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Story: Williams, Matilda Alice

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Williams, Matilda Alice


Methodist deaconess

This biography, written by Ruth Fry, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1996.

Matilda Alice (known as Alice) Jeffrey was born at Alexandra, Victoria, Australia, on 5 January 1875, the fifth child of Ann Scale and her husband, John Jeffrey, a farmer. Growing up in extreme poverty, she absorbed from her parents a devout Methodism which guided her life and work.

Alice Jeffrey trained as a deaconess in Melbourne and worked for the Australian Home Mission Board among the urban poor, alleviating distress caused by unemployment, ill health and drunkenness. In 1900 she was invited to Dunedin, New Zealand, to do similar work for the Trinity Wesleyan Church at their premises in Bath Street. Such pioneering social work paved the way for the founding of the New Zealand Methodist Deaconess Order.

Known in her deaconess work as Sister Olive, Alice Jeffrey was concerned for 'the unchurched outsider'. Seeing the need to have a place of worship where underprivileged women and children could meet, she arranged for Hudson's jam factory to give free use of their dining room for this purpose. Here, and later in Hanover Street, women came to a regular devotional meeting where clothing was distributed. Men were drawn, initially through curiosity, to Sunday evening services with a strong musical content. A sympathetic theological student armed himself with a placard and an empty kerosene tin, and, beating his drum, invited the gangs from street corners to attend.

Many people joined the mission club, where evangelism was combined with benevolence. Jobs were found for the unemployed and assistance was given to unmarried mothers, widows, children of sick mothers and orphans. Sister Olive determined to keep the men away from the streets and hotels. Her methods were considerate: she would see a drunk home at midnight to save him from arrest, and she accompanied and supplied afternoon tea to cricket and football teams from the mission. Criminals found a friend in Sister Olive, who believed they had not had a chance. She was an effective speaker for the temperance cause and held office in the New Zealand Women's Christian Temperance Union. In Dunedin she began a long association with the New Zealand Methodist Young Women's Bible Class Union, and was at various times Otago, Wellington and national president.

On 20 January 1908 at Dunedin 33-year-old Sister Olive married 60-year-old William James Williams, a leading Methodist minister and widower with six sons. It was customary for a deaconess to relinquish her work on marriage, but Alice Williams maintained many of her former interests in the circuits in which they served: Wellington South (1906–9) and Oamaru (1910–13). In 1909 Alice had a son. He was always fragile and died of meningitis in 1924.

In 1925 Alice Williams picked up her career and worked in conjunction with her husband at Deaconess House, Christchurch, where she became lady superintendent while William was the warden. This was her period of greatest influence. Looking beyond the immediate opportunities to a time when the church would make greater use of women's talents, she broadened the training of deaconesses, supported their employment in the Maori mission field and advocated a law change to allow them to officiate at marriages. Her students admired Alice Williams for her intelligence and forward thinking as well as her striking presence and aura of spirituality. Serene and disciplined with a keen sense of humour, she was tall and wore her wavy hair drawn softly into a bun.

In 1932, for her husband's health, they retired to Sumner, then Auckland, where William Williams died in 1936. Alice returned to Australia, and her many letters to fellow workers in New Zealand show her devotion to the Christian mission that characterised her life. On 22 October 1973 she died at Kew, Victoria, aged 98.

How to cite this page:

Ruth Fry. 'Williams, Matilda Alice', Dictionary of New Zealand Biography, first published in 1996. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, https://teara.govt.nz/en/biographies/3w22/williams-matilda-alice (accessed 23 July 2024)