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Jean E. Olsen 1933-2020

October 1, 2020

These Are The Days That I Still Remember’: Jean E. Olsen, ABM Missionary North Queensland and Papua New Guinea 1959-1968

On behalf of the Anglican Board of Mission I offer this precis in appreciation of Jean Olsen (18th May 1933 – 9th August 2020) and to record something of her life and witness to Christ. 


Jean’s missionary service was spent during what proved to be one of the great ABM decades; and which in hindsight were known to be a time of significant change in mission. Australian missionaries in significant numbers were sent directly to many countries by the ABM. The ABM Review for December 1961-January 1962 invited prayer for its missionary teachers and scholars in New Guinea and named thirteen single women, including Jean, six married women, two laymen, three clergy plus members of an Anglican religious order for women, the Community of the Holy Name.

Jean was a faithful and committed member of that generation of young Anglicans who found that PNG was the place to which Christ led them in a core vocation; expressed through the ABM and the Church of England in Australia.

From the Eulogies given at Jean’s funeral we know that she experienced a personal sense of call to mission at age fifteen. Information in her poetry book, Do you see what I see? tells us that at age seventeen she moved with her family to Broken Hill and completed three years of a four year general nursing course. Her need for spinal surgery intervened as it did again in later life. Returning to Sydney, Jean was immersed in the life of the ABM and gained her Teacher’s Certificate, and theological and preparatory mission training. Her studies were completed at the University of Sydney and in the ABM residential training centre in Stanmore, the House of the Epiphany. 

Jean served at Yarrabah, the Aboriginal mission in North Queensland, until it was handed over to the government of the day on 1st July 1960. The eulogies for Jean contained accounts of her commitment to the wellbeing and inclusion of the Yarrabah children, ensuring their full participation in the schools’ sports carnivals in Cairns. The late Bishop Robert Butterss noted in his foreword to Do you see what I see? that it was after Jean’s missionary service at Yarrabah that he and his wife Margaret met her at the House of the Epiphany in Stanmore. Each was preparing for service in New Guinea.

Jean became Head teacher at the Church of the Resurrection School at Popondetta (1960-1966).  She had responsibility for three hundred students and was also the senior medical officer. She had a supervisory role for ten mission outstations. Photographs screened at her funeral service show some of the long treks she made through rugged terrain to reach them. Popondetta is the capital of the Oro Province in northern PNG and was the centre for relief activities that followed the catastrophic Mount Lamington eruption of 1951 in which a generation of PNG church leaders and some 3000 people lost their lives. Jean arrived in 1960, fifteen years after the local military conflicts of World War II, and nine years after the Mount Lamington catastrophe.

An account of some of Jean’s work can be found in the ABM publication, Missionary Memories (2011).  This includes a description of a journey she made on-foot to the then new outstation at Umbovora in the Managalas Mountains. Current web searches for the Managalas disclose a decades-long effort to preserve rain forests and traditional land ownership against foreign ownership and logging and palm oil interests.

One of her treasured stories was how, through her nursing knowledge, she had saved a young lad’s life when she diagnosed him with meningitis and insisted that he be flown out to the nearest hospital. After Popondetta, Jean moved to Dogura where she lived and worked until 1968 when she returned to Australia.

Jeans House

By the early 1960s, Canon Frank Coaldrake, chairman of the board of ABM since 1956, was already preparing the ABM for the coming of independence to Papua and New Guinea. The drive to independence was part of the aftermath of World War II and the British Empire would no longer be the matrix for all things Anglican. Positive forms of national identity began to replace imperial forms of government.

The Anglican tradition in PNG had been forming and creating fully local ministries since at least the 1930s. However, tragically, Wikipedia tells us succinctly: ‘Post-war recovery was hindered by the eruption on 21 January 1951 of Mount Lamington, which devastated Higatura, which contained the Martyrs’ School and the main mission centre, where a diocesan synod was in progress – both were destroyed – and Sangara, the Northern District Headquarters, where everyone was killed.’ The Anglican Church of Papua New Guinea became autonomous in 1976 with the Province of Papua New Guinea becoming independent from the Province of Queensland.

After Jean returned to Australia, she used her skills in teaching English to migrant children in an inner-city school at Camperdown and eventually developed her life and career in the nursing field at the University of Technology Sydney. She then enjoyed a rich and full life beyond retirement; staying in connection with the ABM. She received an ABM Coaldrake Award in acknowledgement of her years as a missionary. Jean supported the ongoing work of ABM, making regular gifts to its work until April of 2020.

Jean published a volume of poetry in 2005: Do You See What I See? It contains these lines in the poem; Celebration – Papua New Guinea.

After the service on these festival days / dancing on the debadeba would take place./ Women joined in, wearing tapa cloth wraps;/ bodies adorned with ornament and paint./  Babies were in string bags that hung from the head/ which added to the splendour of the dance./ Drums were held both high and low/ beating the rhythm for all to keep./ Later in the day a celebration meal was served./ Everyone sat on banana leaves which made a mat./ Food was shared with all who were there;/ waited on by women who passed it around./ These are the days that I still remember/ of celebrating festivals in Papua New Guinea.

Jean was an ABM missionary in a decade when new forms of mission were emerging, which the ABM has continued to develop into the 2020s. We make this record in appreciation of her fidelity and service.

Rev’d Canon Dr Ivan Head
Gifts in Wills Officer ABM September 2020  
0439 625 196