The Woman Who Changed The Lives Of Many Fijian Women
The woman, who together with her sisters devoted their lives to uplifting girls’ education standards in Fiji, has died aged 102.
Australian missionary and teacher, Phoebe Mills, affectionately known as Miss Mills, passed away at a nursing home in Brisbane on September 2.
She was cared for by her brother’s (Alfred) daughter, Claire, until she became so frail she had to be moved to a care facility.
A memorial service was held at the Wesley City Mission Church in Butt Street, Suva on Thursday night.
Miss Mills’ journey began in 1938 after she graduated with a Bachelor of Arts degree, at only 18-years-old, from the University of Queensland.
Her father, Reverend Alfred Mills was a Methodist Church minister. Such was the dedication of the family that all three of his daughters never married but instead devoted their lives to the work of God.
Her brother, the youngest, was the only one of the siblings who had children before he contracted polio during the epidemic in the early 1950s before he died.
It is a known fact that the Methodist Church of Australia contributed immensely to our education system here.
And such was the work of the church to deploy new graduates to spread the word of God and also to bring education where at a time, could only be attained by a few.
According to a short biography produced for the memorial service, Miss Phoebe first arrived as Ballantine Memorial School’s teacher and she eventually became principal from 1950 to1966.
She worked under Miss Tolley, her predecessor, until World War II in Europe broke out and the Government took over the school site. As a result BMS was restated at Delainavesi in 1940.
The biography said: “During the period of the school relocation, Miss Mills accompanied the senior girls to Matavelo, Nailaga in Ba to await the building of the new school premises, the first boarding school for Fijian girls.
“Matavelo was one of the first Methodist schools established in 1899 for girls.”
In 1941, they returned to Suva where Miss Mills at the time was quoted: “Love made light of the formidable task of establishing the new school and teacher trained under Miss Tolley and Miss Griffin of Dudley.”
It was not until after three decades of her arrival here that her younger sister, Mary, came to assist her in her work and as well as offer assistance with her an issue to her eyesight which she had developed.
This was a problem which affected her significantly later in life but despite this did not dampen or lessen her love, commitment and passion for her work.
Also significant was in 1971, Elizabeth Avery (also known as Betsy), the youngest of the three sisters, came to Fiji and joined in the same passion.
Following her stint in BMS, Miss Mills also taught English at Dudley High School.
A fellow colleague, who was also at Dudley High School and now in Canada recalled her memories with the late Miss Mills.
Linda Mangubhai said: “I was unfortunate to be given the space next to her in the staff room. Unfortunate in that the length of her desk space was less than the height of books and papers and there was a constant danger of her books and papers crashing onto my side.”
“You never mess with Miss Mills and the students knew this too.
She described her as “an incredibly forceful woman. She would walk to Dudley everyday in her flip flops, quite a distance in the Suva heat but she was never so silly as to not accept lifts when offered.
“Her lunch was a meagre – cheese with a little piece of fruit, and she would eat the mould on the cheese and pips of the fruit. She only ever drank water.
“She would have been 63 when I started at Dudley and despite her already long-teaching service she was open to modern ideas.
“We would talk about the standard of English of the students and she knew that all teachers were teachers of English. I would give her passages of science and she would use them for English comprehension.
“There was nothing meek about Miss Mills, she was very fair. She treated all the Dudley students, equally, boys and girls, Fijian, Indian (Indo-Fijian), Muslim Christian.
“She was a good teacher; she was a good person. We loved her dearly and are better for knowing her.”
The other Ms Mills (Betsy), was said to be the most light-hearted of the three.
Ms Mangubhai said of her: “She gave piano lessons after school. We would always fight our way through the greenery outside and then the piles of papers on every surface inside the house to join the line of students. There was always guava jelly in the making on the stove.”
Of the younger sister, Mary, she was the head of BMS Mathematics department. In the school magazine she made it a point writing: “In Fiji Junior, a mark of at least 30 per cent in mathematics is essential if students are to continue their education and return to school for Fifth Form work.
“This fact alone makes it important that each student in the school be encouraged to do the best work all the time.
“A pass in mathematics is like a key which will open a door of a worthwhile career to many girls. Much of the difficulty which students face in this subject stems from the fact that the syllabus is not sufficiently related to their interest or to the demands in the present or future.
“Some topics are included only because of their future value to mathematics students at the university and have little relevance to the present or future lives of 99 per cent of our students.”
And such was their contribution to our education that many in the biography have written excerpts of their encounter with the Mills sisters and how they helped shaped their lives more had they not met them.
Will Guthrie, a close confidant of Miss Mills said in his tribute: “You left an endearing and enduring impression on me as well as anyone who took the trouble to know you.
“May you continue filling your time in the next life as you did in this one – to the betterment of others.”
Of the other two sisters, Mary died following several years of senility and Betsy succumbed a few years later to chronic emphysema.
Both were cremated under Miss Mills supervision when she arranged a cremation at the then cremation in Vatuwaqa Cemetary.
After 65 years of service to the nation she had become so fond of, Ms Mills, who over the years had become fluent in the Bauan dialect and developed a lifetime friendship with the those she worked with and those whom she had acquaintance with, finally returned to Australia in 2003.
But it was no ordinary return as Mr Guthrie recalled the time when the new owners were to move into their home at the corner of Richards Road and Duncan Road.
“To the outsider, their house in Suva was chaotic. The lounge was filled with cartons containing books and item, which others might have thrown out, but Phoebe saw it could be useful to others who were in greater need.”
But when the time came to leave, she single-handedly cleared out everything, he added.
Excerpts of this extraordinary woman were shared among those who knew her and visited her in Australia after her return, are many.
The Wesley City Mission Church was central to the lives of the Mills siters.
They were the pillars of their home in the different ministries such as Sunday School, Life Line Ministry, the library, the Women’s Guild and the pastoral care.
Ms Mills lived her faith by action. As a student in BMS, Mere Lako said: “Miss Phoebe was a woman who rarely talked about Jesus but lived Jesus through her work.
“She was a disciplinarian, an economist, an environmentalist, and had a passion for the expansion of young Fijian women in Fiji.”
Edited by Maraia Vula