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Thursday, 10 September 2020

The secret past of former missionary A. Olga Paice

This is from the Who was Who chapter in my non-fiction book, God's Triangle, about my investigation into the scandal and cover-up surrounding Florence M. "Florrie" Cox and her disastrous marriage to the Australian Baptist missionary, the Rev Frank E. Paice, who later married fellow missionary, A. Olga Johnston

Alvina Olga “Olga” Johnston (later Paice) 1884-1966

Olga Johnston was the child of immigrant parents. Her father, Abraham Johnston, was an agricultural labourer in Southern Ireland. Her mother, Maria Dorothea Juliane “Julia” Holzgrefe, was born near Hanover in Germany. It was a double wedding for Julia and her elder sister, Wilhelmina. It took place in November 1869 at the home of the girls’ father, Christoph, near Carapook, a farming area between Coleraine and Casterton in Victoria.

The service was conducted by an Evangelical Lutheran clergyman, but the Johnston family were Church of England. Julia was just 17 when she was married. Her sister was 20. The wedding register gave Abraham’s age as 31, but other records make it clear that he was 38 or 39.

It seems likely that Julia was pregnant at the time of her marriage, as the first-born arrived less than seven months after the wedding. In all, Julia bore Abraham eight children, the last of whom was Olga, born on September 20, 1884, at Carapook.

Not much is known about Julia (sometimes also called Julia Anna), other than that she died aged just 37 in July 1889 when Olga was only four years old, leaving her and some of the other younger siblings to be brought up by their father and eldest sister, Dora.

Quite a bit of information is available about Abraham, thanks chiefly to an obituary in the Portland Guardian of May 16, 1921. From this, we discover that he was a tough and resourceful character.

The obituary reports that when Abraham was setting out for Australia from Liverpool on the City of Lincoln in 1852, the ship’s owners went bankrupt. Abraham and his fellow passengers seized control of the ship with the intention of sailing it to Melbourne, where they hoped to sell it to recover their expenses. This escapade, with its unpredictable consequences, became unnecessary when the vessel was bought by another firm of ship owners and the voyage took place without further incident.

Before establishing himself as a farmer at Carapook, Abraham unsuccessfully sought riches on the goldfields of Bendigo, Ballarat and Dunolly, among other places. For a time, he went into business using a horse and dray to transport flour around the Bendigo and Ballarat areas.

There are no records of how the Johnston family coped with the death of Julia. Nor is it clear whether religion played a major part in their lives.

At some point, Olga switched from the Church of England to become a devout Baptist. Those who might have been able to tell me about Olga’s time as a young woman have long since died. What is known is that Olga trained as a nurse at Melbourne’s Women’s Hospital—later renamed the Royal Women’s Hospital— before moving to Geelong to be with her sister Dora and other members of her family.

While in Geelong, Olga began attending the Aberdeen Street Baptist Church, which had a reputation for evangelical fervour. It is there that she would have met and come under the persuasive influence of Hedley Sutton, who preached there from time to time while on furlough in Australia.

Church records show that Olga was accepted for missionary training in September 1911. It is not known whether Olga had any marriage prospects before becoming a missionary, but by the time she arrived in East Bengal in 1912, she was already 28—very late for most women of that era to get married.

As there would be few suitable Christian men available for marriage in East Bengal, she had no doubt resigned herself to spinsterhood.

Olga’s nursing skills would have been much valued on the missionary field, not just by the mission staff, but also as a means of drawing in the local population to expose them to the Christian message as they were given medical assistance and advice.

Being a former farm girl would also have helped her cope with the physical adversities she would face in East Bengal. A photograph taken of Olga as she was about to set out for East Bengal showed her to be pretty and having a pleasant demeanour. But as the years went by, she gained a reputation as a forceful, rather intimidating and bitter character who didn’t enjoy living in Australia and had abandoned any religious affiliation. She had strong views on many subjects and was not inhibited from expressing them.

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Paperback, Kindle and eBook copies of God's Triangle are HERE.
Read reviews of God's Triangle HERE.

Learn more about Frank E. Paice by going HERE.

Learn more about Florence M. "Florrie" Cox by going HERE.

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