Book links family to Florence

Athol Briden (left) and SPD heritage director David Jones.

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A prayer book gifted to the founder of modern nursing and loaned to a heritage centre on Avondale University’s Lake Macquarie campus reminds us of faith’s sustaining power.

A signature bearing the name “Florence Julia Nightingale” and dated November 17, 1852, appears in the middle of a small gold leaf embossed black book on display in the Adventist Heritage Research Room. The book is an heirloom of Athol Briden, passed down through members of his extended family.

Athol’s father is Alexander James Harker Gray Briden—the book is gifted “to cousin Florence Nightingale” by John Harker, whose handwritten note appears inside the front cover. Alexander’s brother, Sidney, is named after Sidney Herbert, a secretary of state at war for the British government who became an ally and confidant of Nightingale. Three of Alexander’s sisters are named Flo, Flori and Floriance.

Athol received the book from another aunt, Julia, after completing St John Ambulance’s first aid and home nursing courses. During a congratulatory visit to her home, “she grabbed me by the hand, took me down the hallway to the lounge room and opened the china cabinet. ‘This belonged to your cousin Florence Nightingale,’ she told me, ‘and you need to have it because you’re the only one in the family who’s showing any interest in nursing.’”

Florence Nightingale’s prayer book.

Aunt Julia chose well. Athol became a psychiatric nurse, beginning his career in New Zealand before a move to Australia 25 years later. Daughter Sallyanne Dehn wanted to study at Avondale, so Athol got a job at Morisset Hospital. “I couldn’t believe it was called nursing. It was more like custodial care. And it was rude and crude.” Despite this, Athol remembers stories of healing. Like the difficult patient admitted to hospital covered in faeces. After a time, his wife and young daughters arrived to take him home. “While they waited, the girls jumped up and down saying, ‘Daddy’s coming home.’” Then when he appeared, they embraced him. And I thought, It’s all worthwhile.”

Like Athol, Nightingale viewed her calling as reducing human suffering. She received the prayer book a year before the government asked her to help improve conditions for British soldiers injured in the Crimean War. “I can only imagine it fortified Florence because she found comfort in her faith,” says Athol.

The prayer book intrigued “history buff” David Jones, heritage director for the Seventh-day Adventist Church in the South Pacific. “The story of Florence Nightingale is one of the tragedy of war and human suffering but the hope and sacrifice of those who care, which is a lot like the story of salvation.”

A display of the Florence Nightingale prayer book opened on May 12—International Nurses’ Day—in the Adventist Heritage Research Room. It is also open on Friday, May 13 (9 am-12 pm), and Monday-Thursday, May 16-19 (1-4 pm). Contact Adventist Heritage (02) 9847 3311, to book a viewing time.

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