Jane Holden Thompson was born in Auckland on 15 April 1897, the daughter of Leonora Jane Howie and her husband, Joseph Thompson, a builder. Her parents were both active members of the Auckland City Corps of the Salvation Army, her mother being one of the early converts when the Army ‘opened fire’ in Auckland in April 1883. Janie, as she was always known, made a Christian commitment at the age of 15.
After attending Auckland Girls’ Grammar School, she worked as a shop assistant, then briefly as a shorthand typist. On 8 February 1917 she entered the Salvation Army Training College in Aro Street, Wellington. On her commissioning as a Salvation Army officer, on 27 July 1917, she was appointed to a secretarial position at Wellington divisional headquarters. This was a disappointment to Janie, as she felt called to corps (pastoral) ministry.
Corps appointments followed, however, at Cambridge, Tauranga, Te Aroha and Paeroa, before her marriage in Auckland on 2 January 1924 to Wilfred Searle, who like Janie was a captain in the Salvation Army. Together the couple held corps appointments at Hawera, Petone, Paeroa, Greymouth, Linwood, Waimate, Sydenham, Palmerston North and Napier. During the Second World War Janie took command of the Miramar Corps for a year (May 1940 to June 1941) while her husband served as a military chaplain, based at Fort Dorset, Wellington. Janie’s natural gifts as a public speaker were developed during her years of corps ministry. She also worked hard on behalf of women, both in the corps and in the wider community.
Between 1941 and 1965 Wilfred Searle was the Salvation Army’s public relations officer in Christchurch and then Auckland, and trade manager and property secretary at territorial headquarters, Wellington. Throughout this time Janie Searle continued her public ministry, and especially her work with women. With Doreen Warren, the wife of the Anglican dean of Christchurch, she founded the Women’s Committee of the National Council of Churches in New Zealand and she was the first woman to preach in the chapel at Christ’s College, Christchurch. Representing the Salvation Army, she served on the Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington branches of the National Council of Women of New Zealand and in 1958, by then a lieutenant colonel, she became the first Salvation Army woman to be elected dominion president of the council. During her four-year presidency, she represented the NCW on the Standards Council, the CORSO executive and the Council for Equal Pay and Opportunity, and she was keenly interested in the work of the Pan-Pacific and South-East Asia Women’s Association.
In 1960 Janie Searle represented New Zealand at the International Council of Women conference in Istanbul, the theme being ‘The woman and the family in a changing world’. She was elected to the ICW board as a vice president, and while overseas visited NCW branches in Canada, New York and England. She also saw the work of the Salvation Army in various countries and on her return spoke of her experiences to audiences throughout New Zealand.
During these years she had also served within the Salvation Army as divisional home league secretary in Christchurch, Auckland and Wellington, and in 1959 she was appointed territorial home league secretary, with direct responsibility for the programme of all the home leagues (women’s organisations) in New Zealand. In these positions she strongly encouraged the support of New Zealand missionaries serving overseas.
Janie and Wilfred Searle retired from active service in 1965. Janie died in Auckland on 23 October 1969, survived by her husband and two daughters. She was known throughout the Salvation Army as a gifted public speaker and preacher. In her parallel ministries within the Salvation Army and the National Council of Women, she used both her platform ability and her fine administrative skills to champion the cause of women.