Happenings, News

A tale of two sisters: Emma and Della Olson

It is remarkable that these two sisters from far-off Wisconsin became missionaries to this part of the world – the elder Emma from 1911, the younger Della from 1918. Having served more than 70 years between them, they have an interesting tale to tell.

homepage-Oct 2005

IN DECIDING to serve the Lord overseas, some 6,000 miles away from her native Wisconsin, Emma Olson had a hard battle, shedding many tears in solitude, until she gained enough strength “to leave father, mother, sisters and other dear ones who were bound to her heart with strong ties … [and] felt the call directly from the Lord of the harvest … and without seeking advice from her own family, she was willing to immediately obey her Master’s call”.

Arriving in Singapore in 1911, she had plenty to do at Anglo-Chinese School with an enrolment of 1,800 boys [who] “are as good and attentive as they can be and seem to soak in every word … I consider it a priceless privilege God is using me in my work … ’’

Just about to start her second term of service in 1916, she had the unenviable experience of being shipwrecked when the steamer, which was on its way to Singapore, ran into rocks 20 miles out of Hongkong. Providentially, all hands were safely rescued.

In Singapore, she rejoined ACS and was appointed supervisor of the Serangoon English School branch. She also spent three months in China to learn the Chinese dialects which she used in women’s work among the Cantonese and Hakka church members.

In 1924, she was posted to Sumatra where she took charge of Methodist Girls’ School in Medan and set up a girls’ hostel until 1927 when she was forced to leave to take care of her sick mother.

Rejoining the Mission in 1933, she was posted to Kuala Lumpur where she did work with the Cantonese and Hakka Church and women’s work. In 1936, she was transferred to Seremban as Principal of Methodist Girls’ Boarding School as well as to do evangelistic work among the local people.

Under doctor’s orders, she returned to America in 1939 and remained there until 1940 when she returned to Singapore as Principal of Nind Home and the Malaya Methodist Theological College, positions she faithfully fulfilled until January 1942 when she was evacuated a fortnight prior to the fall of Singapore.

Her sister, Della, began her missionary service in 1918, and was appointed to supervise the primary classes at Methodist Girls’ School, then meeting in Short Street, as well as to do Hinghua, Cantonese and Tamil work. At the beginning of her second term of service in 1924, she was assigned to work in Malacca with the Straits Chinese Church and the (Methodist) Suydam Girls’ School where she taught the Cambridge classes.

In the following year, she was appointed Principal, a position she held until 1935 when, after her furlough, she was assigned to Taiping as Principal of the Lady Treacher Girls’ School as well as to work with the Tamil women. Now known as Treacher Methodist Girls’ School, it had been started as a government girls’ school in 1889, probably the oldest in Malaysia. It was transferred to the Methodist Mission in May 1899, after negotiations with Bishop Thoburn.

During her service in Taiping, Della worked hard to establish educational standards for the school whose reputation attracted many pupils of various communities from around the district.

One important contribution was a new and proper building for the school which then cost over $85,000 – of which more than $50,000 was raised by pledges, concerts, sales of handwork and what the old building fetched. The effort put in by teachers and pupils was quite extraordinary and indicated the kind of spirit which attracted the public.

Completed at the end of November 1941, near the outbreak of the Pacific War, the new building was commandeered by the British army and later occupied by the Japanese. The school was thus deprived of its use until after the war when many girls were unable to continue with their education. Her other building came after the war when a girls’ hostel was opened in April 1952, after she completed her service as a Methodist missionary.

But Della was remembered by her pupils as a “legend in Taiping” because of her single-minded devotion to the school, and whose ministry made a difference to the lives of the girls who studied under her administration.

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