Wednesday, March 07, 2007

Some Anglican history in Labasa from the 40s

from w
Today I have delved into Google to see if there are archival stories of the Anglican church in Labasa and I found this one. I'm interested because at present we are concerned that St Mary's Hostel has been condemned by the Labasa Council though of course it is important to keep the hostel - which houses sixty girls - going. Also, the area on which some of the Anglicans now have a school, housing etc. is where Peceli lived as a small child, low-lying land not far from the Labasa river, and flood-prone.

15 Tufton Street, Westminster, S.W.1 1948
Transcribed by the Right Reverend Dr. Terry Brown
Bishop of Malaita, Church of the Province of Melanesia, 2006

From website on Anglican history.

GETTING about in the Islands can sometimes be very pleasant; a little 200-ton motor vessel can take one the 200-odd miles from Suva to Labasa (pronounced Lambasa), calling at Levuka and smaller ports on the way. Sometimes one travels in a cutter or even an 80-ton ketch, returning to Suva with an assorted cargo of evil-smelling copra, goats, and a mixed bag of passengers. After leaving Levuka and crossing the Koro Sea, the ship reaches the second largest island of the Fiji group, Vanua Levu. Passing through the waters of the fish god, Daku Waga, the ship threads her way through the coral reefs to the Yanawai River. Yanawai goldmine crowned the 1,000-feet hilltop there. From here to Labasa is to be seen some of the finest river scenery in the Islands, as the ship calls in estuary after estuary, landing stores on the river bank. Europeans have settled on the banks of some of these rivers. Bonar Law once had a plantation on the Lekutu, and many experiments in agriculture have been made on the banks of the Dreketi. At last the ship enters the Labasa River, bordered by mangrove swamps, and goes upstream for seven miles to Labasa Mill. Here a great stretch of flat country holds several thousands of [55/56] acres of sugar-cane land, with the houses of mill officers on a hill nearby, the Government officers have three houses on a further hill, and the hosts of Indian workers occupy other sites. The main shopping centre is Nasea, but most of the Indians work as tenant farmers under the oversight of Europeans.

Labasa is so far removed from other cane-growing areas that the people seem to be an entity on their own. Sir Arthur Gordon, the first Governor of Fiji, was concerned about their spiritual welfare and drew Floyd's attention to it. He went to England to ask for assistance, returning with enough money to enable him to start work in Labasa, and with guarantees for the future. An agreement was entered into with the Methodists, leaving work among Indians in the Eastern Islands to the Anglicans. In 1904 the S.P.G. sent the Rev. H. E. T. Lateward as the first missionary. He had already done good service in India, and his weariness is indicated in some of his reports. Of the Indians he wrote "Primarily the pride of caste is gone. Poor fellows! They quite recognise their position, and it is at times pathetic to listen to the tone of sadness in which they admit their fallen state--what Christianity would call 'a broken and contrite heart': character (of caste) gone, religion abandoned, country, friends and relations, all left." (Occasional Paper No. 287.)
Such was his rather gloomy view of the Indian, but today the Indian has never seen his father's land, and [56/57] his religion is much more a national trait than a supernatural guide. To embrace Christianity is looked upon as a departure from national heritage, a betrayal of race, making the lot of the convert anything but easy. Lateward found a certain loneliness, due to the fact that many Europeans did not fulfil their Christian obligations.

"On Christmas Day not one person came to Communion, the first Christmas Day on which I have been unable to communicate since my Confirmation forty-one years ago."
Lateward's best work was in the preparation of his successor, Mr. A. T. Milgrew, who was ordained and took over after the departure of Lateward in 1908. Milgrew did not spare himself, travelling constantly and winning his people's affection. Often he would stay in Indian homes, and this was to prove his downfall, for the Europeans thought that he was lowering the prestige of the white man. Living under unhealthy conditions in dirty huts led to sickness, and he had to retire after working there for eight years. Until 1923 the work languished, save for occasional visits by the Bishop or the Vicar of Suva. Possibilities of revival seemed bright when the Rev. Maitland Woods, a scholar and keen archeologist, arrived. Owing to domestic difficulties, he was not able to stay. But Milgrew's influence still remained, and when in 1924 the Rev. H. A. Favell was appointed he found that an Indian Christian woman, known as Mrs. John, was [57/58] doing valuable work with the school. He was soon joined by Miss Cobb, who had already served in India, and by Sister Offe, a trained nurse.

Miss Cobb's first desire was to see the school chapel restored. It was found that the altar had been removed to a local store and that it was being used as a pot cupboard. Miss Offe, with generous help from the Sugar Company, did great work, once confidence was established.

The site was a bad one, for it was often completely flooded, but the work went on. The boys' school was a great success, and the need for a girls' school was felt. To the Indian the girl is considered a family responsibility until she is married off, and therefore the Indian normally felt that the education of girls was a waste of time. Miss James arrived and began to battle nobly, having only the back room of an Indian shop as a schoolroom. From such a humble beginning in 1928 has grown the present St. Mary's School, known as the Nigel Lyson Memorial. In 1929 the Rev. E. R. Elder exchanged with Mr. Favell, who went to Tonga; Miss Rowe joined Miss James, and they were afterwards joined by Miss Debbage. A carpenter's shop under a competent instructor was added, and a hostel was built to house the boarders at All Saints Boys' School. In 1934 Miss Cobb and Sister Offe moved out to Vunimoli, some seven miles away and opened a mixed school. Three years later St. Augustine's Mixed School was opened at Wailevu, but the crowning event [58/59] of that year was the return to Fiji of the Rev. Durgha Prasad Misra, a Fiji-born Indian who had been trained and made deacon in India. He was later ordained priest in the province of his Indian compatriots in Labasa.

Much patience is required in the evangelisation of Indians, and as a result the supply of Indian teachers is limited. The necessity of employing non-Christian trained teachers in some instances places a far greater responsibility on the missionary and his staff, for the first work of a Christian mission is to preach Christ. Later, however, Indian Christian teachers took sole charge of both Vunimoli and St. Augustine's.

The arrival of the Rev. R. L. Crampton in 1938 found a depleted staff of Europeans. Both Miss Cobb and Sister Offe had returned to Australia, while Mrs. Elder (née Miss James) had handed over to Miss Rowe. She decided to carry matters still further by adding a hostel to St. Mary's Girls' School and, aided by Miss Debbage, started with five Indian girls. This delegation of responsibility by the Indian parents was of real significance. Alas! all their labour seemed to have been in vain when they returned from church one Sunday morning to find their hostel a smoking ruin and all their personal possessions gone. Insurance did not cover the rebuilding, but an American Army hospital building was soon erected over the charred remains, and from the Indians came financial help, which was a fine tribute to the work that was being done. Storekeepers gave dresses and dress materials, food flowed [59/60] in, and offers of temporary accommodation were numerous.

By 1947 the Indians were clamouring for education, and in that year teachers had to be withdrawn from the country in order to concentrate on the main work at Labasa. This has meant a loss of Government grants, but an increase in spiritual strength. The church has been rebuilt on a better site. It is now more accessible for both Europeans and Indians, the services being better attended in consequence.

An interlude that can be most refreshing is a visit to the small Melanesian settlement a few miles from Labasa, where the old Solomons and their descendants worship in a pretty church they have built. It is kept very clean, the floor being covered with native mats, and for services the building is adorned with bowls of bright hibiscus. The services are taken in Fijian, into which language much of the Prayer Book and many of the hymns have been translated. In an island such as this the leading of worship, the giving of the Sacraments, and schoolmastering are not the only jobs of the priest, who has to give serious study to the problems brought about by superstitions attached to ancient religions. He must be ready to face the most acute disappointments, for the lot of the Indian Christian is not easy, and when lapses occur it is easy to despair. It is a testing-ground of a man's own faith, for those whom God has chosen to give His grace to the Islanders are but human.

[61] When opportunity offers, the priest is able to trek over the mountain ridge and reach the other side of the island at Natewa Bay and Savu Savu. It is not easy walking, for the soapstone is often slippery and always hard on the feet. Once over the ridge, the steep descent brings one to a place of hospitality and work. Here the people live in the banana and coconut groves which provide their living, or near the boat slips where smaller ships are built for the inter-island trade. Labasa has had its many vicissitudes, but the foundations have been well laid. In this post-war transition period much depends on a young and vigorous priest, the Rev. G. H. Strickland, in whose hands is the next stage of development.


Gilbert Veisamasama, Jr said...

Interesting story! They really had a lot of challenges both physically, materially and spiritually. Yet they soldiered on! And to think of us these days ...... live is much easier but yet there is more complaints and laziness!

Peceli and Wendy's Blog said...

Those men and women were courageous and focussed on helping people. Yes, I was happy when I found the story and when I talked to Peceli about it, he said, 'Yes, I remember the fire. We stood and watched the place burn down!' He was about five at the time. Peceli said that in those days, there was really only a Chinese store and even a small takia was used to go shopping because there were small streams everywhere. Labasa town area later just grew in a swamp area instead of on the hills the other side of the river.
w. said...

This can't have effect in actual fact, that is exactly what I consider.