Was ‘The Gold and Ivory Tablecloth’ Based on a True Story?

A story first published in Reader’s Digest in 1954 continues to linger online — only without any sort of confirmation.

“The Gold and Ivory Tablecloth” by Rev. Howard C. Schade deals with a chance encounter that leads to a touching reunion.

“At Christmastime, men and women everywhere gather in their churches to wonder anew at the greatest miracle the world has ever known,” Schade wrote at the time. “But the story I like best to recall was not a miracle—not exactly. It happened to a pastor who was very young.”

The story begins with the pastor and his wife restoring their run-down church when a storm causes a piece of plaster to fall out of the wall, two days before he was to give his Christmas sermon.

In search of something to help cover up the gap in the wall, the couple attends an auction, where one of the items is “a handsome gold-and-ivory lace tablecloth.” Schade wrote:

Then the pastor was seized with what he thought was a great idea. He bid it in for six dollars and fifty cents. He carried the cloth back to the church and tacked it up on the wall behind the altar. It completely hid the hole! And the extraordinary beauty of its shimmering handwork cast a fine, holiday glow over the chancel. It was a great triumph. Happily he went back to preparing his Christmas sermon.

However, his plans are interrupted when he sees a woman “standing in the cold” at a nearby bus stop, on her way back from an unsuccessful interview to work a “governess” for a wealthy local family. After inviting her into the church to keep warm before the bus arrives, Schade wrote, the woman shares a revelation:

She took up a fold of the cloth and rubbed it between her fingers. “It is mine!” she said. “It is my banquet cloth!” She lifted up a corner and showed the surprised pastor that there were initials monogrammed on it. “My husband had the cloth made especially for me in Brussels! There could not be another like it!”

The woman, an Austrian immigrant, then explains that she left the country for Switzerland to escape the Nazi annexation of her country, but that her husband failed to join her there after staying behind to arrange shipment of their belongings. She tells the pastor that she had heard her spouse had died in a concentration camp. When the pastor offers to return the tablecloth to her, however, she declines and leaves the church.

At his Christmas Eve service, however, the pastor discovers she was wrong:

One gentle-faced, middle-aged man —he was the local clock-and-watch repairman— looked rather puzzled. “It is strange,” he said in his soft accent. “Many years ago, my wife—God rest her—and I owned such a cloth. In our home in Vienna, my wife put it on the table” —and here he smiled— “only when the bishop came to dinner!”

The pastor and the older man soon get in contact with the wealthy family (who, again, denied the woman a job) and the couple reunites.

“To all who heard this story, the joyful purpose of the storm that had knocked a hole in the wall of the church was now quite clear,” Schade wrote to conclude the story. “Of course, people said it was a miracle, but I think you will agree it was the season for it!”

Like other “uplifting” stories (see: Santa Claus), “The Gold and Ivory Tablecloth” is devoid of any sort of identifying details on top of the fantastical nature of the coincidences strewn throughout Schade’s tale. It continues to be shared on social media platforms or in faith-oriented blogs with some details changed (a 2013 post, for example, states that the would-be governess and the pastor “exchanged contacts” after their meeting).

The Florida Times-Union newspaper in Jacksonville reported in 2016 that Schade died in 1989; there has been no indication since then that any couple, or any pastor, ever came forward to identify themselves as the subject of his story. As such we are going to say that the claim that it was based on actual events is Unknown.

Update 12/9/2022, 1:05 p.m. PST: This article has been revamped and updated. You can review the original here. — ag