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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 V. Last Days

THE first Uga Christians, about thirty, were baptised on Christmas Eve, 1916, after five years of hard work. Five years later there were some two hundred Christians with eighty communicants, surely a fine record for ten years in the wild and entirely heathen village.

The time of Francis Buchanan's work on earth was now drawing to a close. During September and October, 1921, the district was visited by influenza, and when Mr. Hunt made his visit early in October he found Brother Francis very unwell, but he was able to make his Communion. He had learned with pleasure that Bishop Sharp, whose health prevented his return to New Guinea, had been offered the Archbishopric of Brisbane, and he was also delighted to learn that his old Mend Bishop Newton might possibly be his successor. Among the happy thoughts which came to him as his strength declined must have been the knowledge that though he ever considered himself unworthy of the work of the priesthood, there was a good hope that one at least of his pupils, bearing at his own request his name, might attain to it.

In 1900 one of the priests of the Mission visiting the [47/48] school at Boianai advised Mr. Buchanan to send away several big schoolboys who were boarders at the Mission because they seemed to be too stupid to learn.

Mr. Buchanan, however, did not at once follow the advice, and in August took one of these boys, Tutuana, to the Anniversary gatherings at Dogura, and brought him to the Rev. H. Newton, who says:

"I saw Tutuana, and he said he wished to stay at Dogura and to be taught I spoke of his cousin, who had died there, and asked him if he was not afraid. He replied that, for that matter, he might die at Boianai if he went back home. 'But your people--they will object?' 'My people cannot save my soul,' was his answer.

"Tutuana set himself with grim determination to learn, and he soon make wonderful progress; but in less than two months he became dangerously ill, and it seemed he would surely die. He asked to be baptised and to be called 'Francis,' after his teacher at Boianai. His people came down, and were quite determined to take his body back to Boianai, that it might be buried there, and arrangements were being made, when there was a change, and the lad revived. Soon he was well again, and more than ever determined to be a teacher.

"If ever anybody had a clear vocation as a teacher, it was Francis Tutuana. His influence over small boys in particular was wonderful. Wherever he walked he had a string of them following him. Wherever he [48/49] rested it was in the midst of a number who sat around him. When put in charge of any work he showed a sense of responsibility, and would report those who shirked their work--a rare thing for a Papuan, who loves above all things to be popular, and who thinks first and foremost, as a rule, of popular feeling towards himself, rather than of the accomplishment of anything that has been given him to do.

"After some years at Dogura, Francis was sent out as a pupil-teacher, and then brought back to Dogura for special training. During this time he and John Regita had the privilege of accompanying Bishop Stone Wigg on his visit to Australia.

"On his return he did a wonderful work itinerating, going for miles up and down the coast and inland, preaching the Gospel, and so influencing the people that in other villages they asked that a teacher might be sent to live amongst them."

He was not long afterwards ordained deacon, and is faithfully carrying on the work to which Francis Buchanan was the means of calling him. The latter was now over seventy years of age, and little able to resist an attack of illness for any length of time. The Rev. J. Hunt says: "I returned to Sirisiri, but later in the month I got a hastily scribbled note from him telling me not to trouble--he always hated troubling others--but that the end was near. Just about that time I had to go to our Annual Conference, so I left at once, and found him very weak. Mr. Gill had been [49/50] over and given him the Holy Communion the day I arrived. It was arranged that the Boianai whaleboat should come for him and take him to Dogura Hospital on Wednesday, October 1. Our Goodenough Bay waters are often turbulent, and there are often times when it would be quite impossible to take a sick man the twenty-five miles from Uga to Dogura by either whaleboat or launch, but our Heavenly Father gave us calm seas for the last voyage of Brother Francis. His old boys from Boianai manned the boat well and faithfully, although they themselves and their friends were in sore trouble from the influenza. By travelling all night he escaped the heat of the day, and was received at Dogura Station by Mr. and Mrs. Thompson, who had arrived a few days before for the Conference. Mrs. Thompson did everything possible until she became ill herself, when, fortunately, Nurse Waldron arrived from the North and was able to nurse Brother Francis to the end. On Sunday, October 16, Mr. Thompson celebrated at his bedside and gave him his last Communion. During the whole of his time at Dogura he was watched night and day, and he was conscious, save for short intervals, to the end. He made a full and voluntary confession of his faith in the Catholic Church, and added: 'I have never regretted conforming to the Anglican Communion, which I was led to do many years ago.' That same evening he passed away as many of us were praying around his bed. His body was then prepared for [50/51] burial, and for the last time we vested it in the habit of St. Benedict. It was then wrapped in a winding-sheet and borne to the Chapel of St. Peter and St. Paul, where candles were placed around it and a watch was kept until the morning. At seven we said our Requiem, and then the first part of the Burial Service was read in the Chapel. Mr. Alexander Watson, our last recruit, carried the processional cross. The College boys carried the body, which was preceded by the Rev. S. Tomlinson and the Rev. J. Hunt, while the white staff followed, and we wended our Way to Wedau Cemetery, singing the songs of Zion and of the life which has no ending. It was the life for which our brother lived Ever since he became an Oblate of St. Benedict he had tried to live the life of self-renunciation He had no earthly ambition. He lived for God and for His heathen children, with no thought of earthly reward. His only desire was the service of God. His aspirations found their satisfaction in the work of a lay missionary to New Guinea in his latter years, as they had in earlier years in the Rule of St. Benedict."

Miss Laura Oliver, of the New Guinea Mission, writes as follows:

"Mr. Buchanan was taken ill at Uga Point (his own station), and finding himself getting weaker each day, he at last wrote to Mr. Gill telling of his illness and adding: 'I think I'm done.' Mr. Gill, although suffering from a severe attack of influenza, went at [51/52] once to see him, and advised him to go to Dogura for treatment. A crew was soon found for the whaleboat, who rowed him to the head station, arriving early on Thursday morning, October 13. He was put to bed at once, being too weak to talk much; he just looked at us and said: 'I don't want to be a trouble, but I thought I ought to come.' We all saw with grief how frail he was--a tired-out pilgrim, just taking his last journey. The only nourishment he could take was a little milk and water. The Rev. John Hunt, one of Mr. Buchanan's greatest friends, arrived with him and was a great comfort to the invalid, spending many hours in the sick-room.

"On Saturday the 15th several members of the staff came; they had been called to Dogura for Conference, which was to be held the following Tuesday. They all did what they could for dear Mr. Buchanan, but, alas, there was so little that any of us could do, except just to watch and occasionally moisten the parched lips, and then came a smile, a 'thank you,' and sometimes he would wave his poor thin hand and say: 'Don't worry about me.'

"On Saturday afternoon it became very evident that our patient was sinking. We never left him, and you may be quite sure that the watching was a labour of love.

"On Sunday morning he knew us all, but became unconscious during the afternoon, and passed quietly away at 8.30 that evening (16th). Nurse Waldron, [52/53] who was fortunately with us when we so much needed her kind help, prepared him for his last resting-place. He was taken from the Dogura Hospital to the pretty church close by, and there watched during the night by our priests and laymen.

"He was buried on Monday morning in the Wedau Cemetery, at the foot of Dogura Hill. Christian Papuans carried the bier, and a procession consisting of nearly every member of the staff followed him to the grave, while the singing of hymns sounded very sweet as they wended their way to God's acre. Wreaths and crosses of the beautiful white lilies and ferns which grow in such rich luxuriance in New Guinea were placed on the grave, and doubtless there will soon be a stone bearing his name to mark the spot where our much-honoured veteran lies. In death, as in life, Mr. Buchanan's white hair and: long, snowy beard made him look like one of the old' patriarchs.

"And so he rests alter many years' service, his body in the land he loved, his spirit with the God he rejoiced to serve."

Writing of Francis Buchanan's character, the Rev. S. R. M. Gill says: "He was optimistic, because he could always see through to the good in things and people. Like many Americans, there was that double strand of lofty idealism and shrewd worldly wisdom running through his character. Perhaps that was why he generally had a charitable interpretation for the whimsicalities and shortcomings of those around him. [53/54] I remember once remarking on the strange, and apparently ungracious, reply a man had made in response to some words of praise and recognition; and Brother Francis sat silent for a minute and then said slowly: 'Well, it shows that he was taken aback, and had not expected any praise, and so had not thought out any fitting words to express the appreciation which he no doubt felt.'

"Dear Brother Francis! During those last years--notwithstanding his failing health--he was keenly alive to, and appreciative of, all that went on around him both locally, and also in the world at large. He more than once remarked to me: 'I shall be glad to go, but this is a good world.' Yes, he saw that it was good. And often, by himself seeing it, he made his little world around him at Boianai, and then at Uga, see it too; for where he was he created an atmosphere of kindliness and goodwill."

The Archbishop of Brisbane writes: "To me, one of the most attractive features about Mr. Buchanan was this: He never lost touch with literature, and with the great events going on in the world, social, political, and wellnigh every other kind.

"An evening's conversation with Mr. Buchanan was always refreshing because of his extraordinary knowledge of men and things, and because he kept so fully abreast with current news and current literature. And yet he was perfectly content to live for twenty- one or twenty-two years in New Guinea, without ever [54/55] leaving the country once. During all those years he only once went as far as Samarai. His time was divided between Boianai and Uga. He was perfectly content to have it so, but he never became in the least degree local or circumscribed in his outlook.

"I had for him a very real veneration, and I felt it to be most fitting that he should have died and been buried in New Guinea."

The following verses are quoted, with their accompanying letter, not for their intrinsic poetic value, but to show the influence that Francis Buchanan exercised even on laymen not connected with the Mission.


"April, 1922.


"I am venturing to send you, a late but nevertheless sincere, small memento of a very dear friend. Among my very happiest recollections are those of the pleasant evenings spent with Brother Francis, when my duty took me to Uga. Possibly he never knew what great influence he had for good in his quiet, devoted life.

"I have met many hundreds of men in a long career of service and in all parts of the Empire. Brother Francis was one of those who leave a lasting impression, and in him I feel I have lost a friend and an example.

"Yours sincerely,




"At peace--at length at rest,
Complete his earthly test;
Now crowned among the blest
At peace--at rest!

"He, now become a Saint,
No words of mine can paint,
This man without a taint
Of vice--our Saint!

"Now freed from lifelong strife,
'Gainst heathen evils rife,
To which he gave his life,
Comes peace--not strife!

"Oh, for him mourn we not,
Whose scutcheon had no blot;
His is the better lot,
At peace--at rest!

"But make it our life's strife
To emulate his best,
That also 'mong the blest
At peace we'll rest!


"Good Friday, 1922"

[57] The Bishop of New Guinea, the Right Rev. H. Newton, says:

The lesson of the life of Francis Buchanan is surely this, that self-sacrifice tells in spite of all difficulties. It would be impossible to imagine one less suited to be a missionary to such people as the Papuans than he was. Not physically strong, so that he could not undertake journeys by land; a helpless person at sea, where he suffered agonies; absolutely incapable of learning the language, so that up to the end he was dependent on interpreters, yet he did effective work for the Church. He had, of course, a very sound judgment of character, a wide knowledge of the world and of men, so that his advice was always sound; he lived a life of absolute self-sacrifice and devotion to our Lord, and that had its purifying and strengthening influence on the Mission--not only on the people at Boianai and Uga, but upon the Mission staff. He was perfectly happy and satisfied as an Anglican, and never for one moment regretted that the Holy Spirit had led him to find in the Church of England his spiritual home For all that he did, for all that he was, we thank God, and pray that we may have the same simple absolute faith which distinguished his life and gave him power to live near to his Lord in self-sacrifice and devotion."

[58] It is not necessary to add much to this testimony from one who knew and loved him so well. In many ways Francis de Sales Buchanan resembled his namesake and unknown fellow-worker, Deaconess Florence Buchanan. There was the same constant weakness of body, pain, and ill-health, which would have been an excuse to many for idleness and shrinking from hard work. There was the same capacity for friendliness, the same shrewd humour, the same intense love for souls, and the same devotion of the life to unselfish service; the same cheerful happiness and power to see good in those in whom it was not obvious. His life as a missionary and all he accomplished is a striking proof of the power of God, and an encouragement to alt not to regard themselves as too old or too little suited for missionary work. If God could make a successful missionary out of Francis Buchanan at fifty, utterly unable to learn languages, and handicapped in half a dozen ways, then no one need despair of being able to serve God efficiently in a similar way.

I, like others, regard his friendship as one of the great blessings of my life. He lived a peaceful, happy life, always thinking of and caring for others, and he died, as he always prayed to die, at his post and in the midst of his work for God. May it be long before his memory fades; and it is not likely to do so while the fruits of his work continue to be seen in the lives [58/59] and work of the dark-skinned children that he loved, who are giving to-day such a striking proof in New Guinea of the power of the Gospel of Christ to bring spiritual peace and happiness to what were once the wildest and most savage tribes of New Guinea.

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