April 25, 1926, a young Scottish woman, Molly Shannon, led the ANZAC service that year, at Matawhero, Gisborne, an unusual occurrence in itself. The community knew Molly as the daughter of the Presbyterian manse. On the sudden death of her father, the Rev. James Wigston Shannon earlier that year, she stepped into his shoes to lead Sunday worship over a number of months. Described as vivacious with a generous and friendly personality, she had the ability to capture the attention of her listeners. Acknowledging her lack of a personal connection with ‘that strip of beach, of those sharp, scrub-covered hill spurs,’ of Gallipoli, did not hinder in any way the message she aimed for that ANZAC day. Molly Shannon chose to take her listeners on a personal journey into war-time France. Her international sympathies no doubt surprised many as she focussed on two powerful truths she gained over the war years: ‘The Truth of the Brotherhood of Mankind” as she expressed it, and the need for world peace in Jesus Christ.
Her sojourn into East Prussia while attending the University at Konigsberg during 1914, was where she first recognised how a common fear between nations could both unite and divide. Her friends and their families in Konigsberg, including many church members, likewise ‘feared the consequences of the rise of the many material gods around them, the sad loss of the country’s focus on the love of God’ and the blackening war-clouds they ‘prayed would never come’. These concerns similarly expressed in her own home country and frequently debated in her United Free Church of Scotland meetings, along with the disturbing media reports, reinforced the Shannon family’s long held pacifist views. ‘We want to remember,’ she told the Matawhero gathering, ‘that there were those in Germany who thought this way. It helps us to realise more deeply the senseless tragedy of the War.’
The family were deeply challenged, however, when Alastair, Molly’s brother volunteered immediately; first joining the 9th Royal Scots and later as 2nd Lieutenant of the 1st Highlight Light Infantry. He was captured by the Turks at the Seige of Kut in April 1916, was reported missing, but survived a nightmarish two years as a POW, including a ‘death-march’ across 1100 kilometres of desert and mountains. Eventually learning of her brother’s captivity Molly struggled with how best to support the British soldiers in war-torn Europe. An opening came in early 1917. She offered to assist at the Scottish Churches War Huts at the Labour Camp in Audrinsg and later at the engineering camp in Beaurainville, Northern France. This, a significant roll of support for the young soldiers away from home, where solace and comfort could be found, provided Molly with a means to contribute to the war effort without affecting her pacifist stance. At the same time Molly fulfilled a sense of ‘Call’ to bring a gospel message that could meet the soldiers ideals in supporting ‘a new world’ post-war. ‘The huts’, Molly explained, ‘radiate[d] a spirit of brotherly love and good cheer’. They were a symbol of ‘God’s enduring love and care… to make [the soldiers] rough places smooth.’ Near by the Beaurainville Camp was a German POW Camp. Compassion filled Molly daily as the German POW’s walked past their Hut, their eyes and bodies carried the same desperation, loss, and an inner hunger she was aware of among many soldiers at the Huts. ‘Where friends and enemies are bound together in the one bundle of life, she told the ANZAC congregation, ‘East and West suffer together’.
Prayer became more difficult, Molly confessed, as the war became more personal. ‘I could not pray for the safety of those whom I loved, apart from the safety of all the men who were fighting in great danger… yes even the enemy, they were as precious to their women as mine were to us…’. The struggle for Molly was to ensure her prayer life reflected an equal ‘earnestness for all men engaged in that awful conflict…’ As a Christian pacifist she reinforced the message to her listeners that all men and women owed it to each other to carry the burden of the consequences of ‘the sin of war’ and to bravely recognise and accept the universality of all peoples, or to use her expression, ‘The Brotherhood of Mankind’.
In concluding her address Molly’s words reflect the consequences of international conflicts continuing into the twenty-first century.
An injustice done even to a small nation will bear evil fruit in the life of all nations; one nation cannot be degraded & damaged or deal degradation & damage without world-wide results which all [people] must bear; on the other hand no nation can set itself to deal justly, to love mercy & to walk humbly with God without uplifting all the peoples of the earth…It is righteousness alone that exalteth the nations…and let us remember that Jesus Christ is our righteousness.
Molly Shannon married the Rev. Alan Whitelaw in 1930. She carried on her ministry in New Zealand at Te Awamutu, Blenheim and Johnsonville, and among the women of the Church both in New Zealand and overseas. Her war experiences saw her offer extensive assistance to the American soldiers, based at Woodbourne during World War Two, opening their home at all hours of the day, during their ministry in Blenheim. Towards the end of the World War 2 she compiled a popular booklet, When the Boys Come Home? on the care of the returning soldier and his family, which received wide acclaim within New Zealand.
The theme of this window is that of a young helmeted soldier in uniform offering himself at the feet of the Master, the inscription reading, “On holy mountains out of the lap of the dawn, the dew of Thy young soldiery offers itself to Thee“.
Of the 119 Church members on the Roslyn Presbyterian Church “Great War” Roll of Honour, 19 made the supreme sacrifice for King and Country, being commemorated by an attractive marble slab placed beneath the window. (See http://www.archives.presbyterian.org.nz/photogallery14/page1.htm)