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Viti Packer and Bau Earle at Wheller Gardens. Photo: Holly Jewell

Missionary legacy of love

As the Uniting Church celebrates 40 years, we recall the legacy of love and respect between the Fijian church and the Australian missionaries who served there. Dianne Jensen reports.

Viti Packer’s room at Parkview—Wesley Mission Queensland’s Wheller Gardens aged-care community in Brisbane—is a cheerful space full of family photos from across the generations.

For 93-year-old Viti and her sisters (Bethe) Bau Earle and Marylou (Vueti Kuila) Trigge, the stories hark back to 1922 when newly-wed missionaries Rev (Thomas) Norman Deller and his wife Mabel departed for the island of Vanua Levu in Fiji.

The Dellers spent 15 years in Fiji, and Viti is the eldest of their three daughters born there. She is named after the main island of Fiji and Bau is named after the historic island of Bau, the ancestral home of the Great Chiefs where the Deller family spent 10 years.

While Norman Deller went on to serve in leadership roles in Australia including president of the Queensland Methodist Conference, their legacy and that of many missionary workers lives on in the thriving Fijian church. Norman was the last of the European missionaries sent to Bau.

Viti and Bau have many memories of Fiji although Marylou was only three when they returned. These recollections paint a picture of the Dellers’ dedication to the local people.

“My father was preaching in Fijian within six months of getting there, so that will give you an idea of how interested he was,” Viti says. She grew up speaking Fijian and English and can still sing along with Fijian hymns.

“I can remember sitting around on the floor of the church in a ring of young children learning Bible lessons.”

Bau’s earliest memories are of the music, a gift which has stayed with her over the years.

“Mum used to teach the mothers how to sew and cook and we’d sit around on the mission house veranda and they’d just sing and sing—and Viti and I sang with them.”

A testament to Christian missionary influence lies in the story of the baptismal font in the Methodist church on the island of Bau.

“In the church you’ll see the stone, with its little hollow. That was the killing stone, where enemies had their heads bashed before being eaten. The hollow now holds water for baptisms,” says Bau.

In a gesture of love and respect, the Kangaroo Point Uniting Church choir joined the Parkview community to celebrate Viti’s 93rd birthday on Palm Sunday. One of the hymns sung by the mainly Fijian Australian choir was Norman Deller’s translation of “Sing we the King who is coming to reign”. And of course, Viti and Bau sang along.

 

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