The San’s 100 years in Solomon Islands

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By 1913 Adventist missionaries were at work on most Pacific Islands, except Solomon Islands and Gilbert and Ellice Islands. The Australasian Church desperately wanted to take the Adventist message to the Solomons, but how?

Norman Wheatley, a very successful trader and plantation owner, lived and built his empire in the Western Solomons from 1893. He regularly travelled to Sydney for stores, equipment, medical attention and to purchase more ships as he had a penchant for sailing ships. 

We hear them singing hymns day and night . . .

The Adventist magazine, Life and Health, was posted to traders, government officials and missionaries of other denominations in the Solomons by Vic Stratford, a clerk at church headquarters, from 1911. Perhaps Wheatley first read of the San hospital in that magazine. It appears he may well have been a patient in the San in 1912 and 1913, and according to his family, was admitted in 1914 suffering from malaria. 

While there, he was most impressed with the treatment, care and compassion of the medical staff as well as the message of this fledgling Church. On a daily basis he heard staff singing in worship and was impressed. He appreciated the cleanliness of the institution and recognised the Adventists’ strict health habits. There is evidence he spoke to J E Fulton (president of the Australasian Union Conference, 1909–16) concerning Adventists entering the Solomons.

On his return to the Western Solomon Islands in 1914, Wheatley called his employees together to inform them a new mission was coming. He broadcast the news wherever he travelled on his schooner, that a “clean mission” was coming whose missionaries would teach people English. 

Wheatley is reported to have taken a wind-up gramophone with a big speaker to Viru Harbour and played a record of people singing, telling people that the new mission would teach them to sing like he had heard at the San. He was so enthusiastic in spreading the news that people referred to the Adventist Church as “Norman’s mission”. It was also nicknamed the “English mission” because they taught English. Wheatley was also keen to bring balance to Christianity in that part of the Solomons, which was dominated by the Methodist Church. He had earlier extended an invitation to the Catholic Church but although they tried, their mission failed. 

The timing of Wheatley’s visit to the San seemed perfect. On September 30, 1913, the Australasian Union Conference had invited Griffith and Marion Jones to be the first Seventh-day Adventist missionaries to the Solomon Islands. Jones, a Welsh sea captain, who trained for mission service in Keene, Texas, was chaplain and Bible teacher at the San from October 8, 1913 until May 1914, when he and his wife left on the SS Mindini for Gizo. During his chaplaincy at the San, Jones chatted with Wheatley who promised help by providing a temporary crew in order to launch mission activities in the Solomons.

The Church signed a contract with W M Ford, a thriving boat building firm in Berrys Bay, for the building of the Advent Herald, which was to be almost 10 metres long. This company possessed the most extensive and experienced maritime industry on Sydney Harbour, well capable of building a ketch-rigged sailing launch, augmented by a 12 horsepowered Kelvin oil engine that chugged along at eight miles an hour. Pastor and Mrs Jones could live on the launch and enjoy reliable transportation. The Advent Herald was loaded into a “cradle” and placed on the deck of the Mindini for its trip to the Solomons.

On arriving in Tulagi, capital of the Solomon Islands Protectorate (1896–1942), Jones met the government commissioner, introduced himself and shared what the Church planned to accomplish. On Friday, May 29, 1914, the Advent Herald anchored at Gizo, the Western regional outpost nearest to Wheatley’s home at Lambete, Munda. Wheatley organised four employees, including John Stratham, who cared for Wheatley’s plantation and trading store interests at Viru, to meet Jones and become guide and crew to the little ship. They sailed to meet Wheatley and spent an evening with him at Lambete, of which Jones wrote: “He gave us good advice.” Jones and his wife slept on the floor of Stratham’s store in Viru Harbour until their two-bedroom house, prefabricated in Sydney, was built.

Jones wrote about Viru: “This is our first mission station in the Solomon Islands. It is a beautiful, peaceful harbour into which three fairly large rivers run . . . It was with much caution and many prayers that we were led to decide on starting at Viru; and we believe that we have evidences that the move is all right.” Writing about the Viru school, Jones says: “These are nearly all bright, earnest, promising young people, having learned to sing in English, and say one or two verses of 12 hymns, four of which they know all through . . . The Sabbath meeting and the Sabbath School have reached an attendance of about 70, which promises to be regular, and all appear to be very attentive, reverent and in earnest. Even the old people who have been bush savages, and some who are spiritualistic mediums and witch doctors, now come every Sabbath dressed in anything they can get hold of in honour of the day, whereas on all other days in their homes they wear no clothes at all . . . I fully believe that the Lord has sent us to neglected Viru, and it is not difficult for us to see our first native missionaries among these dear people.”

Within weeks, Jones recognised the need for medical missionaries and called for the Australasian Union Conference to send Oscar and Ella Hellestrand (nee Sharp). Oscar had enrolled in the nursing course at the San in 1909, and graduated in 1912. On January 6, 1915, the young couple sailed from Sydney on the Kulanbangara for the Western Solomon Islands. Jones met them at Gizo and sailed them to Ilemi, Viru Harbour, in the Advent Herald, where their two-bedroom home awaited. This was their home for the next two years. While Jones evangelised in Marovo and other areas, the Hellestrands consolidated the mission at Viru and surrounding areas.

Besides doing a great deal of medical work, the Hellestrands conducted a training school for about 50 students. Jones and Hellestrand developed an educational technique that worked. They taught school to students who were in their teens and twenties. At every opportunity they took their students to surrounding villages and other islands to sing, teach and testify, often for three months at a time. Hellestrand wrote about his trip to Nono: “We sang them several of the sweet songs of Zion, after which I told them of God’s love for all mankind . . .” In an interview Jones revealed: “I take our students with me everywhere. [They] do a wonderful work. They know very little at first, but develop steadily. They start singing, ‘Jesus Loves Me’. Then we pray, and I give the villagers a little talk . . . The village is cleaned up, and then of course it affiliates with the mission.” Initially only young men were taught, but the Hellestrands soon began teaching mixed classes.

In 1918 Jones wrote: “In the very early stages of the work it was these young people who, on the Advent Herald, pioneered the cause in the Marovo Lagoon by their simple testimonies and the singing of our hymns. Our best young people and chiefs today in the lagoon had their first love for our mission created by the words and songs of our Viru people.”

In the same letter Jones wrote: “It is not easy to get these young people to stay away long from their mission schools, as they are more eager to learn than to teach, and it is quite a cross to them to have to stay and live among people not of their own clan. So we send them away for three months, and return them again to school for another three months, for none of them are sufficiently instructed to do this work, but as we have no-one else to send we are obliged to do something of this kind.”

Jones continued writing: “To possess a whole Bible and also a Christ in Song hymnbook is the great desire of our young people on our missions in the Solomons . . . We hear them singing our hymns day and night—about 70 of which they know.” Of the older people he wrote: “Their aims are now to buy calico to dress themselves for church and school, to possess a Bible and read it, and also a hymnbook and sing its hymns, with the hope of eternal life in their hearts and a home at last in heaven . . .”

The Hellestrands learned the local language, Ulusagi, quickly. A chief named Pana taught them while he visited them every day for treatment of a leg ulcer. 

Typically the Hellestrands treated malaria, ringworm, yaws and hookworm, and dressed wounds from accidents. They taught their students English, Bible, music and simple home remedies. School was heralded every day with the sound of a conch shell that still remains with Jean, the first child of Oscar and Ella, born in Newcastle on January 25, 1917, soon after they returned to Australia. The birth of their first child and the fact Oscar was suffering from malaria took them back to Australia.

In subsequent years almost 1000 Solomon Island pastors, teachers, accountants, office workers, nurses and doctors were sent by the Mission to other countries—particularly Papua New Guinea. Where these national missionaries went they taught people to love Jesus, sing gospel songs and pray. 

Since the Adventist Church first sent missionaries to Solomon Islands 100 years ago, the Sydney Adventist Hospital has been integral to the mission there. The San has provided dozens of trained staff to serve the people, three of whom sacrificed their lives: Muriel Parker in 1930, Brian Dunn in 1965 and Lens Larwood in 1979.

Where did it all start? Wheatley knew if he could encourage the Church to send missionaries, they would teach the people the sweet gospel songs he had heard staff at the San singing.
 


Pastor Alex Currie is acting group manager for Spiritual Care Services for the Sydney Adventist Hospital.