Happenings, News

A tale of two pairs of Olsons

Mary and Elizabeth: Education

Within the first 20 years of the 20th century, there were, remarkably, two pairs of sisters from two unrelated Olson families who served as missionaries in this area. Mary and Elizabeth Olson hailed from Minnesota and served mainly in Singapore; Emma and Della Olson were from Wisconsin and served mainly in Sumatra and Malaya. This month, we feature Mary and Elizabeth; next month, Emma and Della.

homepage-Sept 2005

MARY OLSON was a pioneer in girls’ education for 37 years (1903-40), especially in school building and teacher training.

She came from Minneapolis, Minnesota, as a missionary of the Woman’s Division of the Methodist Church. Arriving in Penang on Oct 3, 1903, she was put in charge of the Methodist Girls’ School (MGS) one week after she arrived because of emergency leave taken by another lady. In addition, she taught Standard 7 and was in charge of Methodist Deaconess Home and Boarding school.

She was staggered, but remarked: “He who has said ‘Lo, I am with you always’ has not failed me … “ Within the first year, she had reorganised the school and supervised the construction and outfitting of two buildings which now housed an enrolment which had grown to 76.

Seeking to improve teaching standards, she tried unsuccessfully to source for trained teachers from India and thus decided to train them herself – with a profound effect on Methodist schools and all schools in Malaya.

In 1906, Mary was transferred to Singapore to reorganise MGS and in the following year concurrently headed the Telok Ayer Girls’ School which had moved from 98 Telok Ayer Street to 92- 1 Neil Road in December 1905. For the next 28 years, she was directly involved in the two schools.

Recognising that the Government demanded well-trained teachers she averred that “we shall have to stir to get them, but it will be well worth our while and till we get them we cannot achieve the best, the desired results”.

Enrolment at the two schools in 1908 topped 200 while four girls from MGS sat for the Cambridge examination, including the first Chinese girl in the Colony who had earlier been a pupil at Telok Ayer Girls’ School to take that examination. The Director of Education, referring to MGS and the Telok Ayer school, remarked that “they were the first schools to send Chinese girls for the Cambridge examination”.

Mary’s sister, Elizabeth, arrived in Singapore as a missionary in 1910 and was assigned to assist Mary at the Telok Ayer Girls’ School mainly in evangelistic and spiritual work until 1912 when she went on leave.

On her return in 1913, and until she left Singapore for missionary work in China in 1919, Elizabeth was an evangelistic worker in the Malay language, and taught Scripture to girls above Standard IV and assisting her sister at the school – broken by a year at the Boarding School in Malacca. The popularity of the two girls’ schools grew rapidly and the Telok Ayer school had to rent an additional building as the attendance had exceeded 100 while its name was changed to “Fairfield School” in 1913 after an American friend had given $5,000 towards a new building on Neil Road to which they moved the following year.

Enrolment rapidly increased to 330 the following year when a Standard 7 class was begun. With a Boarding School established in 1917, the new building became inadequate, and the students overflowed to a nearby shophouse, while many boys, who had been admitted before, had to be turned away from 1920.

When Mary Olson returned from furlough in 1917, she noted that “people are not going to settle down to the old order of things”.

“We now have the opportunity to lead on to a new and better order in the educational world,” she said, and called for an additional building. In 1921, she set up a Music Department, then a new idea for girls’ schools, while the Inspector of Schools commented favourably on the girls’ knitting and sewing.

Returning from leave in 1926, Mary was appointed Principal of MGS until 1929. The school was still located at the overcrowded Short Street building but she planned and completed in 1927 a new six-room building on Mt Sophia near old Nind Home, making it possible to take in Upper School girls. Going on leave in 1930, she returned to head Fairfield until 1935.

In 1937, she took up another challenge as Principal of Shellabear Hall, Malacca (a Methodist Girls’ hostel).

Following this, she was sent to Kuantan in 1938 to open the first (Methodist) girls’ school in the state of Pahang in October using temporarily rented ground floor premises of the Hainan Association building.

The Inspector of Schools found the work of the school very acceptable and merited a visit by the Sultan of Pahang to a concert programme. As first principal, Mary Olson served until she retired from Malaya in 1940.

Earnest Lau, the Associate Editor of Methodist Message, is also the Archivist of The Methodist Church in Singapore.