Page 1: Biography
Mellish, Edith Mary
Anglican deaconess and nun
This biography, written by Katherine W. Orr, was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography in 1993. It was updated in June, 2017.
Edith Mary Mellish was born at Pailles in the district of Moka, Mauritius, on 10 March 1861. She was the daughter of Edward Mellish, an English banker and businessman, and his wife, Ellen Borrowes, an Irishwoman who died when Edith was a baby. Edith's youth was divided between Mauritius, England and Hong Kong. She was educated by governesses and attended boarding school. In 1864 her father married again, and his second wife, Sarah Waterworth, a former CMS missionary, developed an interest in Anglo-Catholicism which Edith grew to share. Sarah died, and Edward Mellish married Mary Coppin in 1878. After helping with her younger siblings' education, Edith took up parish work, and then followed her vocation at St Andrew's Deaconess Community in London. She was ordained deaconess and admitted to the community on 13 April 1891.
In 1893 Frederick Temple, bishop of London, at the request of Bishop Churchill Julius of Christchurch, New Zealand, chose Edith Mellish to establish a religious community of women in Christchurch. She arrived in New Zealand in late August 1893 and began work with the assistance of probationer deaconesses admitted by Bishop Julius in 1892. New Zealand's first resident Anglican deaconess was five feet two inches tall, with blue eyes, a large mouth, brown hair and a square chin. She had a direct manner, a well-developed sense of humour and a generous and loving nature that attracted others.
Bishop Julius was the community's visitor and a keen supporter of the work of Sister Edith (from 1911 known as Mother Edith). He valued the community for its practical ministry to women in the Christchurch diocese. The sisters moved from St Catherine's Lodge, Gloucester Street, to a house in George Street and then, in 1895, Barbadoes Street. For some years there was also a branch of the community in Timaru.
The sisters undertook rescue work among unmarried women and provided accommodation and assistance at St Mary's Home in Christchurch. The home closed in 1910 after the establishment of a similar government institution. After this, they ran St Saviour's Home for orphaned children at Shirley, and established St Agnes' Hostel for girls at Hokitika. In addition to overseeing these activities, Mother Edith personally cared for vestments and linen at Christchurch cathedral; visited hospital patients and parishioners; gave religious instruction at day schools, Bible classes and her own community; ministered to numerous visitors; and helped with church embroidery. She worked with the Mothers' Union, the Girls' Friendly Society, a mothers' club and a Sunday school teachers' association.
Yet Mother Edith, unlike her bishop, considered these activities to be of secondary importance in the religious life. She maintained that 'The root is the worship and service of God, in prayer meditation and self sacrifice.' She fought to preserve time for contemplation and prayer as the focus of the community, saying, 'Give our Lord time to make love to you.' In intercessory prayer, she emphasised the significance of 'holding those for whom we pray in the Presence of Our Lord'. Through the quiet days and retreats she conducted for those within and beyond the community, she spread the teaching of the Christian mystics.
Mother Edith's emphasis on prayer and her Catholic outlook influenced her guidance of the evolving community, as did the growing misgivings within the Anglican communion over the status of deaconesses. The community's first sisters were all deaconesses or waiting to turn 30, the minimum age for ordination. In 1901, however, the rules were changed to enable women who felt no call to the deaconess office to enter the community. The last sisters who were ordained as deaconesses were admitted to the community in 1914.
Mother Edith struggled with serious ill health from 1914 and this gave added impetus to her efforts to clarify the character of the community. She was considered 'popish' by some Christchurch Anglicans, and Bishop Julius repeatedly tried to discourage Catholic tendencies within the community. As the importance of the deaconess order in the community's life diminished, Mother Edith worked to remodel it along the lines of a traditional religious community. In 1919 she and the other sisters for the first time explicitly took vows of poverty, chastity and obedience.
Edith Mellish died at Christchurch on 25 May 1922. She was a pioneer, struggling to introduce to New Zealand Anglicans the novel concepts of ordained ministry by a woman and the religious life. The name which she first chose for her community, the Community of the Sisters of Bethany, exemplifies the balance of contemplation and action which she sought to promote. In 1912, to avoid duplicating the name of an older English community, it was changed to the Community of the Sacred Name. The community founded by Edith Mellish has endured, a testimony to the success of her endeavours.