Project Canterbury

Albert Maclaren
Pioneer Missionary in New Guinea

By Frances M. Synge

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, 1908

Chapter II. Work at Mackay

ALBERT MACLAREN lost his father in June, 1877, and in the same year completed his course at S. Augustine's. He was anxious to devote himself immediately to the work of the Universities Mission in Central Africa, but the doctors, in consequence of his delicate constitution, refused to certify to his physical fitness. He then offered himself to the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel, and after satisfying the Board of Examiners, on 28th June, 1877, he was accepted by the Committee of the Society for general mission work.

About this time Bishop Hale was appealing for men to work in the Diocese of Brisbane and Maclaren offered himself.

He left England in November, 1877, and took the longer voyage by sailing vessel for the benefit of his health. Early in 1878 he reached Australia, and on 17th March was made deacon by Bishop Hale of Brisbane at Christ Church, Milton. He was sent to take charge of Mackay, a rising township about 750 miles north of Brisbane, and the centre of Queensland's sugar industry. On rpth June, 1878, he was ordained priest by the same bishop and in the same church where three months previously he had been admitted to the diaconate.

Mackay was notoriously a "difficult" parish. Maclaren is reported to have said in his first sermon: "You starved out one man, you broke another man's heart, and you drove another man away. Now Mr. So-and- so (naming the Roman Catholic priest) will always give me an old coat, Mr. So-and-so (the Methodist minister) will give me a meal, so you can't starve me out, you can't break my heart, and you can't drive me away, for I don't mean to go."

Shortly before his arrival, the church, which was originally a very small, rough stone and rubble building, had been blown down in a storm, and all that was left was a heap of stones and a debt of £200. Services were being held in the Oddfellows' Hall and apparently there were few to whom this state of things made any difference. Maclaren did not hesitate in this, as in other matters, to speak plainly to his people. He asked how long they would allow their own houses to remain in such a condition, and how a comparatively wealthy community could so treat the house of God. But while he never minced matters, and therefore often gave occasion for offence, his earnestness and sincerity and the infection of his enthusiasm were evidenced by the fact that within twelve months of his arrival, not only was the debt on the old church paid off, but £1,700 was raised for building the new one. He personally superintended the progress of the work of building whilst living in a small cottage in the church grounds which did duty for a rectory. The new Church of the Holy Trinity, adorned by many gifts which expressed at once the influence and the reverence of the rector, was opened in December, 1879, and consecrated the following February by Dr. Stanton, the Bishop of North Queensland, to which diocese the Parish of Mackay had been transferred.

The church being built and paid for, Maclaren next set to work to raise funds for a schoolroom, and in four months a substantial building was completed. His next step was to purchase a piece of land on the north side of Mackay, on which he erected another small church for the benefit of parishioners living in the neighbourhood, some of them at a distance of five or six miles from the parish church. By his exertions, too, a rectory was built close to Holy Trinity Church, and many sick parishioners from the country, needing change of air, and unable to pay hotel expenses, were welcomed and cared for there.

The following extracts supply some details concerning his work:--

"In my parish there are 4,000 white people, and 2,000 South-Sea Islanders who work on the sugar plantations. The parish is 120 miles long and 80 miles broad. The church is in the centre of the town. It is a large wooden building, capable of holding 500 persons. It cost L of which £1,400 has been collected in the parish during the past year. Four times in the year I visit another township 70 miles from here and have services. The people attend church regularly and give willingly. On Easter Day there were 133 communicants and the offertories amounted last year to £370. At Walkerston we have a very old school-house, eaten through with white ants, to worship in. I am trying to raise funds sufficient to build a small church. The Bishop has promised £100, and my Easter offering of £30 I have given to the same object, but it is impossible to erect a building under £500. The townspeople refuse to give, and the sugar planters have all given their donations to the church in Mackay. It is important that we should build a church at Walkerston, as it is the centre of the sugar plantations where the South- Sea Islanders reside, and they would be easily made to attend a service near their homes. It seems a great pity that something is not done for these poor fellows when they come to our country; but it seems impossible to make our rich planters understand that it is their duty to do something towards teaching them Christianity. They are a kind, faithful race of people. While I am writing, two of them have just come from the Bush, one of whom is an old pupil of mine. He has handed me a £1 note, saying, 'Missionary, you give this to the new church'. A short time ago this same black boy's brother died of consumption. He had been preparing for baptism for some time, and when taken sick sent for me and asked to be baptised. He knew the Creed and the Lord's Prayer perfectly both in the letter and in the spirit. Before he died I gave him Communion, and now his body rests in our church yard. In his will he left £1 for 'Missionary'. It is on behalf of these South-Sea Islanders that I ask you to do all you can to help me in building the church at Walkerston. The white people are against my doing anything in the way of teaching them, their argument being, that they pay me, not to look after the souls of blacks but of white people."

Hopeful as he was, the weariness and difficulties of life sometimes pressed heavily upon him.

"I feel very dull and lonely here and long for some one to whom I could confide my serious difficulties," he writes to Canon Scarth in July, i88o. "Since I have been here I have seen but one clergyman, and the Bishop twice." The same letter shows he had not forgotten S. Andrew's Waterside Mission and Canon Scarth's interest in it. "There is a coastguard station about two miles from Mackay," the letter goes on to say, "which I take great interest in. The men are so earnest and attend church regularly. The pilot was accidentally drowned a few months ago, and left a widow and a large family. The people here were very kind and gave me £220 for them. Most of the ships which come here are South-Sea Island labour vessels bringing 'boys' from the islands to work on the sugar plantations."

Many letters belonging to this period are written to his mother. There are frequent references to the unsatisfactory state of his health, and to the trying conditions of the climate. In 1881 he speaks of the pleasure a visit to Brisbane had afforded him--"Such a treat," he says, "to see nice shops and pretty things

Under all the contradictions of his character ran a deep undercurrent of spirituality, magnetic in its influence over all classes of men. No one who knew him would be surprised to hear that when his watch (a valuable one, presented to him in England) had been stolen with other things from a boarding-house where he was staying, the culprit repented immediately on discovering to whom it belonged, and Maclaren found it a week later on his own verandah, together with a note expressing deep repentance and regret that the other articles had already been disposed of and could not be restored. The following story illustrates his influence in a different way. One day he went from Mackay to hold service at Mount Britten, when the "rush" was made to that place, and as there were about 150 of the roughest people gathered there, many were curious to see how the preacher would fare. He opened the campaign by organising a free and easy "sing-song" on a Saturday night. This proved an immense success, and one of the most popular numbers on the programme was Maclaren's own solo, the "Midshipmite". At the close of the proceedings he said: "Oh, by the way, I am going to hold service to-morrow night on the flat and I shall be glad if you chaps will come down and hear what I have got to say". Come down they did, and from the moment he stood up beside the log-fire, which did service for lamps, all doubt as to his reception had vanished. As a brawny New Zealand digger said, he was "a right sort of parson".

That he interpreted literally the words "Give to him that asketh of thee" is well known. The consequence of this promiscuous charity was, as generally happens, that he was often duped, and often he had not a penny in his pocket. Bishop Hale used to tell the story of a beggar who, on approaching Maclaren, when the latter's finances were unusually low, received the answer, "All I have is in the sugar basin, I am as poor as you are. If there is anything in the sugar basin I will share it with you." His generosity at times had unpleasant consequences for his friends. Once at Mackay he was driving to visit a distant parishioner, a squatter, when he was overtaken by a thunderstorm, and suffered a thorough drenching. His friend had just got a new suit of clothes from his tailor, and insisted that Maclaren should wear them until his own clothes were dry. On returning home Maclaren put the suit away in a drawer and forgot all about it, until one day a beggar came to the door. "I fear I have none but clerical clothes and they would be no good to you," he said, "but I will go and see what I can do for you." Going to the drawer he came upon the borrowed suit. "I quite forgot these," he said, "they must be some that I had when I was a layman," and he gave them to the beggar. When the owner called for them he was told, "I quite forgot that they were yours; it is too late now, I have given them away and the man was much worse off than you are"!

Among the various classes of people to whom he ministered the despised aboriginals were not altogether neglected. One, who as a little girl used to be sent by her parents to show Maclaren the road in one of the distant parts of his parish, relates how, on one occasion finding that a tribe of aboriginals were encamped. in the neighbourhood, he insisted upon going to see them. His black coat and clergyman's hat were strange sights to them and they fled from the "debil debil," but his guide, who was already known to them, called them back and tried to explain that he was a clergyman. The words was quite beyond their comprehension, so Maclaren himself began to explain that he was "all the same teacher" and showed them some writing on a slate. Then he brought out a Testament and asked them if they knew Jesus Christ. No, they shook their heads. So he knelt in their midst, with hat off and hands upraised, and prayed aloud for them. They thereupon called him "cranky man" and danced about, imitating him, but they never forgot him and for a long time afterwards used to mimic "cranky man". He afterwards per suaded some of them to attend for a while a Sunday-school which was conducted by a lady in the neighbourhood.

The story of Maclaren's life would be incomplete without some reference to his horses and his dogs, of which he made great pets. His horse Peter seemed to borrow his master's moods. Maclaren would some times be lost in dreams, and Peter would trudge along at the rate of not more than a mile an hour. When his master roused himself, Peter was called upon to make up for lost time. At such a pace used he to drive occasionally, that only a whirling cloud of dust, out of the midst of which might be heard the strains of "O Paradise, O Paradise," proclaimed the approach of the rector of the parish. But it is time to draw the record of his ministry at Mackay to a close. He always said that he would never stay in a parish more than three years. "The first year people worship me, the second year they don't know quite what to make of me, the third year they are tired of me and then it's time I left." So having been nearly five years at Mackay, he resigned. His endless efforts in the cause of the distressed, his carelessness regarding his own bodily comfort and the changeful climate had told upon him. To these reasons we must add the fact that he felt deeply the cases of ill-treatment of the Kanakas by the planters, which came under his notice, and which he was powerless to prevent. He resigned amid the protests of his parishioners, and declined to take any other living in the diocese. His parishioners had collected the sum of £250, which they intended to present to him as a mark of their appreciation of his work amongst them and as a parting gift, but with his usual disregard of money he refused to accept it.

He left Mackay in January, 1883.

Those who knew Maclaren at Mackay have ever borne him in affectionate remembrance. One of his old parishioners afterwards provided him with means to take his degree at Durham, and in 1891, when he was on his way to New Guinea, a number of his old friends vent out to meet him at sea, though it meant for them a whole night's tossing about in a little steamer. After his death a beautiful set of altar plate and brass altar rails were presented to the church which he had built, in grateful memory of him.

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