Today we do honour one of the most extraordinary, yet humble people, I have ever met. Miss Margaret Annie Somerville – MBE – Methodist Missionary – and example for all of us.
I first met an extraordinary 94 year old woman about twelve years ago. I was studying a course at Theological College on Uniting Church History. The lecturer, who was always gathering material for his books, set us, his students, a task – to interview a previous ‘leading light’ of the church – a Moderator, a President, a General Secretary or the like, and record with that person part of their life and faith story.
I’ve always had a different view of leadership, so I persuaded the lecturer that leadership is more than the office one holds (otherwise Jesus may not be classified as a leader). I wanted to interview someone who worked on the ground in the name of God and the Uniting Church to provide a leadership example to others.
The Church archivist gave me the name of a lady – Margaret Somerville (only one ‘m’) – a missionary who took 95 mixed blood Aboriginal children to safety from the Japanese raids in the north of Australia across the continent to Otford on the south coast in 1942.
I got quite excited about this until the archivist said – ‘We don’t know if she’s still alive or where she lives – it was in Sydney’s south the last we knew – and only that her name has only one ‘m’ in it.’
It was enough to go on and I found her and interviewed her. She became my friend, she became friends with all the family – she was a prayer warrior, a mentor, a wise sage – until her untimely death on 30st July 2014 at the age of 101 and 10 months.
This is part of her story which – in turn – became part of mine and is deeply connected with the lecture hall next door.
Brought up by her Methodist minister father and mother, Margaret was the eldest of three children – Stuart the youngest later became a Methodist minister.
She always lived with her parents and did much lay work in the church.
In late 1941 she felt convicted to give up her only sewing machine to the Methodist Overseas Mission that was starting up a cottage community for what were then called ‘half caste’ children on Croker Island off the coast of Arnhem land.
Life was not kind to these children and many were abandoned in the streets of Darwin. There were no government services to provide care and the Presbyterian, Anglican and Methodist churches agreed that something had to be done to provide love and care to these many children.
Margaret, then 29, met the director of Mission, Dr. Burton, when she took her sewing machine into the mission. He accepted the sewing machine and then asked her to go to Croker as a ‘cottage mother’ for a temporary deployment (which lasted more than a quarter of a century). She was stunned to be asked – but went home and –as she told me – God said to her that this was what she was to do.
Margaret never got out of bed in the morning before she consulted our Lord as to his purpose for her that day.
But in early 1942, the Japanese were on the march and Japanese Zeros flew over the island on their way to bomb Darwin Broome and Katherine. Their communication with the outside world came from a somewhat unreliable ‘John Flynn’ made pedal radio/receiver.
Thinking the world had forgotten them, it was not until April that mission vessel – Larrapin – picked them up and with meagre supplies landed them on the remote shore of the Northern Territory for a 52 mile walk – drive – wade to the Anglican Mission station at Oenpilli to wait for transportation south to Otford – which would take a total of 44 days on an epic and often dangerous journey.
Her diary –written at this time – became her book published in 1970 and was called ‘They Crossed a Continent’.
It was re-released in 1991 and in 2012 Governor General Quentin Bryce re-launched the hard cover book you see.
The movie ‘Australia’ has a fictionalised account of the evacuation, but in 2012 an ABC tele-documentary was released.
I have been lucky to know Margaret as an Australian pioneer and woman of great bravery and Christian conviction – the first woman to be given the Battle of Australia medallion.
I’d like to sideline for just a minute and mention the Reverend Len Kentish – another Methodist missionary, crocodile hunter, architect of the escape and Methodist martyr. In early 1943 he was beheaded by the Japanese.
Back to crossing the continent, it was not until 1946 that the children and Margaret returned. She was the only one of the cottage mothers to return and she stayed on Croker until 1965 when she returned to look after her ageing parents. That didn’t stop her from fostering two Croker Island children who were at her funeral at Rockdale UCA in 2014 – as well as others of her children from those years.
I want to tell you now about the first of Margaret’s links to Kiama .
In an interview Margaret said, ‘In Otford the cottage mothers were as busy as they had ever been. Money was desperately short and funds had to be raised through the sale of handiwork at fetes’.
She said, ‘With the money we raised we took the children on holidays to Kiama, about twenty at a time. Everybody had a tremendous time there.’
Before we talk a little a little more of her – after her ‘retirement’ and death of her parents in the early 1970s, we’ll sing a song that was a favourite of hers, which we sang at her funeral and which speaks of her life and service – O For a Thousand Tongues to sin.
In the early 1970s Margaret was saying to her God and King – ‘What can I do now?’
On a train she overheard someone talking about finger-puppets. She thought, ‘I’m good with my hands’ and again God nudged her saying, as we said the other week, ‘you want to see the miracle, be the miracle.’
I wrote this children’s book from a typed parable she wrote that went with the nativity set called The Swagman’s Dream.
For more than thirty years she would sit and make these from morning to night, praying for her eyesight and hand coordination to remain strong. She was still doing this at nearly 100 years of age (with help from others).
Over those years she made some 70 000 puppets which she sold or gave away and every cent of the more than $200 000 made was given to overseas mission work – including that of the Bible Society.
In the last months of her life, Margaret had to move into an aged care facility and for the first time in her life she had to take medication every morning.
On my last visit to her, she said ‘If the Lord has no more work left for me, why hasn’t he taken me home?
I suggested to her that in her new environment there were many people who still needed someone to bring them the Good News – She was God’s agent. She bucked up and smiled. We prayed and then this 101 year old woman prayed in tongues, in a heavenly language. I was in awe.
Her funeral, in her beloved church of Rockdale, was a wonderful celebration of family and friends – black and white – old and young – it made no difference to Margaret Annie Somerville – they were all God’s and her family.
I forgot to mention the second link Margaret has with Kiama.
In the Lecture Hall is a plaque to a water-carrier in Kiama who was the Sunday school superintendent for forty years from 1850 in this church.
More than a dozen Methodist ministers grew out of that Sunday school. One was a man named Somerville. He in turn had a son called Stuart who became a Methodist minister and a daughter who became a Methodist missionary on Croker Island. Margaret Annie Somerville – a lady who is, as much as anyone – the reason why I am in ministry today.
These words from Isaiah 55 become our benediction today
As the rain and the snow
come down from heaven,
and do not return to it
without watering the earth
and making it bud and flourish,
so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater,
11 so is my word that goes out from my mouth:
it will not return to me empty,
but will accomplish what I desire
and achieve the purpose for which I sent it.
12 You will go out in joy
and be led forth in peace;
the mountains and hills
will burst into song before you,
and all the trees of the field
will clap their hands.