Obituary: Olive Hitchcock

22 March 2019

The Revd Sarah Hutton and John Clark write:

OLIVE HITCHCOCK, who died at the College of St Barnabas on Christmas Eve 2018, aged 97, was one of the first women to be appointed to a senior international mission post in the Church Missionary Society (CMS). After 20 years’ service on the staff of the prestigious Colombo Ladies College, she was appointed first Assistant and then Asia Regional Secretary for CMS.

Born in 1921, she had to overcome severe childhood health conditions. Aged five, she developed a TB hip. Her leg was straightened by brute force and, after catching chickenpox at Great Ormond Street Hospital, she was sent home immobilised in plaster and later transferred to Treloar’s Hospital for Crippled Children in Alton and Hayling Island.

She was there for four years; flat on her back, splinted, and in traction. No personal possessions were allowed, everything had to be shared on the ward, and letters home were censored to prevent any complaints. Her parents could visit for two hours on a Saturday or Sunday twice a month, except in the winter. In bed, she was taught to read, write, do maths, and sew.

In her diaries, she wrote of returning home joyfully at nine years old, on crutches. She went to a local school and then attended North London Collegiate in Camden Town, travelling by train each day. She had two further major operations on her hip, which removed her splint, although, she said, she was still disabled.

She wrote: “It was during one of these stints in hospital, lonely and bitterly disappointed when the first operation was declared unsuccessful, that I turned to the love of God in Christ and put myself in his hands for life.”

The Second World War interrupted her education, but she took a secretarial course and became a temporary civil servant at the Ministry of Home Security in Whitehall.

In 1941, she went to St Andrews University to study geography, half expecting to become a teacher, as this was acceptable war service. As a result of the influence of Crusader classes in London, and the InterVarsity Fellowship at St Andrews, she hoped to be a missionary teacher. But, on graduation, she was called up to the wartime civil service and joined the Economic Intelligence Unit attached to Lord Mountbatten’s South East Asia Command in Kandy Ceylon, and later to Singapore on the Japanese surrender.

Her diaries of that time reveal a growing love for the land and its people, and a developing faith and sense of God’s call. So, a lifelong love of Ceylon, later to become Sri Lanka, began. It was here that she made her first links with Ladies College, and, on demobilisation, she flew back to Colombo to join the college’s staff, teaching geography, scripture, Latin, and French.

After a couple of terms, however, she was seconded to a school in Gampola, Kandy, for a year, to give a longstanding missionary a break. Aged 25, she was Acting Principal.

It was at the end of her second term here that she found herself caught in a flood. The river began rising rapidly in the middle of the night, and water rushed into her bungalow with such force that she could not get out. Somehow, in the darkness, she and four other staff hoisted three chairs on to a staff-room table and the five of them climbed up on them.

As the water rose, every time the table shuddered they were nearly swept away. Eventually, after 15 hours, a police boat found them and hauled them, exhausted and soaked, out through the roof. Olive had severe sciatica, was unable to walk, had dysentery, and was shaken to the core, having also lost all her possessions. She recalled that in the midst of the flood she told God that, in spite of her general disillusionment, she would be willing to commit herself to missionary service — should she emerge alive.

CMS initially accepted her on “special agreement” because of her disability. In 1948, she was accepted as a full missionary. For 20 years, she devoted herself to Ladies College, running it as Administrative Secretary and Vice-Principal, with the Principal, the Australian Mabel Simon, whom se succeeded in 1964. She got a grip on the school administratively and educationally, and was always forward-thinking. She navigated a path through difficult times due to a Buddhist revival. She was the only Anglican non-Ceylonese in charge of a school.

The girls regarded her as rather scary, but to the staff she was seen as lively, warm-hearted, and friendly. She was held in great respect by colleagues and the Church’s leadership. She maintained constant contact with Ladies College ever after, and a Christmas card from the college was in her room when she died.

CMS files record that it was with very great reluctance that the Bishop of Colombo accepted the Society’s request for her transfer to the Headquarters Staff as Assistant Asia Secretary.

For the next 12 years, she was responsible for the Society’s relationships with Churches and missionaries in Egypt, Israel, the Palestinian territories, Jordan, Lebanon, Iran, the Arab Gulf States, Pakistan, Central Asia, and Sri Lanka. This involved travelling and visiting, which she loved.

She brought her administrative skills, shrewd assessment, and pastoral care of people and situations to her work. Her years of experience were particularly appreciated during the Iranian Revolution (1978-80). She devoted long hours to the support of the Episcopal Church in Iran and to the care, practical and spiritual, for CMS personnel serving with the diocese, for which she had a particular affection.

She retired in 1980 to Farnham with her sister, then to Terry’s Cross, and finally to the College of St Barnabas. Her bookshelves reveal a lively wide-ranging interest in theology, art, and literature. She wrote poetry of immense depth, and gave imaginative talks and reflections. She painted, sewed, and continued to grapple with the “now and the not yet” of our lives.

She was bedridden for the final years of her life, but, though frail, was still able to receive visitors, including former Ladies College students and staff, who brought her pictures and videos of the College. She was particularly pleased to learn of the appointment, in 2019, of Guli Francis-Dehqani, Bishop Hassan Dehqani-Tafti’s daughter, as Bishop of Loughborough.

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