Project Canterbury

From the Editor

By Clifford P. Morehouse.

From The Living Church, January 21, 1945, page 15.

Reproduced online with permission of The Living Church.

Somewhere in the South Pacific.

DEAR FAMILY: Guadalcanal, Tulagi, and New Britain have become names of importance in American history. Three years ago not one American in a thousand had ever so much as heard of these places; today they are enshrined in memory as the scenes of some of our greatest victories over the Japs, and as hallowed ground in which hundreds of brave young Americans are buried.

How many Churchpeople realize that these islands are also the scenes of great missionary victories, and the sites of missionary martyrdoms? For these islands, together with innumerable others from New Guinea in the north to New Hebrides on the south, form the diocese of Melanesia, an associated diocese of the Anglican province of New Zealand. Its first Bishop, John Coleridge Patteson, met his death at the hands of head-hunting natives in 1871; today the children of those same natives are loyal members of the Church. And Melanesia is one of the areas to which American Churchmen are contributing through our own version of lend-lease, known as "Aid to British Melanesia."

It has recently been my privilege to see some of the work of the Melanesian Mission at first hand. It came about in this way. In the course of my duties as a historical officer of the Marine Corps, I had occasion to visit Tulagi, where the Marines won their first great victory in this war. The American naval commander there said, "If it's history you're interested in, the people to see are the missionaries, who were here before the war and whose people have been here all through the Japanese occupation." So at my first opportunity (which happened to be a Sunday), I went across to a nearby island, arriving just in time for the morning service at the Anglican mission church. Here I got my first surprise; for the priest was English, the choir natives, and the congregation American sailors. It wasn't a bad combination, especially when it came to the singing of familiar hymns.

After the service I introduced myself to the priest, the Rev. James Edwards. He and I had separate dinner engagements, but later I climbed the hill to visit him and to find out about his work. To my further surprise, I found myself in the midst of St. Peter's College, a seminary for training native men for the ministry. The natives who had formed the choir that morning, 15 of them, were all candidates for Holy Orders. Fr. Edwards and his associate, the Rev. H.B.C. Reynolds, introduced me to all of them, and later I had the privilege of attending Evensong in their chapel, conducted by one of their number and sung in their musical language.

At the invitation of Fr. Edwards, I returned next day to visit with him some of the native villages. Travel in these parts is mostly by boat, and the mission has a little fleet of four motor boats of various sizes that somehow escaped destruction when this was an active war zone. Fr. Reynolds was leaing at the same time to visit some of the villages on Santa Ysabel Island, where the finest churches are said to be, but he was to be gone for 10 days and I had not the time to accompany him. But we say him off with his "passengers," half a dozen native men and two native women. One of the latter appeared wearing only a bright calico skirt, smoking a pipe, balancing on her head an enormous bundle wrapped in a sheet, and carrying a very tine, very naked, and very black baby. We were solemnly introduced, and I was even granted the privilege of holding the baby, who turned out to be solemn, smooth, and slippery. But like most babies she took to a Marine instantly, as I did to her.

For a time there was a great bustle, with Fr. Reynolds and his party getting away in one direction while Fr. Edwards, several of the native men, and I boarded another boat and set off in another direction. The last we saw of the other party was the native mother puffing her pipe furiously and waving the baby's little black hand at us.

We went to Siota, which before the war was the diocesan center. Today there is nothing left there of the native village except the ruins of the cathedral--a large thatch church capable of accommodating as many as 1,000 worshipers, as I am told it had done on several occasions. At one time it had a beautifully carved and inlaid altar and ornaments, but the altar had been destroyed in a bombing raid and the ornaments looted. The people themselves had moved inland, and the wrecked cathedral alone bore mute evidence of the native Christian life that had once centered there. I have seen much more pretentious cathedrals in England, ruined by enemy bombing, but somehow this one--probably the most notable monument of native architecture in the Solomon Islands and all Melanesia--filled me with even greater sadness.

At Siota, however, I met Dr. Charles E. Fox, veteran missionary who has ministered to the people in these islands for 42 years, and who is still tirelessly devoting himself to their cause. During the Jap occupation, he went back in the hills with them and then made his way to a mission station that was never visited by the Japanese, though well behind their lines. We had a long talk about the state of the world and the Church, and he told me interesting stories of the earlier days of the mission. Here is one of them:

One time the Bishop set forth to visit a village on one of the islands, where there were about 70 native Christians. Like most of these islands, this one was surrounded by a reef and it was necessary to go ashore in a small boat, and the mission vessel lay off the reef for two days, waiting for the weather to moderate. But it got no calmer, and the Bishop announced that he would have to proceed elsewhere to keep another engagement. Thereupon the natives took counsel among themselves, and before the Bishop realized what was happening all the adults and older boys were swimming through the rough waters, across the reef, and out to the mission boat. There, after they had dried off, the Bishop gave them their Communions. At the conclusion of the service, they all leaped overboard and swam back ashore. The round trip was a distance of nearly three iles. How many Churchmen at home would swim that distance in a stormy, coral-studded sea to receive the Holy Communion.


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