On the other side of the world, an enthusiastic group of older women is raising money to plant dozens and dozens of cherry trees in Hamilton. They’ve pulled together more than $30,000 so far, but cash is not the obstacle now.

Those women are worried. Will we still be alive, they wonder, by the time Hamilton accepts our gift?

This story begins 167 years ago tomorrow, with the birth of Martha "Mattie" Cartmell, second youngest of seven children. Her mother died young and Mattie was sent to live with her aunt and uncle in Hamilton.

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It's a more casual atmosphere at Toyo Eiwa school today. (Toyo Eiwa school)

When Cartmell was 11, that uncle died in the Great Western Rail Disaster that killed 59 when the bridge over the Desjardins Canal collapsed. Cartmell realized this could be a hard world and decided to prepare for it.

She got an education and then taught at Central school. Her church was Centenary, which still commands the corner of Main and MacNab. It was Methodist in those days before the union that turned the denomination United.

Time for women missionaries

Methodists sent missionaries out across the world. But not to Japan, where Christianity had been banned. When that was lifted, the church promptly dispatched some men. They had limited success. No Japanese women came to the meetings and it certainly would not have been proper for a male missionary to go to them.

At Centenary, the church held the first meeting of the Methodist Woman’s Missionary Society – an initiative that soon spread across the country.

And in 1882, that first female missionary set sail for Japan. Mattie Cartmell boarded the City of Tokyo for a 22-day journey.

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Martha Cartmell in younger days. (Toyo Eiwa school)

She began work that was arduous in every way. Her mission was to set up a school in Tokyo. By the time it was built, she had experienced a fire, a typhoon and two earthquakes.

But in 1884, she was able to open the Toyo Eiwa school with two students. Three years later, it had 227 girls. There was morning worship, math, language, singing, reading, Japanese calligraphy.

'You've worked too hard'

The stresses, however, of running a school in a land that was foreign to her in every way began to get the better of Cartmell. Her doctor sent her to Hakone, a cooler mountain region.

From there, she wrote: "What cost me the most agony was to hear it said, ‘You’ve worked too hard.’ Their words are like daggers to my heart... What motives have been silently working that had me deaf to the ‘still small voice’ which would have guided every step?"

In 1887, the church decided Cartmell would need to come home for recuperation. In appreciation, the father of one of her students held a cherry blossom viewing party at his villa.

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Rev. Seiichi Ariga hopes the cherry trees get planted soon. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

There were blossoms as far as the eye could see. Cartmell told her students, "I will never forget this party until death."

She returned to Hamilton, had one more four-year stint in Japan a few years later, then came home for good. Even in her 90s, she wrote to her former students. She died in 1945, nine months short of her 100th birthday.

4,000 students

The school in Tokyo lived on. Today there are more than 4,000 students – primary, secondary, university.

The last missionary from the United Church served at the school in 2006. Some of the former students – many who had made pilgrimages to Cartmell’s grave at Hamilton Cemetery – then decided the history should not be lost. They wrote a book in 2010.

And they contacted Wayne Irwin and Seiichi Ariga, now-retired ministers at Centenary. The pair worked on a translation of that book, published this year.

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Centenary United in downtown Hamilton is where Martha Cartmell got made a missionary. (Paul Wilson/ CBC)

That delighted the women, but there was something else – those cherry trees.

Ariga, who spent the first half of his life in Japan, told them he would see what he could do.

Downtown parks not working out

He first talked to the city a couple of years ago. A park was to be built at John and Rebecca, walking distance for Toyo Eiwa alumni on visits to Centenary. But there have been delays with that park, and it now looks to be years away.

Next option, Beasley, just blocks from there. But Al Dore, manager of special projects with public works, says "there’s a lot going on in that park. It’s heavily used and could be subject to a higher level of vandalism."

He likes the option under study now – Desjardins Centennial Park alongside Cootes Drive in Dundas, which certainly looks as though it has room for at least 50 cherry trees.

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Cherry blossoms in Japan. (Wikipedia)

It won’t happen this coming spring, but Dore hopes there could be a planting a year after that. He thinks this project should happen.

Ariga, 73, went to Tokyo this fall and delivered that news to a roomful of the women who want to remember Mattie Cartmell.

"They’re very excited and they’re pushing me hard," he says. "But these people are my age. They want to come and see the trees. But if it doesn’t happen for another five or ten years, well, that’s too late."

Paul.Wilson@cbc.ca@PaulWilsonCBC

Read more CBC Hamilton stories by Paul Wilson here.