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Sowing seeds in a barren land

Captains Thelma Leech (left) and Olive Devlin, who endured numerous hardships to establish the work of The Salvation Army at Mt Isa.
Captains Thelma Leech (left) and Olive Devlin, who endured numerous hardships to establish the work of The Salvation Army at Mt Isa.


There are always mixed feelings at change-of-appointment time for Salvation Army officers. Some are excited at the prospect of a new appointment that matches their calling, while others are left a little uncertain about taking up a role that would appear removed from their God-given passions. However, we can learn from our history that God can use us anywhere, even if the soil seems hard and rocky.

Consider Captain Thelma Leech and her assistant, Captain Olive Devlin, who were appointed to begin the work of The Salvation Army at Mt Isa in 1936. In their case, the ground really was rocky – shale, in fact. So sharp that it regularly ripped their shoes to pieces.

Despite facing resistance not just from the secular townsfolk but within their own ranks (“Div. H.Q thought mere women could not do it alone,” Captain Devlin later wrote of the male officer sent to “help them”), the two captains tore through who knows how many pairs of shoes doorknocking every home in the town before the official opening.

Living in ‘The Shack’, as they called it (a one-room, earthen floor, square box made from flattened-out water tanks with galvanised iron walls), they got used to the resident tree snakes and cooking on a fuel stove. Meetings were held in the Country Women’s Hall after the regular Saturday night dance. “On Sunday mornings, we would sweep out the hall,” remembered Olive Devlin in 2000, “[but]we could not eradicate the beer smell!” After Sunday school, open-air meetings and the like, they would trudge back along the narrow track to ‘The Shack’ on Tipperary Flats without so much as a candle to light their way. “The Captain would go first single file, and the Assistant would follow – if she struck the stump in the dark, the one behind would know to dodge it!”

“Groundwork was done – Sunday School and meetings and open-airs held, house and hospital visitation, Gospel preached, seeds sown – a few faithful soldiers. If no great results were shown, at least seeds were sown,” Captain Devlin wrote many years later. Indeed, those ‘results’ seemed non-existent. Salvation Army officer, author and historian Lily K. Sampson, in a book that mentioned the opening of Mt Isa Corps, noted that no souls were recorded in the first year. Yet years later, Captain Leech wrote that she had received a letter from a woman who was a soldier at Mt Isa in 1936. The woman described attending a meeting at Hermit Park in Townsville where two bandsmen testified that they had been converted at an open-air meeting in Mt Isa in that first year yet were too shy to go into the [open-air] ring so knelt beside their truck.

What a thrill to receive such a letter! After such toil and hardship, Captains Leech and Devlin received validation that their labours, conducted in such challenging circumstances, were not in vain.

The story of The Salvation Army’s early days at Mt Isa is a reminder that no matter the circumstances we find ourselves in, we can trust that “... in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose” (Romans 8:28). As Captain Devlin wrote: “If no great results shown, at least seeds were sown.”

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