How It Came To be
In 1925 a Sister whose Community was in Bombay was on the way to England. On arrival at Aden it was necessary to change on to a liner that had come from Australia. The Sister stood on the deck of the liner for a few minutes waiting for her baggage to be transshipped. A Roman Catholic Priest came up to her to ask to which Order she belonged. Hearing that she was not one of his flock the red-headed Irishman cheerfully replied: "Oh, that's all right. There's one of your Padres on board, too. I'll take you over to introduce you."
And that was the beginning not only of a life-long friendship but also the first step towards the founding of a Community for Melanesia. The Padre was from the Melanesian Mission and after long and arduous service he was going on furlough with his wife. The Bishop of Melanesia was wanting a Community of Sisters for work amongst women and girls. He had asked the Priest of the Mission while in England to find Sisters with experience of Community life and educational work, who would be ready to 'burn their boats' and make a fresh start in Melanesia. It was not surprising that the Priest had felt that this was an impossible task, worse than seeking the proverbial needle in a hay stack. And yet here, weeks before he reached England, was a Sister with 14 years' experience of Community life, working mostly in schools and already used to the tropics, where she was training English and Indian Novices. It certainly looked as if this encounter was God's planning.
The Priest, his wife and the Sister talked Missions in general and Melanesia in particular from Aden to Tilbury. The Sister felt a strong pull to this new venture, but she had her other obligations and that seemed to be final. It wasn't final because on returning to India in spite of a very successful throat operation a septic condition started again and nothing could get it right. A younger Sister was in much the same trouble. Finally the doctors said of both of them that they could never work in the dust of Bombay without disabling illness. Medical help was again sought in England, but though help was given the verdict was the same. In Bombay the same conditions would lead to the same breakdown as before; the South Seas would be for those two a health resort, said the doctors, at least so far as the old trouble was concerned. That was one of many clear pointers, for there were others, too. Correspondence was begun and the Bishop of Bombay, then in London, sanctioned the transference. "If it was for any other diocese I might say 'No'," he said, "but I can't say 'No' to Melanesia. It has always had a special place in my heart since I was a small boy. My father was at Eton with Bishop Patteson and he used to talk to me about him." Then in the London hotel sitting-room this great and holy Bishop, James Palmer, prayed with the two Sister and blessed them. All preparations were completed that year, and in 1929 the two arrived in Melanesia after many more experience of goodness and mercy.
The Spirit and Aims of the Community
The first two Sisters who had been so clearly led to Melanesia were no less clearly led to make simplicity, love and freedom the dominant notes in the new Community. It was not by any means certain at first that anyone else would be led to commit themselves to a venture so far away and so very small. The first two aspirants, one from New Zealand and one from Western Australia, came to us the following year. We have thanked God for them ever since.
Our first Rule was very simple--about a dozen headings and under each a few verses of clear guidance from the Bible. Later it was thought good that the Community should have a Rule giving rather more definition of aims and duties, of filial obedience to the Bishop, and normal procedure. But still as little as possible is defined. The Lord's word to us is, "I have yet many things to say unto you." We must be free to hear and obey. "Quench not the Spirit" is a clear direction. If everything is decided beforehand by rule and constitution how should the Spirit lead us. Perhaps we have been led this way from the start because the Lord knew that later on He would call young native women into the Community. Anything rigid or merely conventional would do harm to their growth in faith and love and that joy which Nehemiah tells us is our strength.
Every Community has its special call and character. We have no Convent, only an Island home, where the family, brown and while, live in mutual reverence and love. The Rule does not call the Mother the Superior but the Sister Servant. Are not all Christian mothers the servants of their households? This way of life is not for those unwilling to submit to restrictions, but for those who seek utmost dedication to Him whose service is perfect freedom and yet more binding than any outward rules because a man cannot escape from it even in the inmost recesses of his mind. Our word must always be "Not as though I had already attainted . . . but I follow after"--however far behind.
The Coming of the Taina
The coming of the first native girl to the Community in 1934 is a story which has been told elsewhere. Taina Ann's early life was on an unevangelized island; and her desire to live a dedicated life of service was strong before she had heard the Name of Jesus or had any idea how the desire could be fulfilled. Her life may be summed up in the words: Jesus said: "Follow me. And she arose and followed Him." On the day of her Confirmation and first Communion she sailed away on the Southern Cross to the unknown that her heart told her was the haven where she would be. In the eight years of her life in the Community her following became ever more close until the day when she passed through the gates of death to be with Him.
Later in 1934 came others who are still with us; others followed in succeeding years. The Community at the time of writing is drawn from England, New Zealand, Australia, Solomons, Banks and New Hebrides Islands. Three races are represented, British, Polynesian and Melanesian.
The word Taina means Sister in the language of the first Taina. Never did any Community have more loyal, loving and helpful Sisters than these Taina. They have indeed been our Crown of rejoicing. Again and again they have been the links that draw us close to those we teach or tend in other ways. Their simplicity of faith and love have been an inspiration, Every thought of them is a thanksgiving. Most of them have had to overcome very great obstacles and opposition before joining the Community. These things, like other trials, have sometimes meant loss, but the gain in strength for those who have persevered is very striking.
For the first seven years Siota was the headquarters of the Community. In those days the College for Teachers and Ordinands was there. The wives and children of the men in College were our first care, and the Dispensary which was a centre to which people from all the surrounding neighbourhood turned for medical help. Friendships begun at Siota have enriched all the succeeding years. Soon after Sister Veronica's arrival from New Zealand we opened a school for boys and girls of the district. This gave us most precious opportunities. The first Taina all learned to teach in this school and gradually Sister Gwen evolved a teaching method which, while laying a sound foundation, has made the early states of education equally delightful to the teacher and the taught. The school grew to over 70 children from a wide area and a dormitory was built for those who could not go home each night. Holy Cross School, Siota, is a very happy memory to many.
While we were there we were asked several times to take charge of tiny motherless orphans. We thought that relations in the village should do that and we could help with milk if necessary. Everyone of those babies soon followed their mothers. So when a dying woman begged that we should take her week-old fragile twins we did so. By that time there were several native members of the Community and some of them helped Sister Madeline in the Nursery. The twins were soon joined by other babes. As in other families the Nursery was the centre of special sweetness and tender love. The babies did much to bring us into sympathetic touch with the neighbouring mothers. Most of our babies were strong enough for village life when they were about 18 months old and then they returned to loving aunts or perhaps to stepmothers. Our first girl babies will soon be old enough to come back to our care once more as school girls.
When the Bishop asked the Community to take charge of the Girls' Boarding School on the small island of Buñana we had four babies under a year old, so of course they came too. The girls were delighted. I think they felt, as we did, that they made the place more complete and homely.
Buñana was the Community's home from 1936 to 1942 when the Japanese took it, but not before the Bishop had arranged for the transport to safety of all its 80 or more inhabitants.
The school at Buñana had done good work for many years previously under Miss Wench and Miss Safstom. Now, with a larger staff, increased numbers and other developments became possible. English was taught and used increasingly but not to the exclusion of Mota, one of the Banks Island languages. Few native children can talk English with any freedom but Mota conversation holds no difficulties for them after two or three months. We prize that lingua franca as one of the many treasures that we owe to Bishop Patteson's wisdom. Most of the Taina were uncommonly good at all native handicrafts and with their help we were able to attain a high standard in the school. School work was facilitated by the Readers of varying kinds, in Mota and English, prepared by Sister Gwen. Sister Gwen was also able, with help from others, to improve the methods of agriculture, so that each year the soil was growing better and the food problem less. No practical subjects are of more importance for Melanesian girls than infant welfare and agriculture. At Buñana in the Nursery and in the gardens they were able to see the excellent results of the modern methods that at first seemed to them so strange. Their keen interest was aroused and they were eager to learn.
During these years the Bishop several times planned extended visits for a few of the Community to isolated places were help was much needed. These were experiences of much blessing for all concerned.
Buñana came in for the full blast of war. Every building was completely destroyed and great damage was done to the island. But Sisters, girls and babies were all kept safe during those years of trial, and experience worketh hope that the seed sown there in the hearts of the girls is bearing fruit. "Not in vain" is a comforting thought.
In the beginning of 1942 the Sisters were given the charge of Selwyn School, Torgil, in the New Hebrides. That has been a place of great blessing and joy. From there visits to isolated places brought them comfort and new hope. The longest say was on Maewo, a large island with a rapidly declining population. The people made us a little compound in the hills in a central position. It was called Gladhaven--and it was just that. It was all very rough and temporary, but there were huts for the community, for the school, a maternity hut and another for other cases. It was a small fulfillment of the great prophecy: "He will make . . . her desert like a garden of the Lord: joy and gladness shall be found therein, thanksgiving and the voice of melody."
Writing in 1946 our first task is the reconstruction of the Girls' School and Nursery in the Solomons, either on the old ruined site or on a better one. We hope to see developments in girls' education far beyond anything yet attained. The girls are most promising material and they are the home makers of the future. The tone of village life depends largely on the women. Christian influence and teaching through their growing years is of the utmost importance.
We desire greatly also to bring such help and encouragement as Maewo enjoyed at Gladhaven to many other needy centres in a circuit so that each may have a long visit every five or six years. Combined medical, educational and evangelistic work of this kind is greatly needed. It is particularly suitable for the Sisters' work. Physically conditions are bound to be hard in some ways and the life would be almost impossibly difficult without the help of the Taina. In many such outposts we would find old girls to whom such a visit would be great refreshment, and perhaps a "turning again" for some who have slipped out of the way. Those who do this often exhausting work in very isolated places need a home in which to return between visits for rest and refreshment for body and soul--and such a home we have both in the Solomons and the New Hebrides.
Obviously future developments depend on future vocations to the Community and sufficient support from our fellow Christians. Those for whom we work are the poor. School girls cost about £3 annually depending on how much food can be grown. A baby costs £10 a year.
At a "Gladhaven" the cost of medicines and school material has to be met, but the people have always supplied all our vegetables as the Sisters there have little time for garden work.
But above all things the need is for fellow labourers in the vineyard, Sisters who will give themselves wholly in humble service and fervent love. The numbers of Taina are increasing but a white Sister is needed with every group to give help, protection and guidance.
"Finally, brethren, pay for us, that the word of the Lord may have free course and be glorified."
The Mother is sometimes in the Solomons, sometimes in the New Hebrides. Anyone wanting to get into touch with her for further information should write to
The Melanesian Mission Office,
33 Southampton Street,
Strand, W.C. 2.
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