BY PAULA DE LA FUENTE STRANGER
The Araucanian Mission, established in 1895, was a missionary enterprise founded by the South American Missionary Society (SAMS). The mission worked among the Mapuche people, the original inhabitants of the Araucania region in southern Chile.
Beatrice Maud Bedwell was a female missionary in Araucania from 1947 to 1981. From her arrival until 1960 she was established in Cholchol, working directly with the Mapuche people. You probably won’t have heard or read about her. She wasn’t like David Livingstone, Allen Gardiner or Barbrooke Grubb (the “Livingstone of South America”), or any other missionary “heroes”. Neither was she like Miss Dorothy O Royce or Miss Kathleen George, two outstanding missionary women who left a mark in the Araucanian Mission.
Maud was more of a supporting character. The main issue with “supporting characters” – the quotes are intentional – in missionary history is that they were (and are) as fundamental as the heroes. Probably the best example is missionary women.
For many years, women were considered to have a supporting role in missions rather than a role of their own. Although, if we pay attention to the history of modern missions around the world, we must acknowledge that there were always women in Protestant missions. Even though missionary efforts were considered a male activity rather than something proper for women, from the outset missionary societies hired married men to send overseas. Thus, as wives, daughters and siblings of the missionary men, women arrived at missions overseas and did an enormous amount of work in the field. At that time, their work was not fully recognised, went unpaid and, actually, those women were not considered as missionaries by the societies at home.
During the nineteenth century, things began to change. In 1834 the Society for Promoting Female Education in the East was founded in England. From then onwards single women were appointed to missionary work. The number of women who were missionaries in their own right grew sharply during the second half of the century. By the twentieth century, the majority of white British missionaries sent abroad were women.
The Araucanian Mission, as part of a global phenomenon, was no exception and had seen remarkable female missionaries during its history. When it first started in 1895, it counted among its staff only Mrs Sadleir and Mrs Walker, the wives of Rev CA Sadleir, the first Superintendent of the Mission, and Mr PJR Walker. By the time Maud arrived in Araucania in 1947, there were 32 people working at the Mission of whom 15 were foreign workers. Among them, 11 were women! It is interesting to note that one of them, Miss Alice Wetherell, was appointed to Araucania in 1904. She died in Chile in 1961. Even though she retired, she was involved with missionary work until the very end of her life. I mention Miss Wetherell because she is an example of a peculiar characteristic of missionary single women: their stays in the mission fields were quite long, hence they gave continuity to missionary work.
Despite the overwhelming female presence, if you were to look at the history of the Araucanian Mission it is most likely that you would find some material about Rev CA Sadleir and his remarkable translation of the gospel message to Mapudungun (the Mapuche language), rather than accounts of the lives and achievements of these women. Sadly, anthropologists and historians who study missionary history still tend to forget the female dimension of the missionary efforts, hence these women remain invisible.
Another interesting fact about the “supporting characters” – who we know were fundamental – is that they didn’t carry out the fancy or outstanding work such as explorations of unknown lands or the translation of the gospel into native languages. They did the humble parts of missionary work, such as teaching children, nursing the sick, working with the women, house-visiting in the countryside, etc. They worked, and this is an important point to highlight, precisely among the most marginalised subjects: the Mapuche girls and women.
Maud, for example, had no special qualifications when she started her missionary work – her “dream come true” as she described it in her memoirs. Nevertheless, she undertook several tasks in the mission field. She started assisting Miss Dorothy O Royce in her medical work: together they began the “Baby Clinic” which intended to teach mothers in order to improve the health of their babies. After that, she was appointed as matron of the girls boarding school in Cholchol, so she took care of the Mapuche pupils there. She did the ordinary work in the mission field which made it possible for the mission to continue.
Another remarkable thing about Maud is that she kept records of her stay in Araucania: diaries, photographs with captions, letters, books, etc., in which she wrote about the mission, the missionary women and the Mapuche girls and women. Her extraordinary collection is preserved in the Church Mission Society archives.
In Maud’s time and earlier, many things that now we would consider discriminatory to women were the norm, such as not acknowledging that the wives were also missionaries. These cultural frameworks ensured that missionary women, and the women with whom they worked, remained in the background. We cannot change the past. However, it is possible to do something about their invisible status.
Maud and the other missionary women, just like the Mapuche girls and women among whom they worked, could be easily forgotten if we continue writing history the same as always. But a full understanding of the missionary phenomenon would be incomplete if we disregard the supporting characters, such as women. This is also true if we continue to study only one side of the story (which has generally been that of the missionaries).
Maud, and her archive collection, might allow us to write a different and more inclusive story, one that makes the invisible visible and showcases the extraordinary that is found in the ordinary.
Questions to consider
- Women were the first witnesses to the resurrection of Jesus. (Matthew 28:1–10 / Mark 16:9–11 / Luke 23:55 – 24:12 / John 20:11–18). How might their experiences be a gift and challenge to us in mission today?
- The women of the Araucanian Mission worked with the Mapuche girls and women – the “most marginalized” people in that setting. Who might be the forgotten or excluded people in our mission contexts, and how might we be missionaries to them today?
- Single women appear to have remained longer in mission contexts than their male or married counterparts. If long-term commitment is helpful in a particular context, how can we make that possible?
- Who might be the unrecognised, disregarded “supporting characters” in mission today? How can we bring them to visibility?
- Imagine hearing from the Mapuche women and girls with whom Maud and her colleagues worked. In the light of their experience, what might their message be to us now?
- Imagine being able to host Maud in your church or small group. What might be her challenge to us? How might she be happily surprised by what she discovers?
Paula de la Fuente Stranger is a PhD Candidate in History in Pontificia Universidad Católica de Chile.