Story of state’s first deaconess
The recent discovery at South Sydney Uniting Church of a plaque in honoured memory of Eva Janet Holland – “First Deaconess Presbyterian Church NSW” – has aroused interest in the diaconate, its history and legacy.
In 1903 the NSW General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church resolved “to make investigation into the question of providing further facilities for women to engage in the work of the church, particularly in regard to the institution and training of deaconesses”. In 1905 the General Assembly approved a scheme submitted by the Home Mission Committee, with input from the Women’s Missionary Association for the establishment of a “Settlement” in Woolloomooloo. Miss Eva Holland was appointed to Palmer Street Woolloomooloo (no longer the flourishing church of the social elite it once was), and for the next 35 years she “performed the work of a devoted deaconess”.
It was Eva’s concern for the women in the area that prompted her to begin her ministry in South Sydney. She lived and worked in St Andrew’s House. As well as being pastorally available, she established sewing clubs for the women. This outreach helped to equip the women with basic home-making skills.
She was supported in this by members of the Women’s Guild who raised funds and provided clothing for the children. The local women brought their children along, which meant the children had a safe playing area rather than the footpath onto which the front rooms of the houses opened. Eva also established after-school clubs for the school-age children.
The work she was doing encouraged other young women to volunteer their services in similar inner-city parishes, and Eva was requested to establish similar ministries in Ultimo, Glebe, Newtown and Redfern. In 1907 Miss MacLean joined her at St Andrew’s House, which became the headquarters of the deaconesses until it closed through lack of funds in 1912. In May 1913 the Social Service Committee of the church rented a house in Crown Street so the work could continue.
In October 1916 the first Presbyterian Market was held. Miss Margaret Gillies and her little band of helpers from Annandale raised £100 towards the payment of salaries of the church’s deaconesses.
In 1918 regulations governing the status and employment of deaconesses were approved by the NSW General Assembly. It was stated that such training was for “work under the Board of Foreign Missions, Social Services Committee, Australian Inland Mission, Burnside Homes, Kirk Sessions or under any other Church agency”. The duties of deaconesses included the “study, at first hand and practically, of the social problems militating against the spread of the Kingdom of God; to reach non-church goers by house-to-house visitation, and the ministry of friendship with the view of bringing them under the influence of the Gospel, and into the fellowship of the Church; to organise clubs, and any other activities through which Christian life may be developed; to emphasise the great evangelical verities upon which all Christians are agreed”.
In that year authority had also been given for deaconesses to visit Long Bay Penitentiary. Miss Deighton was “detailed” for that work. At this time Eva was a chaplain to the Children’s Court.
Eva’s paramount concern was care for the children. In 1964 an elderly retired lady in Pittwood, Deaconess Sandland (Sandy), recounted how during the Depression the Queen of the Sydney Underworld, Tilly Devine, wandered into the Palmer Street church while Eva was conducting a children’s club. On being told that Eva provided the club as a safe place for children, Tilly gave her £25 (a considerable sum). Eva used it to hire transport to Centennial Park for a picnic (some of the children had never before played on grass). Sometime later Tilly revisited the church and asked what had been done with the money. Eva told her about the picnic. Tilly replied, “Yes, I know. I had the boys check it out. I’ve come to tell you that you and your girls will be safe in the area. I’ve sent out a message to the boys to look after you.”
During the Depression the “Mothers’ Clubs” were the focus for both practical and spiritual sustenance. They began with a devotional, which was followed by afternoon tea. Welfare assistance was also provided, particularly clothing. Each centre had a clothing and food store. The Dorcas Society was formed in 1935 to help supply deaconesses with clothing and other necessities for distribution.
Deaconess Mildred Parker was a widow who became a great mentor and encourager of deaconesses. In 1931 Mrs Abercrombie, who came into the work through the influence of Mrs Scott and Mrs Parker, was appointed to Redfern.
In 1933 Mrs Mildred Parker assisted Deaconess Nell Shepherd at Ultimo-Pyrmont. In 1937-38 she was appointed to Balmain (Mrs Jackson took over from her at Ultimo), and in 1941 she undertook work on the coal fields at Cessnock, at the request of the minister and session of Cessnock. Her work extended to Bellbird and Aberdare. From 1945-47 she assisted at Palmer Street, and at the end of 1947 she supervised the “domestic work and studies” of the student deaconesses at Ultimo.
Miss Eva Holland retired in 1940 after 33 years of devoted work. She died in 1954 after a long illness.
Eva was never seen without a small suitcase. She always had it with her when she entered a home, and no one knew what it contained. In the 1960s a small suitcase was still a standard accessory to the deaconess uniform.
As recently as 1980 there were still people within the Woolloomooloo community who remembered Miss Holland. They spoke of her social welfare work, and of how she established a close relationship with the nuns at St Vincent’s Hospital. When any of the men had to go to the casualty department, they would first go to Miss Holland. She would write a note to the Sisters, who would then ensure the man was treated quickly so as not to be absent from work any longer than necessary.
South Sydney Uniting Church plans to install the newly burnished plaque and will consider a fitting community service project or activity in Eva Holland’s name.