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Jean Henderson

by Rowan Callick
A eulogy delivered at Jean's funeral at St Peter's Eastern Hill, July the 7th, 2011

We are here to celebrate a great life, and through that celebration to gain an added understanding of the greatness of the God who was at the heart of that great life.

In Papua New Guinea, in Australia, Jean Henderson was the epitome of the selfless missionary, than which there is no finer role in the Christian church. She lived for others, and through giving away her life she enjoyed hers to the ultimate. She was fun to be with, unquenchably caring and irredeemably curious. Even when she was in the Epworth hospital, only days before she passed away, she took the trouble to point out to our daughter Rose that she had located the famous Skipping Girl sign in red neon that she could see from her window.

I rely partly on Susan Sherson's paper on Jean, which she is planning to amplify into a full account of her life, which promises to be a thrilling read.

Jean's family moved during the Depression from Melbourne to north-east Victoria, where she and her sister Betty rode to school on their horse Bess. She had two sisters and a brother, and was devoted to her nieces and nephews, and to their children. Family meant a lot to Jean, something which was naturally reinforced when she went on to live for 30 years in PNG, where family often means everything.

After a visiting missionary spoke at their primary school, Jean told Betty as they hopped up on Bess: "That's what I'll be — a missionary. I could train as a nurse."

She later spoke with the Australian Board of Missions director in Melbourne, and he suggested that she train at the Royal Melbourne Hospital. Being Jean, she had a few run-ins with the ultra-strict hierarchy at the Nurses' Home, but graduated in 1943 when she was 22. She did midwifery training, and gained valuable experience in bush nursing hospitals, often without ready access to a doctor.

Then in March 1945 she was called by ABM to begin missionary training in Sydney. She arrived in PNG by ship early in 1946, as the then colony began to pick up the pieces following that ferocious war which saw so many acts of heroism alongside those of calumny — as St Peter's wonderful New Guinea Martyrs window here testifies.

Pat Rawlings, who accompanied her from Melbourne, was sent to Dogura, while Jean went to Eroro in Oro Bay, where she set up her first hospital in a bakery that had been built by the departing American troops. It was later dedicated to St Margaret of Scotland. Jean explored the treasure trove of bits and pieces abandoned by the Americans to equip the hospital — which is now being rebuilt, due to reopen as a 25 bed hospital this September, intended to serve as a model for the province, and which has received material support from ABM.

Jean battled at first to find and keep young women to train as nurses. The first three she began to train at Eroro were all taken away for traditional arranged marriages while she was away at a meeting. But when she established a maternity unit, attitudes began to change, and within a couple of years she had established a training school for nurse aides and medical orderlies.

In January 1951, Mount Lamington, 50km away, in the far distance at the start of the Owen Stanley ranges where the famous Kokoda Track was cut, erupted. The northern side of the mountain blew out and 3,000 people were killed, including many of the Anglican Church's most promising Papua New Guinean leaders, attending a conference. Jean assembled a medical team and drugs and shovels, and set out. When they reached Popondetta, the director of public health in the colony, John Gunther, asked Jean to take six men and see what help they could provide. The men had to be single like Jean, because no one had yet emerged from the area alive. They helped injured people they passed, drove as far as they could, and both administered help to survivors and provided invaluable information for the authorities to provide bigger scale relief.

Among the many, many babies she helped deliver at St Margaret's was Lucy Bogari, who is about to become the new PNG high commissioner to PNG, and who is a member of the committee that deploys AusAID funding via the churches in PNG.

Theo Woods, son of Archbishop Frank Woods, describes how their twins were born at Dogura in 1969: "The first one was born about 4am by tilley lights, but when they realised there were twins it was Jean who called out, 'Turn on the generator, we need more light here.' A few days after the birth one of the tiny girls, Alison, got septicaemia. It was Jean who sounded the alarm, radio-ed Port Moresby for a Cessna, and packed my wife and the twins off down the bumpy jungle airstrip with a younger nurse holding a drip against the tiny Cessna's ceiling for the 2-hour frightening flight through the mountains with a critically sick newborn. Alison survived and is now the mother of two lovely little boys. Jean has been, and always will be, indelibly etched into our memories by that crisis."

Theo's story can be replicated countless times.

Jean shifted in 1964 to Dogura, becoming matron of St Barnabas Hospital there and head of its school of nursing. She became a member of the first Nursing Council for PNG, chairing its education committee, before finally returning to Australia following independence, in 1976.

I first heard of Jean through Jelilah Unia, Lucy Bogari's cousin, who also comes from Eroro, and is Jean's god daughter, and who became a friend of mine during my own time in PNG. When Jean left, Jelilah took over as matron of St Barnabas, becoming the first Papua New Guinean to hold such a post. She has continued to work widely in the health sector, and is currently running health training programs for a global NGO, based in Madang. Jelilah says of Jean: "She has played a big role in my life as my hero, teacher, mentor and great role model. One special thing I learned from Jean was the tenacity with which she went about her work, always striving for the best, and for truth. We have remained great friends throughout our lives."

Of course, Jean could never rest on her laurels. After returning to Australia, she threw herself into leadership in aged care nursing, and worked with Bush Church Aid at the remote South Australian community of Tarcoola, about which you will hear more shortly, from Joan Durdin, herself another marvellous missionary nurse.

When I got to know her, after I migrated to Australia from PNG, I was always in awe of the number of activities into which she threw herself.

She counselled girls in trouble, through Anglicare, looking after them when needed at her home — until the neighbours objected to her philanthropy. She was a keen, and talented, painter, with a good eye for the beauty of the Australian bush. In Tarcoola she had established a painting group to add colour to people's lives there, as well as having a chapel built in the grounds of the health centre. Perhaps the only activity that she attempted that rather eluded her, was driving; not one of the world's great drivers, though in a different manner from that other great missionary who also arrived in PNG in 1946, Bishop David Hand, whose ferocious driving style seemed governed by a belief that Our Lord would Himself steer the car if strictly necessary.

Jean also became an eager lawn bowler, naturally playing competitively and often winning. She had a beautiful dog, Shar. She loved music of all sorts, especially choral music. And she shared much of this with her faithful friend Joyce, who describes Jean as simply unstoppable.

Jean became in 1976 a member of the order of the British Empire, the MBE, whose medals are dedicated "for God and the Empire." Joyce accompanied her to MBE functions, and Jean accompanied Joyce to functions with fellow members of Joyce's order of Australia. Together they founded the tradition of providing breakfasts to the homeless here at St Peter's, which now persists in a joint arrangement with the cathedral. Here Jean was, a pensioner, providing and cooking meals for others.

Jean's involvement with people was never merely professional. She seemed to know someone, everywhere she went. And she sought to make a difference in every way. She committed herself fully into the lives of the many communities and groups with whom she worked, including of course her last community at Broughton Hall, where she recalled sliding down the banisters when she visited her grandparents who were then running the grand mansion called Tara as a boarding house. In her final days she remarked how it was important to build a sense of community at establishments like Broughton Hall.

The community with which she felt most at home was that of Jesus Christ and the saints. Her spirituality was as natural as breathing. She participated in 7.15am masses here at St Peter's until her health halted her. She loved Our Lord, and it was clear in her every word and action that He loved her, and communicated through her.

She was, and is, a hero not only to Jelilah but to us all, "one of the greats," as Bishop Bob Butterss rightly said.


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