Separated by polygamy, reunited by death

The Salt Lake Tribune/July 27, 2007
By Brooke Adams

This was their secret hope: That they would not be shut out when illness finally claimed their mother. Surely death would be a bridge over the chasm between believers in the Fundamentalist Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints and nonbelievers. Between mother and children, brothers and sisters, loved ones.

When Norene Nielsen Birk Jeffs first joined the polygamous faith in the early 1970s, religious differences were easily put aside. In time that changed, especially after she became a plural wife of the late FLDS leader Rulon T. Jeffs.

It became impossible when his son, Warren S. Jeffs, took over and her own brother, Wendell Nielsen, rose to power alongside him.

Relatives outside the faith had only sporadic contact with Norene Jeffs - then all contact ended three years ago.

"I went several times and met with Wendell's boys and asked to see Norene," said Geri Harding of Myton, a sister. "They said they didn't know where she was. I said I would start knocking on doors until I found her."

The family sent cards and flowers on special occasions, never knowing whether Jeffs got them. Or if she was still alive.

They heard more than once she had died, each rumor triggering a new round of grief and confusion.

"This last Mother's Day, when my sister and I talked, we thought mom had to have passed away by now and we needed to accept the fact we were never going to know when or where or how," said Derith Orton, one of Jeffs' six children.

"Happy with the lifestyle": Norene Jeffs and her six siblings grew up in a family that belonged to The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Three siblings - Sylvia Nielsen Zitting, Ivan Nielsen and Wendell Nielsen - became fundamentalist Mormons in their late teens or early 20s; only Wendell stayed with the group that became the FLDS.

Jeffs was a "late comer in it," Harding said, joining the southern Utah sect in her 40s with her second husband, Bill Birk. The rest "just plain weren't interested in joining," Harding said.

Of Norene Jeffs' six children, only one - a son from her second marriage - followed her to the FLDS.

"But we still are family and were interested in keeping in contact," Harding said.

For many years, they did.

Jeffs moved to Hurricane with Birk and opened a nursing home. A son and daughter-in-law worked with Jeffs at the care center, as did her sister Sylvia.

Grandchildren visited often. There were family reunions and trips to Disneyland.

"My mother was happy with the lifestyle," said Orton, who lives in Paul, Idaho. "It's what she chose, what she wanted to do."

When Birk died, Jeffs moved to Colorado City and in the early 1990s, as best her family can tell, was spiritually sealed to Rulon Jeffs. She became one of his many plural wives, in what her family describes as a caretaker marriage to a old, ailing man.

Contact dwindled to once or twice a year, the family said. After Rulon Jeffs died in 2002 and his son took over, it became "just about impossible" to learn anything about her, they said.

Following his father's lead, Warren Jeffs fostered an even stricter division between those in the faith and those outside it. Such shunning is practiced by other closed groups, such as some Old Order Amish.

The FLDS draw on Biblical passages and sermons by early leaders in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, such as Brigham Young, to support ostracizing apostates and outsiders.

(The LDS Church dropped polygamy as a practice in 1890 as it sought statehood but considers it a possibility in heaven.)

In a sermon given July 16, 2000, in Colorado City, Warren Jeffs described an apostate from the faith as the "most dark person on earth" and warned that socializing with outsiders would cause faith to weaken.

"If a mother has apostate children, her emotions won't let her give them up and she invites them into the home, thus desecrating that dedicated home," he said.

"The last good memory": Despite such admonishments, some FLDS families chose - and choose today - to maintain limited contact with relatives, primarily by telephone.

But as Norene Jeffs' health failed, those caring for her made a decision she might not have made herself: They cut ties with her children, grandchildren and siblings.

Orton said she would call her mother, only to be put on endless hold or told Norene Jeffs would call her back. She never would.

Her siblings tried, too. "We could never get any information at all," Zitting said.

The family outside the FLDS fold relied on periodic contact with the only child who stayed in the faith - Clayton Jeffs - for information. That's how they learned Norene Jeffs had Alzheimer's disease.

The last contact with Norene Jeffs came on Labor Day 2004. Orton, her brother Daren Lauritzen and their spouses traveled to the twin cities after months of being unable to check up on their mother.

By then her brother Wendell Nielsen, founder of a successful high-tech machining company once located in Hildale, had become a counselor to Warren Jeffs.

Jeffs' children pleaded with him for help, and Wendell Nielsen arranged for them to meet with their mother at his business office in Hildale.

Jeffs was accompanied by her full-time caretaker. She didn't recognize her children.

"I did feel like they were taking good care of her," Orton said. "It was a good visit. The last good memory."

What harm?

At that time, the FLDS were closing ranks around their community and beleaguered prophet Warren Jeffs was already on the run.

Soon after, Wendell Nielsen's telephone was disconnected. Contact with their half brother dwindled.

And Norene Jeffs became, to all intents and purposes, lost to the world.

"Each one of us had a secret hope that we clung to that someone would be brave enough to break the rule and let us know," Orton said.

It was not to be: Norene Jeffs died on June 27 at the health clinic in Hildale. She was buried a day later in Leroy S. Johnson Memorial Cemetery in Colorado City. She was 79.

Sylvia Zitting, who lives in Missouri, learned of her sister's death by chance two days later. Someone visiting happened to call home to Centennial Park, Ariz., and was told of the funeral.

The first reaction was disbelief and worry it was just another unfounded rumor.

"I didn't even believe that for a minute," Harding said.

But a St. George mortuary confirmed the news, and grief took over.

So did outrage: How could they?

"It's sad enough to lose your mother but to know they withheld her from us right to the end," said Orton. "To just have the courtesy to call and tell you that your mom passed away. What would have been the harm?"

And then a tiny idea sparked, took hold and spread like wildfire: The family decided it would hold its own graveside service.

"They made it so I could not find her, but I found her in death," said Harding, 77, who was like a twin to her older sister. "We know where the cemetery is and we know where Norene is now.

"Norene's dead. She doesn't care. But we want to let the community know we care, she was our sister, we still love her," she said. "We don't care about her religion. We want to tell her goodbye."

"We will always love you"

On a blistering July day, nearly 30 people gathered around the grave.

They came from as far away as Missouri, Denver and Idaho, from as near as Cedar City and St. George. They brought bouquets, photo albums and memories.

Norene Jeffs' grave is marked by a metal marker with her name and the years she was born and died. It is just like the markers on some of Rulon Jeffs' other wives - Kathleen, Elba and Larue.

The women's graves lie a few feet away from the granite headstone that marks Rulon Jeffs' burial site. "Sweet and sound" reads the inscription.

A caravan of cars began pulling into the cemetery at midday July 9. That they could gather there at all is a sign of how some things are changing in Hildale and Colorado City, where 6,500 or so FLDS members live.

Until 2005, when a Utah court ordered the takeover of a FLDS property trust that holds most land in the twin towns, exiles were prohibited from being buried or gathering there.

"I made it very clear that was an open cemetery and there was no discrimination based on race, creed or religion," said Bruce R. Wisan, who oversees the property trust. "It is a community cemetery."

No one approached Jeffs' extended family paying respects.

"Our beloved Norene. We are all here now!" Harding said. "We will never forget you because we will always love you."

There were laughs - about childhood adventures, practical jokes that played on Jeffs' fear of mice, her cotton candy business, how she put garlic on everything and loved "squeaky cheese," her rousing renditions of the children's song "Bear Hunt" and her love for classical music.

And there were tears.

"I just miss her," said Jaye Eves, 25, of Cedar City, a nurse like her grandmother. "She was always happy, always teaching us to be good people. Always had stories to tell. . . . We spent a lot of time with grandma growing up. I just remember how much she loved us and how much she taught us."

One by one, those who had loved Norene Jeffs said their good-byes and relinquished their bitterness.

Kim Harding, a nephew, offered the closing prayer. It focused not so much on his aunt as on the people with whom she shared her faith.

"Through the power of love and the power of the family that's here," he said, "we would ask a special blessing on this community and the people that Norene knows here and loved that they can find peace, happiness and joy."

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