Topic: Just an ordinary woman by Etheljoy Smith

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An interview with missionary Avaleen Mary Orange (nee Wilson) inspired Etheljoy Smith's entry in the 2012 Memoir and Local History Competition.

Archived version here.

In 2004 I met Avaleen Mary Orange, (nee Wilson), in the comfort of the Athenree home shared with her husband Bert.  For over ten years, home had been army huts with primitive facilities within the Presbyterian Mission field.

“Mission houses were not even built for married couples – and we had six children!”

Avaleen laughed telling me about her earlier life.

She was brought up on a 5,000 acre sheep farm at Waihola near Dunedin with four siblings. Her father died when Avaleen was five.  After eight years of struggling through the Depression, her mother was forced to leave their farm.  The family moved to Raes Junction to the post office with a little land.

Avaleen was very ill when she was fifteen, missing a year of schooling.

“But I was taken for a flight in Kingsford Smith’s Southern Cross, around that time – a much better memory.”

Having missed too much schooling, Avaleen left school and went into domestic service.

At sixteen Avaleen was converted to Christianity.  She planned to serve in the Mission Field and worked for the Y.W.C.A to earn money for Bible College.

“When I was 22 I went to the old Bible Training Institute inQueen Street,Auckland. It took two years to get the diploma- a short time for someone like me without much education.   I nearly broke my Greek instructor’s heart, constantly asking questions if I did not   understand!  The amazing part is that I did get my diploma – and that included Greek.”

It was in Bible College that Avaleen and her husband-to-be, Bert Wilson, first met. Bert said to himself, “That’s the girl I’m going to marry.”

But he went overseas with the Army without telling Avaleen of his intentions.    

Six years later, in 1944, Avaleen was back in the Y.W.C.A. as Sub Matron. Answering the door one day, who should be standing there but Bert.

“What on earth are you doing here?” she asked.

“I’ve come to replace the toilet,” replied Bert.

In 1945 Avaleen had the opportunity to be Superintendent of the Y.W.C.A., but she had also  been asked to help run the Missionary Home in Remuera, Auckland.  She took that position hoping it would be one more step nearer the Mission Field.

To her intense disappointment, Avaleen found she had been delegated as cook. She simmered with resentment for months. Then during a quiet time at an Easter camp, she realised she was exactly where she was meant to be.

Avaleen and Bert married in Dunedinin 1948.  Bert was then working in the Maori field.

Avaleen’s goal of working in the Mission Field had finally happened; but not in the way she herself had planned.  Initially, she felt completely out of her depth.  But, as she moved with Bert around the New Zealand Mission Field, the older Maori women took her under their wing.  They taught her new skills; plain sewing, crocheting and knitting.

“I admired the Maori.  The women were tremendous.  They never hurried you, seeming to have all the time in the world.  But, I never lost the habit of clock-watching.”

From Te Teko, Bert and Avaleen moved to Te Whaiti.

“I loved the warm atmosphere.  Maoris came to buy clothes.  From people who had very little we were given everything:  the first fruits of the season; the first whitebait; the first cherries; and piko piko, more delicious than asparagus.”

Then Bert felt called to leave artisan work and study for the ministry.  He spent one year at university; two as an extra-mural student, and then went on toKnoxCollege.  It was not easy for the family.

Bert and Avaleen went to Language School at Te Teko for six months.  Avaleen was having their second baby and feeling quite sick.  Between 1948 and 1957 Avaleen and Bert  worked in Nuhaka, Dunedin, Tuai and Taupo.

“The accommodation wasn’t always very good.  One place was such a mess I had to shift timber.  After that I was in and out of hospital, or on my back.  That’s when I really missed my friends and family.  The most difficult part was the discipline of living whole heartedly in Maori land.  We went to some places where you felt the past was bearing down on you:   and a big fear came upon you.

“Bert and I worked together.  He lit the copper.  I milked the cows, made butter and looked after the garden.  We rose at 5 a.m. so I could get housework done early, leaving time to spend with the women and visit sick people.  There were always people coming and going.  Once we had ninety visitors in less than three weeks.”

Waikaremoana was a special place for Avaleen.

“The Christian owners of Kokako Mill opened their beautiful home for a church service, and we had the Maori Women’s League meetings where Maori and Pakeha talked together and taught one another how to make things.  We were mentioned in Parliament for having equal numbers of Maori and Pakeha so happy together.”

Avaleen recalls many wonderful women she met.

“A fabulous woman was one of the Reverend Hemi Potatau’s daughters:  also Sister Alexander, Head of the United Missions, which did tremendous work inAuckland. My greatest grief was when Deaconess Sister Annie, a wonderful woman, died.  She always kicked off at the football matches, well attended by the community.  And local Maori women would rush on to the field to hug the winners.

“I loved our life.  It was rewarding.  Our children were happy with lots of friends.  But we left in 1957, going into the whole Presbyterian service, working in that until 1978. Bert and I went through life’s valleys together.  We lost our son, age twenty, after a horrific accident.    I can be with someone who has lost a child and know exactly how they are feeling.  Then, in retirement, Bert was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease. We faced up to it together.  It was hard but we got there.”

Usually a vivacious person, Avaleen ended the interview quietly.

“I’m just an ordinary person.  All I have done is to love people.  I loved the Maori people. And they loved me.”

It is easy to see why.


This page archived at Perma CC in October of 2016:

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