Story: Alexander, Jessie
Presbyterian deaconess and missionary
This biography was written by James Veitch and was first published in the Dictionary of New Zealand BiographyVolume 4, 1998
Jessie Alexander was born probably on 2 June 1876 in Brantford, Ontario, Canada, the daughter of Scottish parents Mary Munro and her husband, William Alexander, a carpenter. The family came to New Zealand a year or so later and lived in Dunedin. Around 1909 they moved to Wairoa, Hawke’s Bay. In 1912 Jessie entered the Presbyterian Women's Training Institute in Dunedin and spent the next two years training as a deaconess. At the General Assembly of 1913 she was ordained deaconess.
The Presbyterian Maori Mission was beginning to expand into new areas and to employ women for missionary work. Jessie Alexander was posted to Nuhaka, 20 miles east of Wairoa. There had been a flourishing Church Missionary Society station there in the early days of European settlement, but since 1884 most Maori had belonged to the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. It took considerable courage to begin missionary work for a new church in the region, but Alexander refused to be daunted.
Her father accompanied her and they initially lived two miles from the township: the kitchen of their home provided the first church. Jessie was joined at the mission in 1914 by Edith Walker, who was ordained deaconess in 1916, and in 1919 by May Gardiner, who was ordained in 1923. An adult Bible class was established and a weekly social club proved popular. During 1917 Jessie had three months’ leave to study the Maori language. She carried out medical work in the community, but from 1918 her sister Lilian, a trained nurse, did much of this. After the 1918 influenza epidemic, Jessie persuaded the Maori Mission Committee to open a small cottage hospital in Nuhaka. Lilian ran the hospital until she married in 1922, although she returned in 1924 for a short time to superintend the work she had begun.
The roads in the area were atrocious; in winter Nuhaka was cut off. Access to Waikaremoana was easier than to Wairoa and the women made the return journey of 106 miles on horseback. They always received a warm welcome from Maori and settlers alike, and in 1921 Jessie and May Gardiner accepted an invitation from Maori to open missionary work there. Money was raised by a young women's group from John Knox Church, Rangiora, to build a cottage for them and they began work on 14 December. Twenty-nine children attended Sunday school on the first Sunday. The local Ringatu were suspicious of the new developments until they realised that the women were preaching the Bible rather than Presbyterianism. They were also impressed by the fact that Alexander and Gardiner always began their visits to the sick with prayer and that the treatments were often successful. Sister Jessie became respected as a healer, and was listened to with mounting interest. She resigned from Waikaremoana in 1923 because of ill health and returned to Wairoa. Throughout her career the financial stringency of the Maori Mission Committee added to the trials of her missions.
In 1925 she moved on to Taupo, but she fell out with the Maori Mission Committee and was replaced in late 1926; she then undertook some relieving work. In 1929 she agreed to pioneer work in Opotiki, becoming the first Protestant missionary to live in the area since the killing of Carl Völkner on 2 March 1865. She began her mission there on 1 July, running activities in the Gospel Temperance Society hall, which was soon purchased and a mission house erected next door. Before long two Sunday schools of 80 and 60 members were established, as well as a day school, and services were held in Opotiki and five Maori settlements. She resigned her posting at the end of 1934 after doing further relieving work, and retired from the Maori Mission in mid 1936.
Jessie Alexander never married. She remained active in retirement, undertaking deputation work for the church in Southland until she again became unwell. In 1937, while recuperating in Honolulu, she worked with the Baptist church. On her return to New Zealand she settled in Auckland, where she established hostels for young Maori looking for work in the city. She was also a founder member of the United Maori Mission, an interdenominational body. For some years she taught Maori at the New Zealand Bible Training Institute and took regular services in Maori. In 1947 she was made an MBE for her services to young Maori. She died in Auckland on 27 March 1962.
Jessie Alexander was a strong-minded, independent woman who was warm-hearted and caring. She developed a close rapport and friendship with many Maori and was highly respected for her pioneering work as a missionary.