In 1902, at the conclusion of fifteen years' missionary work in Fiji, the Reverend William Slade visited Dunedin on Deputation work. During this visit, the Reverend William Sinclair of the Dunedin Methodist Central Mission, and Sister Olive Jeffrey (later Mrs Alice Williams) of Trinity Wesleyan Church convened a meeting for women from Dunedin Methodist churches. Fifty years later, Alice Williams recalled that nine women attended this meeting, held on a cold dreary afternoon in a small dingy Sunday School room at Trinity Wesleyan Church. The Reverend Slade told them about a need for missionary sisters to go to the Pacific Islands to teach women and girls. He explained only men and boys were receiving an education from the missionaries, and when these students returned to their villages and married local girls they usually drifted back to their "old ways". He thought this could be avoided by educating the women and girls.
On the 1 September 1902 women from several Dunedin Methodist churches and Port Chalmers Wesleyan Church met to form the Otago Women's Auxiliary of Methodist Foreign Missions. Sister Olive opened the meeting with singing and prayer and Mrs Henrietta Thomas, an Australian and wife of the Wesleyan minister at Port Chalmers, was elected president. It was agreed to meet on the first Monday of each month at Trinity Wesleyan School, and to serve tea (consisting of scones and one cake). The women decided to take up a collection at their meetings, and for each to bring a piece of handwork, to be sold later for mission funds.
The aim of this fledgling Otago Auxiliary was to raise sufficient money to support a missionary sister in the Pacific Islands. By December 1903 members had enough funds in hand to send a young woman to the Papuan Islands, and in 1904 Miss May Jenness of Lower Hutt was selected from several applicants. May received a rudimentary training from Sister Olive in Dunedin, and left New Zealand in 1905, sponsored by the Otago ladies but under the auspices of the Overseas Mission Board, Sydney. She was the first Methodist missionary sister to be sent from New Zealand. The following year she married an Australian missionary, the Reverend Andrew Ballantyne, at Ubuia. Otago Auxiliary members were a little peeved when May advised them of her forthcoming marriage. This meant they had to find and train another candidate, because the Methodist Church did not permit married women to work as missionary sisters. Janet Vosper of Waitara replaced May. Over the next seven years the Otago Auxiliary sent several young women to the Papuan Islands. With one exception, all had to leave this mission field because of health problems. Malaria in particular took its toll.
In 1912, Otago Auxiliary members began sponsoring missionary sisters in Fiji. Maud Griffin, B.A., was the first to be selected. She was the daughter of the Reverend T.N. and Mrs Lydia Griffin, and at the time of her appointment, a teacher at Southland Girls' High School, Invercargill. Maud became a powerful force in Fijian education.
The Methodist Women's Missionary Union had its birth in this small Dunedin group of farsighted, faithful women. In spite of initial concern, and the disapproval of some Methodist men who said women would muddle their moneys, the Otago Auxiliary's achievement in sending missionary sisters to the Papuan Islands impressed Methodist Church leaders. They asked the Reverend Slade to persuade Methodist women, in other cities, to follow Otago's example. In 1907 at Christchurch, Oamaru, Feilding, Wanganui and Palmerston North, Methodist women formed missionary auxiliaries. Auckland and Wellington followed in 1908. The Christchurch Auxiliary sent its first missionary sister, May Graham, B.A., of Rangiora, to Fiji in 1910. Wellington supported Margaret Jamieson in Papua, and later Miss Brewer at Bau, Fiji, while Auckland sponsored Alice McNeish, of Cambridge, who went to the Solomon Islands in 1911 to help Mrs Helena Goldie.
In 1915 a federation of New Zealand missionary auxiliaries was formed. The year before, the Reverend S. Lawry had spoken to Christchurch Auxiliary members of the advantages of having a federation. Afterwards, interested Christchurch members set up a committee and wrote to all regional groups. Encouraged by the replies, this committee arranged a Convention to coincide with the 1915 New Zealand Methodist Church Conference. Delegates from twelve auxiliaries met on 1 March 1915 at EastBelt Schoolroom, Christchurch, and formed the Methodist Women's Missionary Union (M.W.M.U.). The object of the Union was ". . . to promote the interest of the Kingdom of God by prayer and service, specialising in work amongst women and children and by financially aiding the Home and Overseas Mission Boards."
From 1919, until its amalgamation with the Methodist Women's Guild Fellowship in 1964, the M.W.M.U. had a phenomenal history of achievement. It was represented on the Home and Foreign Mission Boards and continued to pay the salaries of several sisters working overseas and among Maori in New Zealand. The Union supported Deaconess House and the women who trained there, it created a Box Department for sending goods to the Solomon Islands and the Maori mission fields, and a Stamp Department for collecting, cleaning and selling used stamps. A Maori Girls' School (later a hostel), "Kurahuna", was established at Onehunga. Annual Special Objectives raised thousands of pounds to provide an extraordinary range of facilities, including a substantial share in a specially built medical boat (Cecily II) for the Solomon Islands, and cars for deaconesses in New Zealand. Several dormitories for schoolgirls were built in the Solomon Islands and money donated to Rangiatea Maori Girls' Hostel, New Plymouth, and Te Rahui Maori Girls' Hostel, Hamilton. M.W.M.U. Conferences were held every year at different locations, and membership climbed steeply. At the time of amalgamation when the Methodist Women's Fellowship (M.W.F.) was established, there were 208 missionary auxiliaries and around 6,421 members.
In 1956, for the first time, New Zealand Methodist women were represented at the World Federation of Methodist Women's Assembly, held at Lake Junaluska, in North Carolina. Mrs Edna McDowell represented the Methodist Women's Guild Fellowship and the M.W.M.U. at this allimportant Assembly when the World Federation became an affiliate of the World Methodist Council.
It was with absolute gratefulness that members of the Otago District of the M.W.F. recently celebrated the 100th Anniversary of the Otago Women's Auxiliary of Methodist Foreign Missions, the precursor of the M.W.M.U. and the M.W.F.