Project Canterbury

Francis de Sales Buchanan: Missionary in New Guinea

A Memoir by Gilbert White, D.D.

London: Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, 1923
New York and Toronto: The Macmillan Co., 1923.

Chapter II. Sydney and North Queensland

SHORTLY after joining the Anglican Communion Brother Francis was given charge of the Duke Street Mission, for work among the Sydney larrikins, and he was so successful in his work that it was specially commended by the Commissioner of Police for New South Wales. He often spoke to me with loving memory of these wild boys, regarded with suspicion by respectable society, but with much good in them if their confidence could but be gained. Little outside support was, however, forthcoming, and the Mission was finally closed. At that time Mr. Garnsey wrote to me, as Archdeacon of North Queensland, and asked if I would take Buchanan, and he spoke so highly of him that I gladly consented. I was at that time engaged in a little experiment in a suburb of Charters Towers called Queenton. I had ventured in Synod on the bold statement that a man could live on £50 a year, and on being somewhat scoffed at I said that I would at least try. I took three men with me and we went to Queenton, where the priest's house consisted of one small iron room, and the total income of £50 a year. Our first job was to add three rooms and [17/18] a kitchen on to the house, which we accomplished with bush carpentry; then we started to work the district, which included a large bush area. "Devout women" of the parish did our washing, and a lady bountiful of the town sent us the materials for our Sunday dinner, but we did all our own cooking and other work, and with those exceptions paid for all our requirements. In twelve months the district was formed into a regular parish, and handed over in financial and working order to a rector. At the end of these twelve months we found that our cost of living for the twelve months had amounted to exactly seven and sevenpence a week per head, or less than half of £50 a year. We had all we wanted, were healthy, happy, and overwhelmingly cheerful. It was shortly after this experiment began that I heard about Francis Buchanan. I told him that he could come if he liked, and would get board and lodging, but that I could not guarantee him anything else. He promptly appeared, arriving on January 4, 1896, and I very soon learned to love him and to be honoured by his friendship, which, in spite of more than twenty years of separation, never ceased to the day of his death. He fell quietly into his own unobtrusive place at once. The men could not quarrel with him, because he had so obviously nothing of his own to scheme for or to gain. He wanted nothing for himself, and therefore he was always at liberty to help or to listen to the plans or the wishes of anyone else. If there was a job [18/19] that was particularly tiresome or unpleasant he would always take it as a matter of course, but without the slightest loss of independence and self-respect. No one was keener to note, and to laugh at, any assumption of unjustifiable superiority in others. It was largely owing to Buchanan's quiet influence and shrewd comments on men and things that all went so well. He always managed to see the ludicrous side of things. We were in those days something of Labour men (perhaps it was the result of our house- building work), and we used once a week to have meetings for men in our one sitting-room, at which all sorts of opinions were ventilated. On one occasion the editor of the local Labour paper got started on a favourite topic, and rolled out in thundering periods: "Look at the purse-proud clergy in their lordly palaces!" Suddenly he caught Buchanan's quizzical eye as he glanced round our humble apartment, and collapsed, amid roars of laughter from the other men.

Buchanan was at this time, I fancy, approaching fifty, but he did not look it. He was of medium height and fresh complexion, with a large, full beard. He never had very good health, and suffered at times a great deal of pain, but he never complained or let anyone know what he endured. He suffered much from insomnia, and I remember his giving me some good advice on the subject. "If you can't sleep," he said, "lie perfectly still all the same; then your body is getting rested all the time, whereas, if you are [19/20] restless and toss about, your body as well as your mind is tired out in the morning."

In one sense he was singularly ill-educated; of literature, history, or science he knew little or nothing, and of English grammar he knew little more. Nothing, no amount of talking, would prevent him from the use of such expressions as "I done it," and he was quite unable to learn a foreign tongue. On the other hand, there were subjects on which his knowledge was perfectly extraordinary and almost encyelopdic. He had a passion for collecting catalogues and printed papers of all descriptions, and his knowledge of, and memory for, anything that had happened in America or Italy within his own sphere of knowledge and within his own experience was simply marvellous. The Rev. S. R. M. Gill says of him many years later in New Guinea: "Brother Francis' mail-bag was one of the affectionate jokes which we had against him. Though he would speak of himself, half-humorously, as the 'friendless man' (referring thereby to the fact that most of the friends of his earlier years had long since passed away), yet his share of the mails was always bigger than any of the others. It was largely composed of catalogues and circulars. Reports of Boards of Education also had a great attraction for him. On one of my visits to him we sat and discussed the state of education in Bolivia and Argentina, he having just received about half a large mailbag full of reports and statistics from those States, together [20/21] with the compliments of their Ministers for Education. On my next visit we went into the matter of town-planning in connection with the city of Adelaide. On another visit to him he presented me with several large illustrated price-lists of wireless instruments and accessories, which he had had 'mailed' to him from New York."

From Queenton he accompanied me to Townsville, where I had charge of the parish for some time during an interregnum. Here, again, he gave himself to the humblest tasks, sweeping the cathedral, sending out notices, repairing books, putting things straight, and doing those hundred and one little things that have to be done, but which no one finds any interest in doing. To him it was all work for God, and it filled him with happiness to do it. I tried several times to get him to accept a better-paid and more permanent position, but he always replied that he "wanted nothing but shelter and food," and it was very little of the latter that he ever took. He was perfectly happy, and he troubled himself not at all about the future, which was, he said, in God's hands, not in his. I had at that time several young men, readers, deacons and candidates for Orders, more or less under my charge, and I verily believe Buchanan did more for them than I did. He assumed an entirely detached position, and never interfered with them in the slightest degree, but when in the course of conversation or at meals one would make some remark which [21/22] showed the conceit of youth or launch out into some glowing tirade, "Old Buchanan," as he was invariably called, with a supremely bland unconsciousness, and with a heartbreaking indifference to their heroics, would mildly request them not to "slop over so much," or he would prick the bladder of their self-importance with some even quainter Americanism which set the victim laughing before he quite realised where the point of the criticism lay.

In July, 1897, I was appointed Rector of the vast parish of Hughenden, then some two hundred miles from north to south and some three hundred or more from east to west. Buchanan went with me. I had not the least desire to part with him, and he resolutely refused to leave me, though I had nothing to offer him. His friendship asked for nothing, though its generosity often made me ashamed. He was quite content to wait and serve and ask for nothing in return. I vividly remember how we set forth on my first long bush journey, for he insisted on coming with me, though he had no more idea of the bush or its tasks than a city child. On the third day we had a drive of forty-six miles over very heavy black soil plains. There was supposed to be water about halfway, but when we got to it, it was so bad that the horses would not drink it. In the afternoon they became exhausted, and could only crawl along. About 9 p.m. we had to stop for a couple of hours to rest them, and then we crawled on again, knowing that we [22/23] were far from our destination. It was very cold and I felt very miserable, but Buchanan was quite cheerful, and was sure that it would be all right somehow, and sure enough about 2 a.m. we reached water, and got to our destination before morning. At Hughenden as elsewhere his quiet helpfulness endeared him to everyone. He was with me for two years at Hughenden, and then it was arranged that I should go to England for a year, with a view to starting a diocesan brotherhood in North Queensland. Buchanan would have been most useful for this purpose, but unfortunately, the then Bishop was suspicious of the fact that he had been a Roman Catholic, and was unwilling to give him work while I was away. As a matter of fact, Buchanan had not, and I think never had, anything distinctly Roman about him. He found complete spiritual satisfaction in the Anglican Church, and never cared at all for those little Roman tricks of manner and practice which are so often irritating in some so-called Anglican Catholics. He had a long and intimate acquaintance with Roman ecclesiastical methods, and he did not like them, although he had the deepest respect for the devoted lives and characters of many individual Romans. His knowledge of community life was especially full and intimate, and he was fond of pointing out, what is, I think, true, that a community was rarely if ever successful when it was inaugurated with a great flourish of trumpets, with large subscriptions, and [23/24] with powerful patronage. All the most successful communities had started with one or two men, and had had to struggle, not only with poverty, but with all kinds of obstacles and difficulties, which had tested and tried them and been the real source of their ultimate success.

The check which Buchanan received from the Bishop's unwillingness to give him work during my proposed absence in England seemed to him to be an indication of God's call to give himself to missionary work. He had not thought himself worthy of it, but he now heard that there was a great need for men in New Guinea, and he thought that he might be of some possible use as a mere helper and doer of odd jobs. He would never teach nor take services while with me, as he considered himself quite unfit to do anything of the kind. He was one of the humblest of men in his estimate of his own value.

It was with great reluctance that I wrote commending him to the Bishop of New Guinea, partly because I grieved at the thought of parting with him (for he told me clearly that if he went to New Guinea he would never leave his post there even for furlough), and partly, I confess, because I doubted whether he was in any way fitted for missionary work. His splendid service of twenty-two years shows how utterly I was mistaken in my judgment, and how little I realised the depths of that affectionate care [24/25] for souls which was to make him so deeply beloved by the natives under his charge. He was not a good correspondent, but he used to write to me at least once a year up to the time of his death, and out of his income of £20 a year he used to send me £2 for the missionary work of the Diocese of Carpentaria, in the progress of which he always took the deepest interest.

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