From the slums of Surry Hills to a prestigious north shore school, Pat Nelson took on a number of challenges in her ministry. But God was not only working through her but in her, as he humbled her heart and led her closer to him.
Pat Nelson was a social worker at Sydney Hospital when she felt the call of God to become a deaconess. When her father heard this, he was concerned for his daughter.
“Look”, he told her, “in the Anglican church a woman will never get anywhere.” He tried to dissuade her, joking about it even dancing around their lounge room pretending to be a Salvation Army officer with a tambourine. It was 1950, and Pat knew that in those days, the woman’s role in church was merely, “to teach Sunday School, do the flowers and keep the church clean.”
Women in the Anglican church then were also unable to join parish council, to attend Synod or to take up the collection. Though Pat’s upbringing was Christian, she stopped going to church after being confirmed at the age of 14. Through university ministry, however, she recommitted her faith and decided—regardless of her father’s response— she was going to become a deaconess.
Archbishop Moll set apart Pat as a deaconess at St Andrews Cathedral and soon after, she spent a year as a student at Deaconess House. During her time there, she served at the parish of Surry Hills.
“The area was a dreadful slum full of terrace houses,” she said. “Many were old and neglected with people living in one room.” The men of the area mostly worked on ships, and as the industry wasn’t unionised, many of them would fail to find work for the day and would have nothing to bring back to their family. One family told Pat that their main meal for the day was bread and dripping.
In Surry Hills, Pat taught scripture to a class of 40 eight-year-old boys, and she remembers their shabby clothes because of the poverty in which they lived. “Some of them looked as though they could do with a good feed,” she said.
Still, Pat looked fondly on her time there, remembering how she took a group of small girls to a camp near the beach, and how the church in Surry Hills was well-regarded in the suburb as a place that tried to care for the poor and the vulnerable.
One year, Deaconess House ran a mission. During a meeting in the church, a woman came up to Pat and asked, “Where are my kids? I’m not having any of them have that religious rubbish.” At that very moment, the hall doors flew open and about 100 laughing, yelling children all streamed out at once. The woman’s jaw dropped but her resolve remained. She took her children out.
As Pat faced the reality of working amongst struggling people, she had to confront her own self-righteousness.
“Really, I saw myself as sinless perfection,” she said. “And when I went into Surry Hills, it was a bit of a shock to me because it’s all very well being a social worker in a hospital, but there I was right in the middle of these very poor people.”
As she worked, she began to see more and more crime and poverty in Surry Hills. One day when handing out the parish paper door to door, she entered, unbeknownst to her, an opium den, and talked to the Chinese man who lived there who politely declined the paper. When he heard about this, the parish rector roared with laughter at her naivety.
“Well”, she said, “I suppose I could have gotten a gold star for trying.”
Two notorious madams of the area, Tilly and Kate, also caught Pat’s attention. She’d heard that they descended into fist fights if their girls entered each other’s work areas. Yet, Tilly had a “kind streak” and would take poor drunks home to feed, bathe and care for them. Pat began to see that there was no such thing as “all black and white, all goodness and bad, there were shades of grey.” Though she learned to see others this way, she remained as “self-righteous as ever”.
In contrast to her time in Surry Hills, Pat was then appointed as divinity mistress at a prestigious school on Sydney’s upper north shore. After four years there she left, feeling humbled and angry.
“I left realising that I wasn’t all sinless perfection,” she says. “I wasn’t all light and goodness and sometimes I was actually wrong. And I began to realise that in my coat there were shades of grey. I wasn’t holier than thou, I was an ordinary sinner like everyone else.”
That was a difficult time in Pat’s life, and she found her anger did not leave until she was able to recite the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our sins as we forgive others.” Slowly, she came to forgive herself.
After this, Pat travelled to Oxford to tutor at a small theological college, and took trips during her time there to the Middle East and throughout Europe. She then returned to work at Deaconess House. By then, her parents were elderly, and Pat wanted to honour her promise to her brother—who had been killed in the war—that she would look after them. So she left her job to work at Concord Hospital, where both her parents were admitted, and cared for them until their deaths.
Inspired by the healing services conducted at St Andrew’s Cathedral, Pat and some others decided to create a healing home for the unwell, which was then set up in Pennant Hills. During the nine years it operated, over 300 people stayed there to gain physical or mental rest and recovery. The home was sold and closed in 1988, when Pat was 60 years old.
She then served as a deaconess in Belmont, and was teaching scripture, taking services and doing home visits when the issue of the ordination of women was raised.
“Now, I was against it. I even wrote a letter against it at one stage, which I think everyone ignored,” she says. Still many people encouraged her to become a priest, and they persisted to the point that she agreed so they’d stop asking.
“Oh, blow them, I’ll apply and they’ll knock me back,” she said. “Then I can tell them all to be quiet.” Despite her assumptions, she was priested.
From the very beginning to her final work as a deaconess, Pat took her commitment to Christ seriously and celebrated each step.
Pat’s service over her many decades of ministry as a deaconess and the way that God worked through her had as profound an impact on her as it did on those who she served.
“I suppose I have experienced every possible emotion you can think of, from joy, to being overconfident, to anxiety, the whole lot,” she said. “But I’ll tell you what, I have never been bored!”
By Hayley Lukabyo