Yesterday two books arrived for me at the post office. I think my aunt Cindy has been sharing books with me since I, first-born niece of the youngest daughter of the Stowell family, went with my parents to Brazil, was born. These books are biographies of a legendary great-aunt, Hyla Doc, who was medical missionary in China until Americans were expelled in 1949, and then went to Liberia in 1950 until the mission board forced her retirement at age 67 and she crossed Africa and Egypt into Israel, to “retire” in Tupper Lake, New York, where she practiced medicine and gave speeches almost until age 87, when she was urged to consider her age and the hazards of remaining in practice as lawsuits became more popular. This moment coincided with the easing of restrictions on travel to China, so she sold her car and used the money to go once more to China to renew old friendships and lecture to students at the new medical college connected to WuHu hospital. She was a born storyteller, and when the friend who collected and compiled her story commented with the ancient medical missionary that hers was an impressive story, she retorted, “What impresses me is that it is the story of the goodness of God”. Through all the griefs and hardships and challenges of her life, Hyla Doc voiced a constant thanks to God for the loveliness of the world.
I knew “great grandcousin Hyla” became a doctor in an age when most women, if they went to college, were denied such a strenuous education. She earned her MD from Cornell University in 1921 (the year my mother was born!), one o six women in the class of thirty-six, and interned at Belleview Hospital in New York City, and then Morristown, New Jersey, before going to London to specialize in Tropical Medicine and Hygiene by the Royal College of Surgeons and Royal College of Physicians of England. While at Belleview she wrote:
I stand by the side of a current
That’s deeper by far than the sea.
And storm-beaten craft of every drought
Come in to be healed by me.
But some have more sins than fever,
And some have more grief than pain.
God help me make whole both body and soul
Before they go out again.
“The years of Hyla Doc’s career in China all fell within this turbulent transitional period between the downfall of the Ch’ing dynasty in 1912, and the founding of the People’s Republic of China in 1949” . She was chief surgeon at the then new Wuhu General Hospital, which stands on the banks of the Yangtze. Damaged almost to destruction by occupying Japanese troops during the Sino-Japanese war (1937-1945) and again during the Cultural Revolution after 1966, Wuhu I-chi-shan Hospital has now (1991) grown to seven hundred beds. It is the teaching hospital for Women’s Medical College, the leading Anwhei province medical school.
On one of her visits to New England around 1933, Cousin Hyla gave my mother, Carolyn Stowell, then a twelve year old, a cotton Chinese dress which is in my closet. Today, over 85 years later, my youngest son and his family are missionaries in Japan, and he gave me two Japanese kimonos (quite different from that Chinese tunic) which remind us of a continuum in world missions in our family, but also in God’s people over the centuries. I discovered in reading Hyla’s story – that my grandfather’s family of Puritan and Huguenot stock, “were strict, law-abiding people, but in one thing they broke the law of the land. Their farm was one of the stations on the underground railway, and all but the youngest children took part in helping slaves escape up to Canada.” And Franklin and Louise Stowell’s home was open to a young stowaway Jo Nishima (1843-1890) who came to spend vacations at their farm and told the Stowells that his great dream was to go back to Japan to set up schools like those in America. Long after, in Japan, Ada Stowell (Hyla’s mother) was honored as a friend of the founder of a school in Kyoto: Doshisha University (Dr. Niishima Jo was a celebrated Japanese educator who received his B.S. from Amherst and was ordained a Congregational minister).
So Hyla’s grandparents (my great-grandparents) also gave haven to a Japanese samurai and stowaway, who became one of the greatest educators and founder of the Doshisha University in Japan, where today in the 21st century, my Brazilian son Daniel Charles Gomes, a missionary to Japan, is pursuing his PhD!
Among hundreds of births, Doctor Hyla delivered Helen Priscilla Stam, daughter of John and Betty, missionaries with the China Inland Mission (known today as Overseas Missionary Fellowship), in Tsingteh. “In December 1934 a Red Army swooped down on Tsingteh where they killed most of the officials and well-to-do citizens… including John and Betty. They debated sparing the life of the baby, when a townsman stepped out of the crowd and offered his life for hers. For a day and a half, Helen Priscilla cried alone in a deserted house, unfed, uncared for, unharmed, but no one dared go near. A colporteur named Lo had also been taken, then released… [he and his wife] gathered the broken bodies and the baby, and made their anxious way to Wuhu. We found Helen Priscila healthy and unharmed, and buried her parents in our small cemetery.”
On a lighter vein: “One afternoon a patient appeared with outstanding ears. They really stood out like the ears of a dear. He asked, ‘Are you Hua I-sheng?’ I said ‘Yes,’ and he said ‘I’ve come to see if you would operate on my ears and lay them flat on my head.’ “I said, ‘Yes, we can do that. There’s not much going on today; I’ll operate on one this afternoon.’ ’How did you know to come here to have it done?’.... ‘I went to the clinic and registered, and they gave me a stick with a number and told me to sit down and wait until my number was called I went into another room and Jesus was standing there. He was a tall man (Dr.Loren Morgan), a foreigner, but he had a mouthful of Chinese words, so I asked him if he could operate my ears and lay them flat. He said, ‘You go up to I-chi-san Hospital Hua I-sheng and she’ll make them flat for you.’…‘So I sent for the Bible-woman and said, ‘Mrs Chao, I am operating on this man, and he wants to know about Jesus… After a week, I took out the stitches and started on the other ear, and he said, ‘Please make this one much flatter than the other one, so I did… He came back often, and one day her brought his wife with him, and their nine-year-old son. I had heard him speak of his son and knew he thought a great deal of him. He said to me, ‘My wife and I are very grateful to you, and we have brought our boy to be your boy. Where you live he will live. Where you go he will go’. I tried to think how I would get along with a nine-year-old boy to look, ‘You know, I work in the hospital every day, and how would I ever be able to take care of a boy? Besides, there is a proverb you have that says a child should grow up before the face of his father and mother. I think the proverb is right, and the bet thing for him is to stay with you. I appreciate the honor, but truly think you had better keep the boy youselves.’ They were pleased and went off with broad smiles, taking the boy with them. Someone suggested that the Bible Woman may have told them the story of Abraham sacrificing Isaac.”
They are fascinating tales of exotic adventure, but it is obvious that the stories of sacrifice and suffering are much more that good story-telling. The blending of lives given in love for the Lord Jesus and for His people permeate every page. today give great importance to “right doctrine” or what today is known as “political correctness”, (and I agree with the emphasis), missionaries such as cousin Hyla Doc did not enter any battle to impose their way of thinking, but served with intense and matter-of-fact love. I am amazed at the weaving in and out of numerous lives of valiant servants who preceded our lives with grace and truth, and touched our being with their being. The battles were all wrought in heavenly places for the furthering of the Kingdom of the Prince of Peace. This tradition comes though many centuries – Saint Thomas, Jesus’ doubting disciple, went on to minister in India, and the Chinese say he evangelized China in the first century AD!”
Reading old missionary stories, one remembers that the mission did not belong to this or that group, nor was it founded, implemented or enhanced by human merit – it is the mission of God through human lives, toward other human beings who, whatever their nation or color or culture, are part of the same world God loved, and invites us to learn to love.
Hyla died at age 94 and on her stone are carved in Chinese characters the words with which she always said farewell to her friends: I-lu p’ing-an (May you have a peacefull journey all the way).