A FEW months after leaving Mackay, Maclaren went to take temporary charge of S. Paul's, West Maitland.
Though he had undertaken this work he had not abandoned his hope of joining the Universities Mission to Central Africa, and in November, 1883, he announced that he had been accepted and was proceeding thither. A memorial was then addressed to him by the non- churchgoing young men of West Maitland, for whom he had instituted a special service in the Masonic Hall, and this induced him first to think the matter over, and finally to change his mind. Never before in New South Wales, it was said, had such a document been presented to a clergyman who had laboured in a place so short a time as Maclaren had laboured in West Maitland. "You contemplate joining a mission to the heathen in Central Africa," they wrote. "That mission is conducted in circumstances of great danger from the climate and from savage men. Any reference to peril to be encountered, will not, we know, avail to turn you from the path of duty. But we venture to ask you to consider that here in West Maitland is a field of labour of which you have barely turned over furrow. There are many amongst us who feel that you may become our best friend, and who are already disposed to love and follow you. Will you not stay with us and pursue the work which you have begun? Must we lose you, we ask ourselves, just when we are coming to know your value? Sir, we entreat you to consider us and our needs. For our sakes relinquish your design of leaving Australia. Apply your zeal and capacity for teaching to those in whom you have already awakened some concern. You are our friend, we know." Signed for 282 non-churchgoers.
In the course of his reply he told them (this was on 1st January, 1884) that he was going to take a holiday by the bishop's advice, and that he would return to West Maitland. He kept his promise, and on the Feast of the Conversion of S. Paul, 25th January, 1884, he was inducted to his charge by Bishop Pearson, greatly to the regret of his old parishioners at Mackay, who had entertained hopes that he would return to them. It is unnecessary to give a consecutive account of the following three years at West Maitland. The daily parish work of an Australian country town does not lend itself to continuous narrative.
At West Maitland, as at Mackay, Maclaren influenced all classes of society. In West Maitland he is chiefly remembered for his work amongst young men and children, amongst the prisoners in the East Maitland gaol, and amongst the poorest of his parishioners. On one occasion a band of "larrikins" had united under the name of the "Skeleton Army" to harass and interfere with the Salvation Army. Some of these lads were arrested and brought before a judge who imposed a severe sentence upon them for their misbehaviour. Maclaren promptly interviewed the authorities, and succeeded in getting the sentence reduced, and from this little incident he received the name of the "Larrikins' Parson". But he succeeded in disbanding the "Skeleton Army," the captain of which became a regular communicant.
With the young he was a great favourite, and to those now grown up who were children in his day, the mention of his name revives the happiest memories.
As a catechiser he had the power of drawing out the children and bringing home to them lessons of the highest importance. One says she remembers how when she was a child he seemed to read their characters. "'Stand up,' he would say, 'the little girl who let her tired mother wash up last night.' Or, 'Stand up, the little girl who did not say her prayers this morning'. We used to look at each other and crawl guiltily to our feet, for we never dared to tell him a lie. In fact I have said my prayers many a time only for fear that he would ask me." Nor was the happy and social side of their life unnoticed. Very often at a children's ser vice he would suggest to the children that if they brought a penny each to the schoolroom on a certain day during the week, they would have a tea (the day was generally Wednesday and it became well known in West Maitland that the greatest punishment a child could receive was to be "kept in" on Wednesday after noon). On the day appointed, long before the hour mentioned, the school grounds were besieged by merry children, full of anticipation, not so much at the tea but what was to come afterwards, for as a rule Maclaren was the sole entertainer. Full of fun and humour himself, and a great mimic, he kept the children in a roar of laughter for at least an hour. Sometimes his dog Rex would help his master to entertain his guests. To the accompaniment of an organette, Rex was made to perform certain tricks to the delight of the children.
"My three boys, who are now grown up, all loved him," writes one of his parishioners. "I remember when he was leaving Maitland for England, he called in for a last good-bye. My boys were all in their cots and he went round in the dark, put his hands on them and blessed them. Such little actions endeared him to us very much. . . . I never met a man who so entered into the fun of everyday life and yet who influenced so many for good. His children's services I shall never forget. He knew each child by name and walked up and down the aisle, speaking first to one and then to another. He tried to make his services so bright that they loved them. He was very fond of quoting from a book called Led by a Little Child which he gave to me one Christmas."
His services for children were a special feature of the missions he preached in several parishes in Sydney while he was Incumbent of S. Paul's, West Maitland.
The parochial missions referred to deserve more than passing notice. As a missioner he was particularly successful, Many of his friends thought it a pity that he did not devote his life to mission work in some of the large slum parishes in England, so remarkable were his gifts for dealing with the poor and outcast.
Of the mission which he conducted at Christ Church, Sydney, the Rev. F. J. Albery, the present rector, writes:--"The mission which Mr. Maclaren took here when I was a lad I remember well. Indeed I could never forget it. It was a wonderful movement for good and influenced many outside the ordinary congregation and from many parts in and around Sydney. Night after night the church was filled by a congregation which included not a few who, from that time, could look back to a change in their spiritual life of a lasting character. His preaching at that time was at its best. I think I never heard any one so earnestly searching and sympathetic in the pulpit, and since then I have been privileged to hear most of the great English preachers in recent times."
The other missions Maclaren conducted were at Christ Church, North Sydney; All Saints, Petersham; and All Saints, Parramatta. "His faith was strongly in evidence, and his convictions were clear beyond doubt," writes one--a layman. "There was nothing of the wobbling, apologetic type of parson about Albert Maclaren, one felt that he believed with all his heart and that he could give good reason for the hope that was in him. I remember on one occasion that we sat talking until the small hours of the morning, and that our conversation led to a discussion on the mysteries of the spiritual world, and life's many anomalies. How helpful that long night's talk was, and how even yet the memory of that meeting lingers as a red-letter epoch in one's life."
The proximity of the East Maitland gaol afforded him scope for exercising among the prisoners his remarkable power of influence. It is said that he particularly disliked visiting the gaol and therefore made a point of doing so on Friday. He frequently preached in the gaol chapel, and at such times his passionate appeals and earnest exhortations were remark able. One Good Friday especially, when he preached on the "Three Crosses," he made a deep impression, and a few days later he received a card with three crosses and the texts which had appealed most to his hearers. This card was the work of one of the prisoners and was highly valued by Maclaren.
As illustrations of the way in which he cared personally for the more unfortunate and degraded of his parishioners, we may instance how on one occasion as the church bell was ringing, and he was ready to enter the church to begin the service, word was brought to him of a drunken man who was dying and for whom no one thought it worth while to fetch a doctor. He went off at once in his cassock and left his congregation waiting till he had himself found the doctor and had done everything possible for the dying man. On another occasion he went to the Chinese quarter of the town to find an unfortunate woman suffering from typhoid fever. He took her in a cab to the hospital, supporting her himself all the way.
He had often been on the verge of resigning, for he could not brook opposition to his wishes, and when some parishioner had vexed him he would go post-haste over to the bishop to resign his cure, and tell him that he intended to leave at once for the Central African Mission. A few words from the bishop would soothe him and he would return once more to his work and the aggrieved parishioner.
He certainly liked his own way, and generally got it, and this gained for him in West Maitland from friends who loved him the nickname of the "Pope."
"We have had many a laugh over the quiet way he had of compelling people to do what he wanted them to do in spite of themselves," writes one of his lady parishioners.
Maclaren never seems to have really settled down at West Maitland. He was, as has been said already, often on the point of resigning the living and finally did so in January, 1887.
The Maitland Mercury of 25th January, 1887, thus sums up his work in the district:--"The Rev. A. A. Maclaren has been for three years a resident of Maitland, and will bear away with him the love and esteem of all with whom he has come in con tact. In the pulpit, a fearless preacher of what he deemed to be the truth, as a parish clergyman he has been diligent, earnest in the performance of duty, the sympathetic counsellor and friend of the suffering and sorrowful, the almoner of the destitute, the comforter of the widow and orphan. The dwelling-places of the poor have known him better than the habitations of the rich, and he has commanded the respect of all classes and all creeds for devotion to his fellow-men. His purse was open to all, and he habitually denied himself that he might have to give to those in want The place he gained in the hearts of the community was best shown by the demonstrations of genuine respect which greeted him on all sides as he passed along the street. In these free and easy days the clergyman to whom well every boy and lad touches the hat must be a clergyman in whom they recognise a special worthiness. It is not our province to deliver any opinion on Church practices about which there has been party controversy. But we may say that the services at S. Paul's have been distinguished during the last three years by brightness and heartiness, and that the congregations have been increasingly large. . .
West Maitland proved its love for its old pastor by the stained glass window in S. Paul's Church erected to his memory after his death, and by the staunch support it has given to the work of the New Guinea Mission for which his life was laid down.