Project Canterbury

Levuka Days of a Parson in Polynesia

By C. W. Whonsbon-Aston

London: Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, 1937.

Chapter X. SUVA

SUVA, Fiji's capital, is a picturesque settlement on the island of Viti Levu. It has a fine well-sheltered harbour, a very attractive waterfront, and possesses withal a fine body of citizens, 12,000 in number, 1,000 of whom are Europeans.

Suva ranks among the important ports of the Pacific. Two big shipping lines, the Canadian-Australasian (British) and the Matson (U.S.A.) provide the port with two big liners going north and two south each month. Vessels to load sugar and copra help to swell the register, and some of the ships sailing by Panama to New Zealand call on a regular schedule.

There is, too, always a moving population of the tourist class who come to stay for the winter season, when the climate is generally particularly pleasant. For some time there has been a seasonal visitation of large tourist vessels, some of which are styled "luxury liners." Very few of the passengers attend church, for, as a rule, their stay is short, their programme is filled and Sundays are usually spent at sea. Yet there are many opportunities for making contact.

One of the finest "thumb-nail sketches" is the description of Suva given by Rupert Brooke--in many ways the town is very English. One thing that rejoiced [87/88] the heart of Rupert Brooke was the presence of an Anglican church. Suva's church, though a rather out-of-date wooden building with a much more dignified interior, has the honour of the Bishop's throne and the title of pro-Cathedral of the Diocese of Polynesia.

Besides Holy Trinity pro-Cathedral, the Roman Catholics have a fine Cathedral surmounted by a figure of Christ the King. The Marist Fathers, interested in many parts of Fiji, do extraordinarily fine service with marked efficiency. Their priests and sisters are content to make the work a life work, and it suffers little from lack of continuity of personnel. The Presbyterians are joined by the Methodists in the use of their church, while the Methodists have their Jubilee Church, where its Fijian members are wont to sing right lustily and with wonderful harmony. The Anglican communion has, as well, a church (St. John's) and a school set apart for work among the Solomon Islanders of Suva.

Suva was chosen as capital in 1880. The same year brought Bishop John Selwyn on a visit, during which he ordained the Rev. T. Poole, who had established himself (under the ægis of the S.P.G.) on the Rewa River. The Rev. T. F. Jones became first vicar of Suva, and Holy Trinity was built in 1886. Near the recently built Bishop's House is a splendid site ready to hold the new Cathedral when the time is ripe for its building. It should be, as is fitting in this Crown Colony, one of the main buildings on the skyline, visible as it will be [88/89] to all the shipping entering and berthing in the port, and giving witness that the Mother Church of England is not neglecting her sons in this far-away centre.

Across the water from Suva is the long series of verdant hills that seem often to be wreathed in clouds, far away and mysteriously veiled. At times the hills are clear-cut and near, full of expression. We swung round the mangroves into the big, splendid Rewa River one afternoon in one of the Government tugs, chugging past the spiral "fish fences" in the shallows. The sun glistened on the break in the coral reef and showed up prettily the quarantine islands, vivid green with creamy beaches. Again the helm went over and we were out of the river, skirting the coast, protected by the coral barrier reef. Then the clouds began to gather on the hills again and the rain overtook us. But Suva can be attractive even in the rain, for the stilled water made a mirror for the ships that lay at anchor in the stream.

* * * * *

Suva's old vicarage is no more. The old place was built in a delightful spot, but it was like "the house that Jack built." First it had apparently housed a small family, then little by little, like Topsy, it grew, room upon room, cubby hole upon cubby hole. Old age jammed the shutters on most of the view, the underpinnings began to rot and the added rooms, like children tired of a mother's apron strings, began to [89/90] slide away--all just at the time when money was more than ever difficult to get.

We took rooms and boarded. Now the South Seas develop that rather splendid idea, a central dining cottage set among the trees and shrubs, with the guests settled in cottages about the gardens--splendid because each has a certain amount of reasonable privacy. Our flat was very central, in fact too much so, for right opposite was the public barracks, a veritable "Ark," with one end devoted to Indian constables, while the other housed the Fijian complement. One end would burst into uncontrollable chatter while the other end sang and sang and sang. A more peaceful habitat may exist among the souls in torment. They washed their clothes--a virtue--on the roof, and their persons as well, combed their long hair and gazed into mirrors unabashed.

Suva is a city of great possibilities and opportunities for the Church, but it is entirely beyond the strength of any one man. The European community is rather scattered, some have allowed themselves to be led away from the Church, and greater use could be made of the opportunities among the young people if the staff were bigger. There is a splendid Government hospital to be visited, and a gaol which occasionally has European inmates who need attention. These, together with the usual daily services and the schools, are sufficient to keep any man out of mischief. Work makes the time go quickly and tropic days are the better for it.

[91] Suva has its very cosmopolitan "All Nations" street, a stroll down which reveals Fijians, Indians, Japanese, Tongans, Samoans and the like of all ranks carrying on their various and typical business ventures.

A Sunday for the parish priest is certainly not to be considered a day of complete physical rest. The day begins with a quiet, simple Holy Communion service; at 9.30 the faithful have again arrived for sung Eucharist or Mattins (alternately), simple and dignified as to ceremonial, and much like any English Cathedral, though on a smaller scale and with the singing mostly congregational. These services are in English, but immediately after the 9.30 service is the service for Chinese taken in the Cantonese dialect. Some young people, Europeans from the schools, have a session at 2 o'clock, while at 4 o'clock the service at the Melanesian Church is in Fijian. Evensong is sung at 7 p.m. in English, ending a day of six services in three languages. The pro-Cathedral has a fine organ and an organist who understands it. Great will be the day when the new Cathedral is built, but the old building has many memories and is a cool and comfortable place.

* * * * *

When Bishop John Selwyn visited Fiji in 1880 he found work among the Melanesians already in hand, though not extensive in scope, at Levuka. Soon afterwards work of a similar character began in Suva. In those days a small piece of the mat that covered the body of the martyred Bishop Patteson is said to have [91/92] been inserted in the altar, but some tourist is supposed to have removed it. Later a Hostel was attached, in which boys from the villages and outer islands could be housed during the week days. The church and the Hostel stand on one of the most pleasant spots in Suva, overlooking a valley that can be in the early morning a thing of real beauty. Two fine young Solomon Islanders run the Hostel; they are members of the Melanesian Brotherhood (Retasiu) lent by the Bishop of Melanesia for this work. It is a revelation to walk into the church just as the dusky lads and lasses finish their morning devotions, singing as they retire the Nunc Dimittis, led by a harmonium played by a full-blooded son of the isles of Solomon, one of the Brothers.

Bishop Selwyn could not have foreseen the remarkable and romantic development in his Diocese of Melanesia, which has enriched the life of that Diocese with this native Brotherhood, and has also given material assistance to St. John's School in Suva.

At Tulagi Ini Kopuria a native sergeant of police, a lad of Maravovo, lay sick in hospital, when he had a vision which seemed to point out to him that he was on the wrong road and that God was calling him to forsake everything and give his life in service to Him. On his recovery he approached his Bishop with a request that he might take vows. Soon afterwards he was joined by six others, who with him had a special time of preparation before being commissioned by the Bishop, and away into the bush villages they went. [92/93] Thus was established in a really miraculous way the Retasiu--the Melanesian Brotherhood--which in 1931 had increased, in just five years, to twenty-six strong, working in groups, each group being called a Household (Ima in the native language), and going out two by two to isolated native villages in their own islands.

Two very quiet and really good young Solomons from the Retasiu have done great service to their own countrymen in Polynesia. The two teach in school, control the Hostel, and, at the week-ends, like the disciples of old, go out to their own people to take services.* [* Since this was written, one of the two Brothers has died.] The school itself is under the control of an English lady teacher and is growing in numbers.

The old men are very loyal to their church and take a pride in its welfare. Their old faces are full of honesty and happiness. Those who take part in the services do so with a real dignity. Some of them are great ritualists: even the taking up of the alms is endowed with a posture and dignity reminiscent of some mid-Victorian retired colonel churchwarden.

It is good to be able to pay a tribute to the great work of an earlier generation, which gave such a steadfast faith, simple and lasting, to these people.

* * * * *

A large, rather rambling and not over magnificent building set in fairly large grounds houses the Chinese School. It wants paint badly. It needs new fences very badly. It wants rebuilding--but money is scarce.

[94] The Chinese community is scattered throughout the Group. In all sorts of queer, quiet places their stores are to be found, a few of them free-lances, but most of them branches of the bigger Chinese business concerns. They are keen Nationals, and maintain a strong unit of the Kuo Min Tang. As such they enforced their strict boycott of things Japanese, to the consternation of the authorities at one stage.

For some time the presence of an excellent teacher from Hong-Kong, with very sympathetic European teachers, gave the St. Paul's School a great fillip. His departure and various staff changes dealt severely with the School's fortunes. Deaths in Chinese families, and the subsequent return of the fatherless children to China, played havoc with the attendances. The depression dealt hardly with some of the Chinese business firms, and the merchants found it difficult to finance the work as they had hoped, so that the School's position seemed to be hopeless. It was good to see the change for the better that prevails under a new experienced English master assisted by a Chinese pupil teacher.

The children, boys and girls, are always simply and neatly dressed. Many of them cannot speak English; all are apt pupils, and some of them show distinct talent for decorative art work. The School is kept going under great financial difficulties, but it is definitely a piece of good work.

* * * * *

[95] Sunday, May 6, besides being the anniversary of King George's accession, saw the beginning of a new era for the parish of Suva, when I was able, under commission from the Bishop, to institute the Rev. H. Harris as Vicar. My work was completed and, most sorrowfully, a week later, I embarked on the Monterey for Australia.

Memory is a blessed gift and with it I am often transported back to the happiest pastorate that has been my lot. The Diocese is a big one, an unwieldy one, but it serves for the most part the men and women of our own kith and kin, scattered amid these romantic isles of Polynesia.

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