Woman of the month is a column provided by Baptist Women New Zealand. More articles, resources and event information can be found at women.baptist.nz

Claire Gilbert Hart, commencing in the mid-1950s, ministered in the Baptist scene and Baptist churches to such a level she became a trailblazer in both social work and church ministry. 

When Claire Gilbert was inducted by Rev Roland Hart (of whom more later) at Oxford Terrace Baptist Church, Christchurch, in February 1957 as a ‘Pastoral Deaconess’, it was a ‘first’ for New Zealand. NZ Baptist commented, ‘This appointment has aroused widespread interest in Christchurch—more than could have been anticipated— and is an indication of the importance of this new denominational venture.’ No other Baptist church in NZ had a Deaconess.[1]

The position worked well. The church noted in 1958: ‘An item of particular interest concerned our deaconess, Sister Claire Gilbert, who has now completed her first year of service with us. ‘The deaconess’s work is of great assistance to the minister, who values her service most highly.’[2]

Claire’s tasks as a Deaconess included a week of programmes for 150 children in school holidays, solos and song-leading, and frequent visits as speaker to other churches for Sunday School Anniversary services, to tell about the Māori work she had been part of in Northland, or to tell in churches about her role as a Deaconess. The Greendale minister, Rev DC Moore, commented (1957) that he believed Claire’s morning and afternoon services were ‘the very first time that a woman had preached at anniversary services at Greendale’ and at the opening of a Sunday School Hall.

Beginnings

Claire was born 30 September 1926, the third of three sisters and a younger brother. Her father, at that time Baptist minister in Waihi, took the family later to Fielding, where there was the modelling of two women deacons. Claire believed this was a big influence on her.

Then Fielding. The church, unusually for the time, had two women deacons. Claire saw them as a great influence on her. ‘I grew up thinking, “girls could do anything”, long before it was a popular idea.’[3] Next, the family were in isolated Owaka in the Caitlins, and then Dunedin as World War II started. Claire completed primary school, took piano lessons and attended Otago Girls’ High School from 1940. That same year Claire’s father became ill and died. She found Mornington Baptist Church an anchor, supplemented by Bible Class camps (where she won a first prize in singing) and then by Scripture Union Crusader camps. After one of these, her loved mentor criticised Claire’s performance as a junior leader as bossy and inconsiderate. She accepted the rebuke and worked to change. Later camp leaders asked her to be a junior leader and to lead singing, making camps an important training ground for her.

Training and UMM

Next came teacher training, 1944-45, spiritual growth in the evangelical union and its conferences and helping with children’s beach missions. During this, Claire prayed that she would find the right man as a partner in life or that if God wanted her to stay single she ‘would have the grace for that’. This became a significant thought. She read the verse, ‘You are complete in him’ (Col.2:10). She considered how the common thinking said a woman became complete with marriage and children and decided that for herself the spiritual dimension would give completeness and she could be satisfied without marriage.[4]

Teaching began in with Primer 3 class at Mornington. Claire learned to hold her patience and not let her hot temper take over. Then in 1947-49 her country service was in isolated Tahakopa in the Caitlins.

Claire took her desire to serve God with her for the next two years as she trained at NZ Bible Training Institute in Auckland. She had tried to save money for this, but needed more and was thrilled to receive money in an uncle’s will. She did well, coming top in theology in her first term, ‘to the fury of some of the degree men who were somewhat insulted that a girl should beat them in that subject.’[5]

She was friendly with a young man heading for mission and they planned missionary work together. But she failed to pass the health requirement of the mission society. She had had two nasty falls, and suffered from migraines. After her missionary plan fell through, unwell and unhappy, she terminated the friendship with the young man. For one year, 1952, Claire worked for the Baptist church plant at Owairaka, under the Mt Albert church. The church was run by male deacons who would not have her at their meetings, since she was a woman, even though she was their only paid worker. She still worked the best she could under these circumstances.

In her next step, Claire joined United Māori Mission and moved to Kaikohe for a year and then Kaitaia. She got on well with fellow women workers doing Bible-in-Schools and Sunday Schools but struggled in some areas and became rundown in health.

Photo below: Claire, when matron of Manurewa Children’s Home, with Miss Ruth Yarrall, Assistant Matron, 1967

Deaconess, 1957-1961

Invited to be a deaconess at Oxford Terrace church in Christchurch, Claire and five others were interviewed at the Baptist Assembly. Three were accepted. They were a new venture. The Assembly decided to call them Sisters and they would wear a uniform, which pleased Claire. Her salary was a bump up from the 12 pounds 10 shillings a fortnight and the 12 pounds 10 shillings a month at UMM. She was delighted to receive 20 pounds a fortnight. The work varied—sing in the choir, teach a girls’ Bible Class and help in youth group, women’s fellowship, Bible class executive, missionary meeting, Canterbury Association, attend funerals and home visits, hospital visiting and children’s outreach services in school holidays requiring much creativity. Claire thrived, even with new tasks to learn. She felt satisfied with the work, got on well with people and had no migraine headaches.

At the same time, Claire had also done initial assignments for Baptist College for Deaconess Training delayed for two years and done in 1959. There were still surprises. Claire was asked at breakfast one day to give her class sermon that morning. She hurriedly prepared and delivered something for which at least one of the men said ‘it was the best we have had all year’.

However, the Principal said her verses, Philippians 4:6-7, were about prayer and not about life depending on God. He went on, ‘Of course this brings up the subject of women preaching and the effect of the female body standing in front of men, which was very distracting…’ Claire slid low in her chair and then bolted to her room in deep embarrassment. He harangued her the next and other days too, with further controlling words. She felt even worse, later, when there were questions about her returning to Oxford Terrace, as they were unsure how to find the money to pay her. Some stood strongly in support of Claire. One praised her for ‘many outstanding qualities and dedicated service.’[6] Nevertheless, a normally quiet man said, ‘Women were meant to be loved, not listened to!’[7]

Claire did return, now an accredited deaconess. But before long, while visiting her mother in Dunedin, she became seriously unwell with a mastoid, and she nearly lost her life. After sick leave, she returned to Oxford Terrace with her confidence battered – from the Baptist college experiences and the ill health. One comfort was her new dog, a corgi, called Julie.

Due to neither the younger nor older girls’ Bible classes working out, she was suddenly given the large all-Age Sunday School to run. This was unprecedented for a woman at that time. It was indeed a challenge and she loved it. There were 80 staff and 700 members. It placed her, as its General Superintendent, on the deacon’s court. This was unprecedented at Oxford Terrace, and very rare at other churches at the time. Claire worked hard at finding and training staff.

Opportunities to lead recurred through 1960: song items, children’s talks at special services, ladies’ fellowships, speaking for BWMU. Along with two other women and six men, Claire graduated at Baptist Assembly in 1960.

But she still felt run-down and hardly coping. She resigned, even though she suspected her boss Roland Hart would be very upset.

Manurewa Children’s Home, 1961-1970

Claire had left without a plan but a friend suggested three months at Manurewa Children’s Home as reliever in the girls’ dormitory. She enjoyed the children but there was a lot to learn. However, she rapidly became Matron and ended up staying for nine years! She was apparently brilliant. It was said at Assembly that she ‘Held the rapt attention of the delegates’,[8] when she gave the children’s home report.

An aspect of her role was fund-raising and promoting the Home by visiting churches around New Zealand—such as Otara, Hokowhitu, Timaru, St Albans, Spreydon and Timaru. By 1966 she was elevated frequently to the status of speaker at the Sunday morning service to tell of the Home—e.g. Kaiapoi, North Brighton, Oxford Tce, and Royal Oak. She had 14 staff, with over 50 children enrolled. There were several buildings, 20 acres of lawn and shrubs, play areas, garden, and a farm. She explained at the Home’s 70-year celebration in 1966, ‘Each child needs to hear for himself the strength and protection of Christ’s love that can fill the void when human loves have failed him.’[9]

Fund-raising became more pressing. She wrote urgently, ‘In Psalm 116 we are not told to make vows before the congregation but to PAY vows. Have you a vow to pay? … We are required to pay our vows NOW not at some elusive future time.[10]

From 1967 to 1971 Claire travelled tirelessly for the children’s home and representing Baptist Women’s League, often now speaking at Sunday morning services where perhaps her excellent presentation made a way for her. This was reported at Glendowie, Rotorua, Ngaruawahia, Matamata, Putaruru, Valley Road (Mt Eden), Northcote (North Shore), Pukekohe, Howick, Papakura, Te Atatu, Huntly, Manurewa, Epsom, Milford, and Esk Street Baptist Churches. A listener in the Grey Lynn church wrote of: ‘a sense of gratitude to God that women of her calibre have been entrusted with the spiritual and physical nurture of [the home’s] young inmates… local women’s groups could do no finer thing than secure Sister Claire Gilbert to address them…[11]

Photo below: Roland Hart and Claire Hart

Tamaki Baptist Church, 1971-73 

In 1971, Claire had a new calling to be Deaconess at Tamaki Baptist Church, Auckland with a pastoring role—she was to occupy the manse and do the pastoral work connected with the church, while a student from Baptist College would preach. She carried this role out with notable strength. So later, the church called her for a further undefined period,[12] this time including preaching responsibilities. She was a blessing to many. In March 1973 Claire Gilbert was appointed Dominion President of the broad Baptist women’s group, Baptist Women’s League.

In that same month Claire and Roland Hart, her former minister at Oxford Terrace, announced their engagement.[13] It was somewhat controversial, because Roland’s wife Lenore had only just died in 1972, and they were both decidedly middle-aged. Even through friends advised Roland to wait before marrying Claire, he did not; they got married in August 1973, 11 months after his first wife’s death. Roland was the love of Claire’s life.

Later ministry and life

The couple each continued a range of ministries. Roland was pastor at Northcote Baptist, and then at Baptist Tabernacle. Claire often spoke for Baptist Women’s League, and for the Baptist Women Union of the South West Pacific. E.g. Naenae women reported of ministry led by Claire, ‘We were all stimulated and challenged when we asked questions. There were new angles on how God is speaking to us in the world.’[14] By 1975, the Baptist Social Service Board also had on offer tapes and photos prepared by Claire Hart.

Roland and Claire ministered together, holding missions in retirement for Baptist churches. They did this in 1981 in Rimutaka and Henderson, where it was reported they were ‘both were used by God as catalysts in effecting changes in people’s lives.’[15]

In mid-1982, while they were in Wales for church ministry, Roland became ill, later diagnosed with cancer. Claire found she had to ‘take again her surrendered responsibility.’[16] Roland died in October that year.

After this time, Claire ministered part-time with the Northcote church as well as Cleveland Presbyterian; she helped with visiting people, and still did some away speaking. She described several initiatives that went particularly well in the Northcote church—Friendship circle on Saturdays, Forty Plus, Family Groups and Maxi Group (that became Mixi Group) for older and shut-in people. She helped initiate the Chinese Fellowship and English teaching. Her pet corgi, Dilys was with her for 15 years.

Claire retired at 60 in 1986. In 1990 Claire left for a year in England, but returned unwell. When she settled at Northbridge in 1999 she became one of the leaders of the music in the retirement village. She filled her time writing her autobiography, combined with speaking trips, travel, spinning, weaving and knitting, painting, reading and music. She passed away in 2022.

Written by Beulah Wood, former President of the Baptist Churches of New Zealand, and retired from work as a writer and lecturer in preaching and theology of family at South Asia Institute of Advanced Christian Studies in Bangalore, India.

Photos supplied by Baptist Women New Zealand.

Sources

Multiple issues of the New Zealand Baptist (see endnotes)

Hart, Claire, In Everything by Prayer: My Life, Unpublished autobiography, 184 pages in A4 format, approx. 2004.

[1] Subsequent to this for perhaps 20 years, NZ Baptist churches had a small group of women ministers, called deaconesses.

[2] NZ Baptist March 1958

[3] In Everything by Prayer, Page 28

[4] In Everything by Prayer, page 58

[5] In Everything by Prayer, page 74

[6] NZ Baptist May 1959

[7] In Everything by Prayer. Pages 101-103

[8] NZ Baptist Dec 1962

[9] NZ Baptist October 1966

[10] NZ Baptist February 1967 IN DEBT? by Sister Claire Gilbert

[11] NZ Baptist August, 1969

[12] NZ Baptist February 1972

[13] NZ Baptist March 1973

[14] NZ Baptist 1974

[15] NZ Baptist Dec 1981

[16] She wrote in ‘In Everything by Prayer’ Page 9. ‘I realised that now with Roland sick I had to take the responsibility which I had so gladly handed over to him.’

Read More Articles

Assembly Council Meeting June 2024 Image
Articles
July 18, 2024 | Rod Robson Channel: 2144749

Assembly Council Meeting June 2024

Time for more feedback on proposed changes to the Baptist Union Constitution | Continuing search for new property for key Baptist entities | Relationship with…

A Baptist overview of the Church Life Survey results Image
Events
July 17, 2024 | Peter Lineham Channel: 2144749

A Baptist overview of the Church Life Survey results

A deep dive into the recent national Church Life Survey data from a Baptist perspective.

Powerful Kiwi documentary reveals lives transformed Image
News
July 15, 2024 | Christine Stride Channel: 2144749

Powerful Kiwi documentary reveals lives transformed

Mana Atua – The Power of God is a compelling Christian feature documentary about transformed lives in Aotearoa.

';