Helen Roseveare was a missionary to the Belgian Congo in Africa, later named Zaire, from 1953-1973. I first became aware of her through Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God by Noel Piper several years ago. I wanted to read more about her, so when I saw Helen Roseveare: On His Majesty’s Service by Irene Howat on sale for the Kindle app, I decided to try it, even though it was part of the Trailblazer series of biographies for children.
The first few chapters deal with Helen’s childhood in England: terrorizing nannies with her brother, moving several times due to her father’s job, going to boarding school in Wales. She had a strong desire to be first and best at as much as she could, and she didn’t make friends very easily. In a Sunday School class, she decided she wanted to be a missionary even before she became a Christian. Confirmation classes in her church caused her to take a more serious look at herself, but it was in a camp some years later that she became a believer. She became quite conscientious.
As a teenager during WWII, Helen wrestled with the devastation and unfairness of it all, especially the unfitness of young people losing their lives. Once when a German plane was shot down, Helen was horrified to learn that her mother was among the people trying to save the young man, though he later died. Her mother explained that he was just a boy fighting for his country, like their boys, and had a home and family.
Helen became involved in helping at camps and the GCU (Girl Crusader’s Union) while in college. She never lost her desire to be a missionary doctor, and soon after college she went through missionary training and then went to the Congo. She was plunged into medical service right away. From her earliest days she felt the need to train the national workers and open a nursing school. She had to set up a hospital from the ground up, with students and church members and even patients helping.
But civil unrest was rumbling in the distance and drawing ever closer. Helen had opportunity to leave many times, but she felt she should remain. Finally rebel soldiers did take over Helen’s area. Probably because this is a children’s book, the author did not go into much detail or mention the multiple rapes Helen endured. She sums it up this way:
Things too terrible to tell happened to her at the hands of Congolese rebel soldiers, things so horrible and shocking that she wished she were dead. In a way that we cannot understand they were part of God’s plan for her and she knew that, even at the time. With her body battered and broken and her back teeth kicked out, Helen survived when others did not. But she survived to endure further months of terror.
After several months of captivity and cruelty, Helen and a few others were released and sent back to England for a long recovery.
After fifteen months, went back to Africa, to Zaire, building more hospitals and training more medical workers.
When Helen went back to England years later, she stayed active speaking at schools, GCU gatherings, and churches. When someone wanted to make a film of her life, she traveled back to a warm welcome in Zaire and was thrilled to see how the work was progressing.
One of the most well-known stories of her life was one I had heard but didn’t realize happened to Helen until I read it in Faithful Women and Their Extraordinary God. It’s told in detail here. A woman had come to the hospital in labor with a premature baby. They could not save the woman, but the baby was safely delivered. Yet they had no way to keep the baby warm: they usually used hot water bottles, but were out. The baby also had a two-year-old sister. When Helen had prayer with the orphan children the next day, she told them of the little girl and baby and the need for hot water bottles. One ten-year-old girl named Ruth began to spontaneously pray:
God, please send a hot water bottle so that this little baby doesn’t die. And, God, it will be no use sending it tomorrow because we need it today. And, God, while you’re at it, will you send a dolly for the baby’s sister who is crying because her mummy has died.
Helen “didn’t think the Lord could do that.” But that very afternoon a truck delivered a parcel containing soap, bandages, babe sweaters…and a hot water bottle and a doll! Helen tells this story here:
Since this book was published in 2008, it doesn’t contain information about Helen’s death in 2016 at the age of 91. Zaire is now known as the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
The writing in this book is not the best: it’s a little choppy, with several odd scenes involving unnamed people that I think were made up in an effort to illustrate something in Helen’s life. But It’s still a good book overall, with a good overview of Helen’s life.
(Sharing with Semicolon‘s Saturday Review of Books, Literary Musing Monday, Carole’s Books You Loved)