Missionary builder


Arthur Elwin Ferris was born into a pioneer mission family. His grandparents, Arthur and Jessie Ferris, were pioneer missionaries to Norfolk and Lord Howe Islands off Australia’s east coast. Elwin’s parents, Walter and Christina Ferris, had lost three other babies in the islands so Elwin was born at the Sydney Adventist Hospital. The new baby, their only son, returned with his parents to Vatuvonu, Fiji, where Pastor Ferris served as president of the East Fiji Mission for 12 years. The family then moved to Tonga for four years before returning to Vatuvonu. The war years meant Elwin was 11 before his family enjoyed a break in Australia. By then Fijian had become Elwin’s first language. He felt at home in Fiji—his strong love and passion for his island family was always with him. 

Elwin was sent to Longburn Adventist College in New Zealand for high school but this was cut short after just one year by the untimely death of his mother. He returned to Vatuvonu to be with his father. 

He was never happier than when he was involved in working with the island people he loved so much.

In 1956 he went to Avondale College to do building construction. It was here that he met and married Valmae Dyason. This lifelong partnership (56 years) was blessed with four children.

The young family spent four happy years in Mt Hagen, Papua New Guinea (PNG), managing the sawmill for Harley Aveling. It was here that Elwin built his first church in 1966 at the Western Highlands mission station.

The family then returned to Sydney where Elwin worked with Long Industries for the next 22 years. This was fortunate as during this time Elwin’s employers allowed him to take time out for building projects in the islands. His leadership in Pathfinder ministry also became legendary. While living in Sydney his passion to build churches was really ignited. Elwin and his friend Clem Long designed the cyclone-tough, steel-framed churches that could be completed in six days by fly’n’build teams of volunteers. Over the years, 30 of these churches and community halls were built, as well as 26 smaller weatherboard churches. Elwin seemed unstoppable—into retirement he continued to build more clinics in Solomon Islands. He was never happier than when he was involved in working with the island people he loved so much.

In 1990 Elwin’s leadership was recognised and he became the Adventist Development and Relief Agency (ADRA) director for the Central Pacific Union Mission. This provided him with opportunities to do ongoing projects for island communities. There were many challenges but he loved it. He had a “can do” attitude. For seven years he gave his all in working with people—whether they had lost all their possessions in a cyclone or just needed a listening ear, he was right there with them. 

In retirement Elwin didn’t slow down as he and Val became involved in the Adopt-a-Clinic program directed by Dr Chester Kuma and the South Pacific Division (SPD) Health Department. He led volunteer groups of retirees working every Wednesday at the old ADRA warehouse at the SPD office in Wahroonga (NSW). With Dr Kuma, Elwin and Val saw many clinics upgraded or rebuilt in Solomon Islands, PNG and Vanuatu. As a result, medical services were and continue to be provided for many people in isolated places by dedicated nurses and staff. Elwin knew how much the prayers of the church family in Australia meant to those working in these far-flung places and he would say, “Keep it up.”

With the passing of Elwin Ferris the Church lost an advocate and a champion of the people of the South Pacific Islands.