to a pole, their pants pulled down. They were crying. “Mummy, the Catholics beat us up. They said we can’t live here because we came from the Protestant part of town. They said we need to go back there.”
And I said, “Good grief! Who are the Catholics?”
It was there I met my best friend, Colleen, who was Catholic. But when I was ten, the Catholics were being put out of Protestant estates. The Protestants were being put out of Catholic estates. They were being burned out, shot at, whatever. One side was as bad as the other.
Colleen came to me one day and said, “Florence, we got a letter saying if we’re not out by Friday we’re going to be burnt out.”
I said, “I didn’t send you the letter.”
She said, “I know you didn’t. But my mummy says the Protestants will always stab you in the back so we’d better leave.”
I was shocked. We were best, best friends, and now we were pulled apart by this religious war. I sat on a wall and watched her leave. I didn’t wave at her and she didn’t wave at me. It was the saddest stomachache you could have to watch your friend leave. I was afraid to say goodbye and she was afraid to say goodbye.
She moved into the Catholic area. When I was about fourteen, I saw her in a store. She winked. I winked back. After that, when we were both in the store, she’d stand aside me if nobody was looking and she’d whisper, “How you doing?”
“All right. How you doing?”
“All right.” And then we’d quickly part. We could never ever be seen talking.
As we got older, the factories decided the only way to get peace was to have Protestants and Catholics working together. So when I was sixteen I worked in the carpet factory, and Colleen worked there too. We would sneak behind these big carpets so nobody could see us and just talk and talk and talk. We had to be very careful. If someone at the factory saw us being too close, then either her side or my side would hurt one of us.
The day before I ran away to England I called Colleen and said, “I’ve got to get out of the country.”
She said, “Don’t you ever forget me, Flo.”
How did you meet the missionaries?
First time, the road was full of children playing jump rope and hopscotch when someone shouted. “Get away! Mormons!” I looked up the street and saw these two men coming. I took off running, flew down the alleyway, and skidded in the back kitchen door shouting, “Mummy! The Mormons are coming!”
I didn’t even know what I was running from, but my mum certainly did. She closed the blinds and pulled the curtains across and we all sat down with our arms folded. My brother would peek through the blinds and whisper, “They’re at McNallys’ house.” And then, “Oh, no! They’re at McDonalds’!” McDonalds’ was the very next-door neighbor. Then, “They’re coming down our path.”
They knocked on our door. Mummy said, “Shh! Don’t move! Don’t talk! They’ll hear you.”
So we were sitting there real quiet waiting for these Mormons to pass on and they didn’t pass on. Then our one brother, who we thought was at a friend’s house, walked through our door with a Book of Mormon. He said, “Look what I got!”
My mum exclaimed, “What have you done? Why did you take that Mormon Bible?”
And he said, “Ack, Mummy. It’s not going to do any harm.”
She said, “You get it out of this house right now.”
He said, “Shall I throw it in the fire, then?”
She said, “No, don’t put a curse on us.”
He said, “Then what shall I do with it?”
She said, “You take it and throw it up behind that medicine cupboard as far as you can so nobody knows it’s there.”
So he did, and the Mormons finally left the street and we were out with our hopscotches and jump ropes, but that book preyed on my mind. It tortured me that there was this Mormon Bible in the house. So one day soon after when nobody else was in the house, I stood on the bread bin and climbed up the shelves and got that Mormon Bible.
I opened it and read as fast as I could. I wasn’t very old, maybe eight or nine, so I wasn’t that good a reader, but I read what I could, and then I panicked inside. I took that book and flung it back behind the medicine cabinet, slid down the shelves, down onto the bread bin, and ran like the hammers.
Next time I met the missionaries, my next-door neighbor had introduced me to the Ouija board. We went into this dark, dark coal shed, so dark you can’t see your finger in front of your nose. She lit a little candle. On the board, there’s the alphabet all around. She said, “You put your hand on the glass and ask a question and it moves from letter to letter and gives you the answer. We can ask it who you’re gonna marry.”
I said, “I don’t want to marry anyone.” I was eight years old!
She said, “We can ask it your favorite color. It even knows that.”
I said, “I don’t know what my favorite color is. “
We bickered until she said, “Okay, put your finger on the glass.”
I put my finger on the glass, and then I said, “Wait a minute. Who answers the question? The glass can’t talk.”
She said, “It’s the devil.”
I almost broke the door to get out of there. I ran up the alley like I’d just come away from the land of the banshees. The devil’s in the room, and he’s worse than a banshee. I ran into two missionaries. I don’t know where they came from, but they were just there. I looked at them and I remember thinking, Oh my goodness, look at those feet. They have really big feet.
They said, “What’s wrong?”
I said, “The devil’s after me! I was trying to talk to him, and he’s after me!”
The missionaries said, “If you play with the devil, he’ll never go away.”
I said, “Is that true?”
They said, “Yes. Don’t ever play with the devil.”
I always remembered what those missionaries said. When I was in my teens and everyone was doing devil worship and going to séances, I never took part. Even though I didn’t know those missionaries were from God, they had left a deepness inside of me that protected me my whole teenage life. “Don’t play with the devil. He’ll never go away.”
When I was seventeen, I fell madly in love with Reggie. He was handsome, he was witty, he came from a different town, which made him even more popular. I married Reggie at nineteen, and we had a son, Marcus.
But Reggie had been deeply disturbed by his devil worship. He tried to kill me one time—hung me out a window. Finally, somebody tried to cast demons out of him. Apparently, the demons said, “We are legion,” and beat her up. The police came and said, “That’s rubbish. We don’t believe you have demons,” and they put him in a sanatorium.
One night when Reggie was just out of the sanatorium, I was in the kitchen drying dishes and crying because my life was a mess. The Catholics and Protestants were fighting and shooting. I heard helicopters and bombing every night. I was frightened of that and of Reggie. I threw down the tea towel and I shouted, “God! Where are you?”
In just hours two Mormon missionaries knocked. Reggie said, “Do you believe in demons?”
“Yes, we do.”
“Can you cast them out?”
“Yes, we can.”
“Can you come and cast them out for me?” So these two missionaries came in and they talked to Reggie and me.
They said, “You have to come to the chapel.” The arrangement was–and everyone we knew laughed at this–“You can’t eat or drink the whole day before you come to the chapel.”
My mum said, “What good’s that going to do? Not eating or drinking?”
Reggie said, “I think I have to starve the demons out.” Still not understanding this thing called fasting, Reggie did it. He said, “Will you go with me?”
I said, “I will not go to the Mormon Church with you. I don’t want any of the neighbors to see me.” So he went. He’d already had an exorcist before, and I wondered what these Mormons were going to do. When he came home I said, “So what happened?”
He said, “A whole bunch of men put their hands on my head and told the demons to leave.”
For two years I can’t remember one time he didn’t call out at night with nightmares and with seeing things, but that whole night he didn’t call out at all. I had to shake him a couple of times because I thought he was dead. He slept the whole night. I said the next morning, “Whatever those Mormons did, they really made you tired.”
Then the next night he slept again. And I thought, this is weird because he hasn’t been with the Mormons today. The next day the missionaries came by. They started teaching us.
I had a Sunday school teacher from when I was a little girl, Uncle Johnny, who lived two doors from us. The night Reggie had tried to kill me, I had banged on his door— “Uncle Johnny, help me! Reggie’s having a fit!” He had popped open his letterbox and said, “Call the pastor. Call the police. I don’t like messing with the devil,” and he let the letterbox down and wouldn’t come out. So Johnny didn’t want to come when I needed desperate help, but this day he came to the door and he said, “Flo, I need to talk to you. I seen the Mormons at your door.”
I said, “Yes. Reggie’s had no nightmares for a week. He’s slept really solid for a whole week. We’ve had no troubles, no visions, nothing. He thinks they really did cast the demons out.”
He said, “That is the devil’s church. They haven’t really cast the demons out. They’ve just told them to be quiet.” You know how scary that was?
I said, “What? The Mormons are of the devil?”
He said, “Yes, they are.”
So when Reggie came home from work, I told him. The missionaries came about an hour later and Reggie said, “I just found out you’re from the devil. I can’t talk to you anymore.”
The missionary cried. He had tears streaming down his face. He said, “Please believe me. That is not true.” We closed the door, and they knocked again. I stood there behind the door panicking because we’d closed it, and I couldn’t figure out why.
How did you come to leave Northern Ireland?
Reggie started drinking again and in six months he was worse off than before. He ended up being put away for a long time. I decided, this is not working, so I finally left him.
I started dating an English soldier, Gary, who is now my husband. You just don’t date English soldiers if you’re Irish. It was especially bad for me because Reggie’s brother was the top of the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), a Protestant terrorist group.
The law was very strict and divorces took five years. So Gary and I moved in as common law husband and wife. But we had to move out of town and live in the country where nobody knew us. The government gave us a house where soldiers could patrol and protect us. They knew my brother-in-law and knew I was in danger. We lived there a year and a half in secret.
But then the soldiers got word terrorists were coming to shoot me, shoot my son, shoot my boyfriend, and take over the house. We sneaked out at four a.m., never to return to that house.
We went to London and lived in a homeless hostel for four or five months. In the hostel we met a man who told us he wanted to become Mormon. I said to Gary, “Everywhere I go, I keep running into Mormons. Every distress or every scary time, they’re right there!” I couldn’t get it out of my mind. First thing I did when we got a council house was run to the phone and call the Mormon Church. I said, “I need missionaries out to my house as soon as you can get them.”
I started to read the Book of Mormon. I wanted to run outside and scream, “People, I’ve got really good news!” But I probably would have been locked up. I called my mummy, and said, “Oh, Mummy, I have good news. I’m reading this Mormon book. It’s not what you thought it was.”
“Oh, daughter, here you go again. You’ve joined every church in Northern Ireland.”
And I had! Every church I came across I joined just in case it was the right one. So she thought this was another fad with me. I said, “No, Mummy. This is the real thing. I don’t have to look anymore.” It was what I’d been searching for since the day I was born. I finally found it at age twenty-two, this magnificent, real, true church.
But one day when the missionaries came they gave us the big gloam. “You tell them,” one said.
“No, you,” said the other.
I said, “What have you got to tell us?”
He said, “Our mission president said you can’t be baptized because you’re living together.”
I said, “I still have three years to wait for my divorce.”
They said, “We can’t baptize you till it’s all over.” It was devastating.
The branch president said, “We ought to fast.” So the whole branch fasted that my divorce would come through quicker. I thought, “They don’t understand the Irish law. I’ll fast because the branch president asked me to, but I know it’s not going to happen.”
Six months later I get a call from the lawyer in Northern Ireland saying, “Would you like to come over Wednesday for your divorce?”
I gulped and said, “I will be there.” I hung up very confused. I’d only been separated three and a half years. I still had a year and a half left. So I went. I never saw my family or friends while I was there or talked to anybody. Reggie didn’t show up at court. The judge gave me my divorce.
When I received the final papers in the mail, I called up my sister-in-law who was married to Reggie’s brother, and I said, “Sandra, I got my divorce.”
She said, “There’s no way you could have, Flo. I filed a year before you and I’m waiting on mine coming up in the court right now.”
I said, “I’ve got it, Sandra.”
So Sandra called back in a few days, and she said, “I went to see the lawyer, and it wasn’t you that was supposed to be divorced. It was me.” They were confused because we both had the same surname. So it really was her divorce!
The branch laughed, “Heavenly Father’s got this whole universe to run, and he goes into the lawyer’s office and shuffles the files.”
How has being a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints changed your life?
So many miracles.
Before I left Northern Ireland I was being treated for cancer cells in my womb. In England, they wanted to remove the womb. The doctor explained everything, but I was in a daze, thinking, “I have one child. And I have a new husband and it’s not his child. And the Mormons have tons of children and the Gibsons have tons of children. I’m a failure at everything I do. I want more children.”
The missionaries were over and I said, “You said you had a prophet. Where does he live?”
“Salt Lake City, America.”
“What’s his name?”
“Spencer W. Kimball.”
That night I wrote a letter to Spencer W. Kimball. I thought, “If he’s like Moses, I’m going to cram this letter, get in everything I can.” I wrote, “Please pray for my mummy and daddy in Northern Ireland, because you know there’s a war going on there. And could you pray for my brothers and sisters and could you pray for me cause I have cancer cells and I need to get rid of them because they’re on my womb and I want to have another baby.” I just spilled it out.
I posted this letter and then I confessed to Gary, “I wrote to this Mormon prophet.”
“How do you know him?”
“I don’t know him. He lives in America.”
He said, “You wrote to America?”
I said, “I wrote him a two-page letter.”
He said, “How did you post it?”
I said, “I put a Queen’s head on it and put it in the letterbox.”
He said, “He won’t get it. You have to have international stamps for America.”
But I get a letter back from Spencer W. Kimball in his own handwriting. And he paid for my postage! He said the most stunning thing. “Those two missionaries that are teaching you, they have the same power that I do. They can give you a blessing for this cancer you’re suffering from.”
I was so disappointed. Where was “I am the prophet of the Lord—be healed”?
Finally, I asked the missionaries to give me a blessing. When I was Pentecostal, I’d see people command sickness or demons to leave in the name of Jesus. So I was waiting for that, but no, the blessing was very gentle, very tender, that when you go in for surgery, your body will heal fast and you’ll return to health fast.
I thought, “No! I don’t want surgery. You’re giving me the wrong blessing!” When they were done, I was so disappointed, I could barely thank them.
I went in to have the surgery. When I came to afterward, I felt no pain. I touched my stomach. I thought, “I’m not stitched. What’s going on?”
The doctor came by and said, “Well, Florence, I decided to do a biopsy instead of removing the womb. You’re desperate to have a child and your womb didn’t look as bad as I thought when I went in there.”
I got pregnant, and there’s my Aaron.
They were keeping an eye on my womb again. Normal, normal, normal. The doctor said, “That operation did wonders.”
I was thinking, “No, it was the Lord.”
So I got pregnant again and had a little girl, Shantell. When she was three months old, we moved to America.
About four or five years later, I had a tubular pregnancy and nearly died. We just got to the hospital in time. I was in intensive care for a week. The doctor there in Las Vegas told me I had almost bled to death.
He said, “Do not get pregnant. You will die. Do you understand my English?”
But I fell pregnant right away while I was still healing. That was my Charmaine. The doctor said, “Are you capable of going onto birth control?”
I said, “I will,” but before I could get into the doctor’s to get birth control, I got pregnant again. I went to see the doctor and he told me to leave his office, that I was too high risk, that he didn’t want to deal with me. He was completely nasty. The whole way home I couldn’t even see for the tears. What am I going to do? The bun’s in the oven. I don’t know how to get a new doctor in this country.
I fell on my knees in the bedroom and said, “Lord, I don’t know what I’m going to do. I need an answer today. This stress is more than I can handle.” And the most peaceful feeling hit me, that I would have the baby in the bedroom, and the Lord would be with me. And that’s exactly how it happened with Luke.
We moved from Las Vegas up to Hurricane, Utah, and Gary said, “No more.” My pregnancies weren’t easy. My births weren’t easy. He said, “I think you’re done, Flo.” But then Gary had a dream of a girl standing in the room with her arms opened. He started crying and said, “We’ve got another girl, Flo.”
And so within that month, another miracle. I’m pregnant again. I go off to the doctor and tell him, “It’s a girl. She came to Gary.” Well the doctor, good LDS man that he is, believed every word. When the baby was being born, he said, “She has a mass of black hair, Florence!”
I said, “All my girls do!”
And as the baby was coming out, he opened the baby’s legs, and said, “Well, this baby girl has something else.”
So I looked and said, “A boy?” I looked up at Gary and said, “You told me it was a girl!”
He said, “It was!”
I said, “Well, it’s obviously not.” I held that little boy and I said to him, “I do love you. I just didn’t know you were coming! I didn’t expect you!” It was the biggest surprise of my life.
Gary said, “What are we going to call him?”
I said, “We’ll call him after Spencer W. Kimball.” So we named him Spencer Joseph.
When Gary left and I was lying with this little boy in my arms, I had the impression that somebody was in the room. I quietly listened and thought I knew who it was. So I talked out loud. “I know you’re here. You’re our little girl. As soon as my body gets any bit well, you can come. I will keep my body open for you.” Then there was this peace, this wonderful peace. And Shinade was born a year later.
I wanted to end with this. I don’t need to search and join every church that I meet anymore because I know that this is the true church. I’ve been in it now thirty-two years, and I’ve never regretted a second of it. I’ve loved everything I’ve learned, everything I’ve become.
At A Glance
Location: Spanish Fork, UT
Convert: November 1980
Children: Marcus (38), Aaron (29), Shantell (27), Charamine (23), Luke (21), Spencer (18), Shinade (16)
Occupation: Work at Glenwood housing with BYU students
Schools Attended: Clounagh Junior High
Languages Spoken at Home: English
Favorite Hymn: “Oh My Father”
Interview by Annette Pimentel. Photos used with permission.
At A Glance