Patricia St. John - Chapter 1 - Family Background
No two love stories are ever quite the same, but I doubt if there has ever been a more unusual courtship than that of my parents. When Harry, my father, was 15 he attended a church service. Mr Swain was also there with his curly-haired daughter of three. Mr Swain got up to speak and Ella fell off her chair and made a considerable noise about it. It was disturbing to her father’s sermon, to say the least of it, and Harry, who knew the family, offered to carry her home. On the way something happened to him; he left his small charge with her mother but he did not forget her. He determined there and then that little Ella Swain was the girl for him and he would wait for her.
He waited a long time. On his father’s sudden death he was forced to leave school, turn his back on the academic career he had hoped for and look for work. He became a junior bank clerk in the Westminster Bank with good prospects of advancement, and remained there for twenty years, helping to support his widowed mother.
But again, when he was 19, something happened. The details are not clear for he never talked about that night except to say that he met with God; but that meeting transformed him from a rather rebellious lad, thoroughly disappointed with life, into a man with a passionate purpose: to know Christ, to study his Bible and to tell others of what he had found. From then on, every spare moment was spent in learning, studying or preaching and gradually his life’s ambition became to go and preach the Gospel where it had never been heard before. South America was the place laid on his heart.
Meanwhile little Ella Swain was also growing and as Harry’s older sister became her governess for a time, he often saw her. Her healthy, normal appearance, her quick intelligence and tremendous enjoyment of life rested and refreshed him. Unlike him, she was no ascetic; everything, from the coloured gentleman singing love songs on the beach to the poems she learned at school, was delightful and golden. Her father, Mr Swain, was a Board of Education Inspector and believed in a broad, careful education for girls. He was also a scientist, and he loved to introduce his small daughter to the wonders and beauties of the universe and she responded with eager enthusiasm – and not only to science; history and poetry captivated her, and while her future husband experienced spiritual raptures at the communion service, she would sit entranced, reciting Tennyson’s poems to herself.
Her father’s work meant constant change of home, so he asked Mrs St. John if she would take Ella as a weekly boarder for a few months in order to enable her to finish her school year in London.
She was then twelve years old and her greatest delight was to play football in the square with the St. John boys and their friends. Harry was then 24 years old and he loved to tease her. He would pull her plaits and nicknamed her Piglet. Four years later, owing to schooling problems she came back again to stay with the St. Johns, and it was then that the sixteen-year-old school girl happened to attend some Bible readings intended primarily for young men, where Harry lectured on the book of Amos.
Those lectures opened her eyes. Up to that time she had revered the Bible and respected and believed her parents’ teachings, but compared with botany and poetry she had found scripture a dull subject; and as for St Paul’s missionary journeys and the kings of Israel, she considered them the depths of boredom! But through Harry’s exposition of the minor prophets, the Book suddenly came alive. Here, in this deep, mystic yet practical teaching, was the bread her eager, growing spirit craved for – literary beauty and strength, scholarly truth, burning challenge and devotion. She responded from the depth of her soul and night by night she would sit absorbed in the church with the young men, and whenever there was opportunity, she would accompany Harry to the different places where he lectured.
She was thrilled and fascinated and began to study her Bible, finding in it the answers to her youthful problems and a Book to live by. During the next two years Harry spent many weekends taking services in Godalming and he always stayed at her home, but although they were close friends, their relationship was quite devoid of romance. To her, he was a revered teacher, twelve years her senior, and in all their conversations they seemed to have kept strictly to the point. He never failed to record them in his diary:
‘Travelled down in the train with Piglet. Much enjoyed Joshua 4 and 5 together on the journey.’ ‘Wrote a long letter to Piglet on Matthew 13. A very dear child, God bless her and keep her amid the vain glories of life.’ But in his heart there was growing a quiet, steady love, along with a fatherly interest in her spiritual growth. In September 1906 he and another man interviewed her as she had asked to become a communicant.
Again the old diary records his thoughts:
‘Saw P as to the Lord’s Table. A tender flower. Who will shelter her through life? Never met anyone like her. God will give her a great future.’ And a little later on: ‘A long think over future life; I feel drawn to Piglet if it’s God’s will. I think it would be truly happy.’
But he said nothing for she, as yet, had no such ideas. She had gained a scholarship to read history at Westfield College and was, as usual, throwing herself into her plans and studies with heart and soul.
He knew that this would mean a delay of at least three years; with his constant regard for her highest welfare, he did not attempt to dissuade her. He was thirty-one and longing to settle with a family.
‘Great wave of homesickness and longing for a home of my own’, he wrote. ‘Loneliness grows as I get spiritually separated from those around me. They don’t understand me or I them. Thank God there will be children left here as long as I am; my heart goes out to them – a man alone is a poor prospect. I long for a yoke-fellow to be out and out for Christ.’
So he waited patiently while she enjoyed college life to the full. She became Senior Student, and President of the Debating Society; and Miss Maynard, the Principal, planned a glorious academic career for her student when, in her third year, she was offered an assistant lectureship at Holloway. The future stretched bright before her and then, quite suddenly, Harold St. John proposed to her while crossing the road in Brighton, dodging the traffic. It was a complete surprise to her, but, because for years he had been ‘the best and most saintly man I knew’, she accepted immediately and they announced their engagement that night at the supper table.
She had expected to become a housewife in Bayswater with a husband rising to prosperity, but this too had to be abandoned. A few months later Harry astonished all who knew him by deciding to resign from the bank and go abroad as a foreign missionary. This was no sudden impulse; years before he had seen the vision but it had seemed impractical then for family reasons and he had resigned himself rather sadly to London life. The land that filled his thoughts was Mexico where his father had died. ‘Mexico looms before me’, he had written some five years previously. ‘“Go ye”, Christ said, and I can do it in His Name
. . . but what of Mother?’
‘It is easy to put Mexico away and settle in ease and comfort, but I am hungry to find myself without a plank between me and Christ. . . . I dare not move until I am clearer about my motives.’ Then, later on, ‘Mexico must go; I must settle to a London life. A bitter, bitter prospect.’
But the seed of desire had lain latent through the years and at thirty-six he was free to go, not to Mexico, but to South America. The sudden knowledge had come to him in the night and he came down in the morning absolutely certain of his call. The only words he could find to explain this revelation were the words of the hymn:
Christ the Son of God has led me
To the midnight lands;
Mine the mighty ordination
Of the pierced hands.
To the sorrow and indignation of his employers he resigned his excellent prospects and proceeded to prepare himself for the mission field. He spent a year studying homoeopathic medicine and First Aid while Ella did a special nursing training at the Mildmay Mission Hospital. She and Harry were now in London together and although the off-duty hours of a nurse were few and short he managed to take her out once a fortnight. Miss Cattell, the saintly old Matron, disapproved of this. She considered it fast behaviour and requested that another nurse should go with them as chaperone. Ella said she would discuss it with her fiancé, which she did, but he cut the discussion short:
‘Tell old Muscatels and raisins I’m not having any!’ he remarked, and they set out unaccompanied to walk through the park.
They were happy days and glimpses of that courtship are preserved in old, faded letters written by Ella to her parents: ‘I am working in outpatients now. I am living with the St. Johns for a few weeks and Harry is madly happy that I have come. I hid behind the chair on Wednesday night when he came home and listened to him talking. When he discovered me, he thought I had just come for the evening so I said, “I’ve come to stay”, and he shouted, “PIGLET, will you marry me tonight?” He is so mad! Can’t eat his meals sensibly or anything but dances round me and keeps kissing me. It is very wonderful that he loves me so! “Little Heaven” is his favourite name for me at present and I do hope I shall always be it for him, but he is so much gooder than I am and so oblivious to cold and hunger and sleep.’
She was always his ‘Little Heaven’. They were married in London in 1914 and a special reception had to be given afterwards for her patients and mothers and babies she had delivered during her Midwifery course. Thus, after twelve years of patient waiting, Harry was given his heart’s desire: the wife who was, in every way, the perfect complement of himself.
Together they decided quite simply that with him, the Lord’s work would always come first and she never forgot that promise or questioned his long absences from home. Her practicality balanced his mysticism, for she was a born home-maker; and whether in the wilds of Brazil, or their verminous lodgings in Buenos Aires, or later in England where the old red brick house swarmed with children, there was always a place of peace for him to return to, where he could rest from the heavy strain of the ministry or study undisturbed. She asked very little of him apart from his love, for she was essentially a giver, but for over forty years the calm, deep, selfless quality of their relationship impressed even casual visitors. No child of theirs can remember one sharp or irritable word between them and the atmosphere of that home inspired many young people to whom they opened it so freely.
But this was all far ahead; when they first arrived in Buenos Aires the man who was to meet them and make arrangements had been called up for military service and their first temporary home was one room in a house in Buenos Aires where black beetles swarmed up walls at night and they stood the legs of their camp beds in kerosene. Here, until they moved, Ella learned to housekeep in a kitchen which they shared with four Spanish families and it was a hard struggle from the beginning, but fortunately they were both endowed with a keen sense of humour and she was his sunshine and laughter. ‘She’s like a humming bird chained to a tortoise’, he once wrote rather wistfully, but she was a practical, down-to-earth humming bird. In the next two and a half years she made friends with her neighbours, learned the language thoroughly and bore two babies, Hazel and Farnham.
Harry, in the meantime, had joined up with a group of missionaries and was preaching, teaching and riding on horseback over the mountains to visit small, scattered, sometimes almost illiterate groups of Christians; and everywhere he went he was smitten with the need for Bible-taught pastors and evangelists who would teach and build up these spiritually hungry little churches.
He and his fellow-missionary, Stewart McNair, decided to open a Bible school in the rural area of Carangola in Brazil. So Harry and Ella packed their meagre belongings and started off, with their two year old daughter and seven-week-old son, on what even the optimistic Harry described as ‘the most difficult journey they had ever undertaken’. They travelled for 3,500 km by boat and mule back; it was very rough and the boat was extremely crowded. Wherever they stayed they were plagued by insects. They carried their worldly possessions with them, which caused the customs official to remark that times had changed since the days of the early apostles who went out without purse or scrip. Harry replied patiently that the apostles did not have to travel with babies, and sought to turn the conversation to higher things.
But they arrived at last and settled down into their new home, which Ella dubbed ‘the House of a Thousand Fleas’. The previous owner had kept pigs in the basement and rats visited them freely. Also, in the wet weather, the roof leaked and Hazel and Farnham slept under the kitchen table when it rained. Nevertheless it was roomy and airy, and perhaps no little home has ever been more beloved or held dearer memories. Harry taught at the Bible school opposite while a crowd of eager young students worked in the fields for their keep during part of the day and studied during the rest. As for Ella, the coming of this friendly young mother into their midst was a never-ending source of interest and delight to her Brazilian sisters, as were also her few simple belongings; she unconsciously solved the problem of suitable headgear for the morning service by sending out washing to an old woman, and was mildly surprised to recognize her towels adorning the heads of the congregation. However, as the articles were all returned later in the week in clean condition, no questions were asked and the custom persisted.
They were a loving, simple, truly Christian congregation and they loved their new missionaries who quickly learned to live and speak as they did. Harry wrote of them, ‘They use the Lord’s name on every occasion, with great reverence, and one was not surprised to hear a voice from the kitchen saying “Here is some maize left over from dinner, Cecilia. If God so pleases you must fry it tomorrow”, and the answer – “If it is the Lord’s will, I will do so”.
Little Pakita, as they called Hazel, played barefoot with her Brazilian friends and spoke their language and became almost as brown as they were, but baby ‘Nana’ did not thrive. He became ill with a lingering dysentery, complicated by abscesses in his ears. He lay very quiet in his cot, too weak to move except to raise one skinny hand and blow small, pitiful kisses.
Careful feeding and nursing seemed of no avail and the nearest doctor was miles away and refused to come for any money. So with the simple medical knowledge they possessed, the parents did what they could and prayed almost unceasingly beside the cot and the crisis passed. But he remained weak and did not seem to thrive and a third child was expected in mid-April. Gradually and reluctantly the parents were beginning to realize that the conditions in which they lived were unsuitable for delicate or new-born babies.
There was another reason too for uprooting; during the two years they had been there, Harry had been deeply impressed by the eager thirst of Christians for able, Spirit-filled teaching. There was everything to hold them in Carangola: the love of the local Christians and students, the friendship of the McNairs, the encouraging results of the work and, most of all, the company of his wife and children. But the Bible school was established and prospering under McNair’s able guidance and there were other districts, other countries where no such effort had been made. Already pleading letters were reaching him to come and hold Bible schools in British Guyana, the West Indies, and other parts of South America.
The final decision must have cost them both much. They returned to England in 1919 and Harry went back to Brazil alone. In 1921 he left that first dear Bible school and embarked on a life of constant travel in which his wife and babies could no longer join him. Ella longed to go back to Carangola but never once did she attempt to influence him. The choice was made before God alone.
But with regard to the journey to England, there is one event that needs to be mentioned. They left in February and the storms at sea were terrible. The expected new baby nearly arrived in the Bay of Biscay, but Ella survived and reached Southampton. Lodgings for the night had been arranged at the nearby town of St Leonards. From there they planned to travel to Mrs Swain’s home in Malvern where arrangements had been made for the birth, which was due in about a month’s time.
But Ella had reckoned without her husband; spring was in the air and he was exuberant at being safe home in England with his family. They borrowed a large, top-heavy pram for the two older children and went for a family walk. But Harry was not used to prams, the roads around Carangola having been unsuitable for such vehicles, and at the top of a steep slope he lost control. He clung on as the pram careered to the bottom, but he could not stop it capsizing and pitching his babies out onto the grass. They were shaken, but quite unhurt, but the shock had been too much for the mother at the top. She went straight back home and, somewhat to her kind landlady’s confusion and astonishment, Patricia Mary was born a few hours later.