News Story

From Mother of Five to Mom of 200

“Mom” is a title that fits Lisa Harkness comfortably. She has worn it for 28 years while raising her own five children and is now informally called “mission mom” by more than 200 young missionaries serving in the Canada Montreal Mission for The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

Her official title is “mission leader,” which includes the responsibilities of training and mentoring missionaries alongside her husband, David, as well as caring for the missionaries’ spiritual, physical and social well-being. But she is happy and honoured to be nicknamed “Mom” on her first Mother’s Day away from her biological children. Harkness is one of 411 women who serve as a mission leader in the missions of the Church around the world.

Late Nights, Early Mornings

What is it like to be the matriarch of so many young adults from around the world, many living away from home and family for the first time?

“You know how it is when you are a new mother?” Harkness asked. “And you’re up late, and then wake up early? That’s how it is. Around 9:30 or 10 p.m. the phone calls start coming in from the missionaries, and then again in the morning. It’s like having 200 youth in your home.”

Then there are the 4:30 a.m. airport runs every six weeks when missionaries are transferred in and out of the mission.

Sharing Wisdom One-on-One

“We are in close contact with them,” Harkness continued. “The youth of today are very respectful but also very candid and open. They’ll call to ask about laundry, cooking or cleaning, but mostly about concerns with the friends they’re teaching and how to reach them and touch their hearts.”

As mission leaders, the Harknesses travel extensively by car or plane to meet personally with the missionaries in their care. They attend weekly meetings and conduct interviews with the missionaries. Each of the seven areas they oversee contains 18 to 40 missionaries.

“Ours is one of the largest geographic [Latter-day Saint] missions in the world,” Harkness explained. Mission boundaries extend from Ottawa to Nova Scotia, then from the northeast corner of Maine through New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland to the North Pole.

“There’s a lot of travel time,” she said. “Our missionaries are spread out over large distances.”

In addition to teaching and training at missionary conferences, Harkness spends time talking with each missionary prior to his or her interview with her husband. “I ask how they’re doing,” she said. “We talk about the lessons they’re teaching and discuss gospel topics. I also ask about the foods they’re eating and how their families are doing.”

Each Missionary “Part of Our Family”

As impossible as it seems to an outsider, Harkness said she has a relationship with every missionary. “Each one of them feels like they are part of our family,” she said. “My husband and I tell them, ‘You’re part of us forever.’”

That love springs up the minute she reads their name on her computer before the missionary even arrives. “You love them in a pure, enveloping way,” she said.

Harkness states that one of the gifts of working with these young people is that she gets “to love them and see their potential and try to nurture them in their responsibilities.”

If Katia Van Duyse represents the feelings of her fellow Canada Montreal Mission missionaries, the love Harkness feels for them is returned abundantly. “I love Sister Harkness,” said Van Duyse, “and I feel so much love from her. She fills the mother role so quickly and easily.”

Van Duyse also appreciates Harkness’s ability to make each missionary feel special. “She remembers little details about me,” said Van Duyse. “I don’t know how she does it. She’s also very good at complimenting us. She catches us at our best.”

Harkness is very knowledgeable, according to Van Duyse. “We learn a lot from her,” she said. “She’s taught gospel messages with us and is able to speak Spanish. We learn a lot from her. Everyone needs a Sister Harkness.”

As a young woman, Harkness served a Spanish-speaking mission in the Louisiana Baton Rouge Mission, and as a mother, she supported four of her children as they served Latter-day Saint missions. So, she knows firsthand how important it is to feel loved by one’s mission mom and how every parent hopes their children experience that love.

“I love Mother’s Day not for how it reflects on my own mothering abilities, but for how it celebrates all women who nurture other people,” said Harkness. “It’s a divine responsibility and gift to nurture and care for someone more than yourself. Mother’s Day is a great tribute to women who do that. Many women are not able to mother children of their own, but their spiritual capacity and the opportunity to love and nurture is not diminished.”

This Mother’s Day, we celebrate all women who nurture and mentor others.

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