Hearts for mission

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Bert and Lily Thorpe were nursing graduates of the 1903 class at the then Sydney Sanitarium and Hospital (the San). They were called to New Zealand and due to be married. Lily expected her nursing uniform would be her wedding dress but fellow students bought some material and a classmate sewed her a dress for the occasion. Her classmates also supplied shoes and other accessories. So they were married in the San parlour and as there was no money for either a reception or a honeymoon the newlyweds then retired to their rooms in the respective student dormitories.

The next day they set sail for New Zealand only to find that the passage had been booked in their single names so Bert was accommodated with the single men and Lily with the unmarried ladies. Within an hour or two, Bert found he was a dreadful sailor and was bedridden for a week. Lily was not able to visit the single men’s quarters and when they arrived in Christchurch a week later, she had difficulty in recognising her gaunt, haggard and unshaven husband.

Lily was not able to visit the single men’s quarters and when they arrived in Christchurch a week later, she had difficulty in recognising her gaunt, haggard and unshaven husband.

After two years of service in New Zealand, the young couple travelled to Tonga as missionaries with Bert once again ill for the entire trip. In Tonga, Lily worked as a teacher. One of her students was the King’s son and a real troublemaker. She disciplined him, to the shock and horror of the other pupils. The following day the King arrived in his carriage, strode into the classroom, thanked Lily for doing such a good job and told the class that if his son misbehaved again she was to continue to discipline him.

While the Thorpes remained in Tonga long enough to master the language, they were soon called to work for the Church in Java where they quickly learned the Javanese and Malay languages. Much loved by the local people for their kindness and medical skills, they found spreading the gospel in the largely Muslim country very difficult. Lily worked as a teacher once again while Bert laboured for the souls of the people. He was sure one prospect was “the Kebun” (gardener). Bert spent many hours with him, often on a daily basis. The Kebun always listened politely and then typically without a word would leave and go back to work. The needs of Java were great and the medicines supplied by the government and the mission budget often ran out, so Bert and Lily at times bought supplies with their own meagre resources. In time the harsh climate destroyed the health of the young missionaries and while very ill with malaria, Lily gave birth to a stillborn son. So the family returned to Australia for a time to recover their health.

But their hearts were in mission work and they returned to Tonga, to the Mizpah School this time. Here their eldest daughter, Elva, was born. On their way back to Australia for furlough after the Great War (1914–1918) they stopped in Fiji and found the world–wide influenza epidemic of 1919 was raging. So they stayed and, using their nursing skills, had great success and saved many lives as a consequence.

The family then spent three years at Avondale where Bert managed the campus store. In 1922 they went as missionaries to Tonga for a third term of service but eventually had to make a final return to Australia due to Lily’s poor health. They settled in Cooranbong and their daughter, Elva, taught “commercial subjects” at Avondale College for decades, preparing generations of young women for secretarial service in the Church.

Very late in their retirement years, Lily was amazed to find a picture of “the Kebun” on the front cover of the new Sabbath School pamphlet. At the age of 105, he had become a Christian and been baptised as a member of the Church. What a day of great rejoicing that was for these committed missionaries!


Australasian Record, May 21, 1979.