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Aradale Mental Hospital

In his first weeks of pastoring the Church of Christ in Ararat, Gordon found that he was expected to take his turn at being chaplain at the Aradale Mental Hospital, a low priority Government Hospital housing about 900 patients and providing work for more than one thousand of Ararat’s citizens.

Aradale consisted of picturesque 19th century stone buildings set on a hill about two miles from the town. High stone walls topped with barbed wire did anything but impart a homey atmosphere. He shuddered as he thought of the people incarcerated behind those walls and guarded gates. Poor souls, what could he do to help them?

A few discreet enquiries elicited the information that not all of the inmates were hopelessly insane. A few were clever men and women who had committed murder while under the influence of drugs or alcohol, and been condemned. Dried out they were quite sane and could have been released when their sentence expired but they had nowhere to go and no one to care for them.

The criminally insane existed in “J” ward. `Lived’ was not the correct word to describe the poor creatures whose warped minds led them to commit horrible crimes unless they were kept permanently sedated.

Scarcely knowing what to expect on his first Sunday morning, Gordon showed his pass at the guarded front gates and walked toward a huge building. He thought it must be the chapel because he saw uniformed warders busily herding long lines of people through the doors.

With his Bible and hymnal under his arm Gordon approached the nearest warder: “Good morning. I’m the new chaplain and I’ve come to take the services. Could you introduce me to the superintendent?”

The busy guard half-turned toward him. “So you’re the new chaplain, are you. Nice to have you with us. Just get into line with the others and we’ll have you inside in no time.”

“But I’m the new chaplain. I have to take the service.” Gordon fumbled in his pocket for his pass but the warder grabbed his arm. “Yes, yes, you’re the new chaplain. Now stay in line with the others, there’s a good lad.”

It was no use arguing. He trudged along at the end of the line and entered the chapel with the others. Fortunately for him one of the warders inside was not quite so officious. When Gordon displayed his Bible and hymnal and said he had come to take the service, the man smiled.

“Yes, I recognize you. Saw your photo in the `Ararat Advertiser’ last week. Come on, I’ll take you around to the vestry.”

Used as he was to preaching to all types of people, the hundreds of faces staring up at him that morning moved Gordon almost to tears. Old and young, male and female, some blank-eyed and hopeless, others bright-eyed, endlessly chuckling over some secret joke of their own. He longed to introduce each one to God’s love, but how did he begin?

Attending chapel was compulsory for those who were physically able and it took two sessions to accommodate them all. They filed in, some dribbling and dishevelled, others swaying or rocking from side to side, a few soberly erect but with no light of sanity in their eyes.

As he usually did after hymns and preliminaries finished, Gordon stepped down from the pulpit so that he could be nearer to the congregation as he preached. He opened his Bible and began a simple sermon on the life of Christ. About the middle of his discourse a woman sitting several rows back suddenly got up and wandered quietly down to the front. He watched from the corner of his eye, determined not to react unless necessary. She came closer, leaned across and kissed him full on the lips and then silently wandered back to her seat. Gordon didn’t miss a beat. If this was her way of expressing her appreciation for the sermon, so be it.

As the warders ushered the first-service congregation out, a middle-aged man, obviously a victim of Downs’ Syndrome, lingered behind. He spoke to a warder and the warder nodded. The man then approached and looked beseechingly into Gordon’s face as he said, “Will you pray for my mother?”

“Of course,” Gordon agreed, thinking the old lady must be ill or in some sort of trouble. “I’ll be glad to. How long is it since you have seen her?”

In halting sentences the man replied that ever since his birth he had been in government institutions. He never remembered seeing his mother, but every Sunday he asked the presiding minister to pray for her. For the entire two years that Gordon visited Aradale, the Downs’ Syndrome sufferer made the same request every Sunday. Gordon wondered whether, if the mother was still alive, she ever remembered her son.

At the conclusion of the second service the warders marched the congregation back to their rooms or dormitories and Gordon prepared to leave. As he neared the door a tall man of military bearing, with a clipped moustache and deep, authoritative voice, approached. He introduced himself as Colonel James Rasmussen, Deputy Superintendent, and offered to give the new chaplain a conducted tour of the hospital. Gordon accepted and they began the rounds.

The Colonel guided him to every building and through the various halls and wards. He indicated the types of mental illness in each place and the treatments that were being given. As they went around the Colonel introduced Gordon to the warders and officials in each department: “This is Reverend Gordon Moyes, the new chaplain. I expect you to treat him with due deference and show him every courtesy.”

Some of the staff accepted the introduction graciously enough but with ill-concealed smirks that puzzled Gordon. Before he could think too much about it he was being swept along to the recreation room or the dining-hall or some other department, with the Colonel quoting statistics or relating interesting anecdotes as they went.

At the conclusion of the tour Gordon thanked Colonel Rasmussen for his time and expressed the hope that they would meet again.

During the next week Gordon had occasion to re-visit Aradale and this time he met the Superintendent, Dr Johannes Van Den Hooten. The two established immediate rapport and during their conversation the Doctor remarked that he carried the full responsibility for the 900 inmates and 1000 staff members.

Gordon’s eyes widened. “Don’t you have a deputy Superintendent? What about Colonel Rasmussen who showed me around on Sunday and introduced me to many of the staff?”

Dr Van Den Hooten stared at him for a moment and then laughed. “Oh, that’s who he was on Sunday, eh? I’m surprised he didn’t introduce himself as Ludwig Beethoven or Napoleon Bonaparte. That man has been here for years. He’s really quite a harmless fellow and he does know a lot about the place.”

As their conversation continued Doctor Stefarti, the Aradale psychiatrist joined them. He gave Gordon a more detailed account of the patients under their care.

“Some of them are hopeless cases,” he said, “but there are many who are quite sane if they keep on their medication. The trouble is that their friends and relatives have disappeared, and for a released patient the stress of trying to re-establish themselves in society proves too much. They stop taking their medication and in no time they’re back here again.

“It’s a shame to see good minds stagnating. I wonder,” the doctor paused and a hopeful gleam lit his eyes. “I wonder whether you could run some kind of educational program in here, Mr Moyes, or give some lectures. Perhaps have a quiz or a goal or offer some little prize that will motivate them to learn.”

At that time the Bob Dyer’s and Barry Jones’ Quiz Programmes were all the rage and Dr Stefarti obviously had them in mind when he made his suggestion. Before Gordon had time to reply the doctor continued, “I suggest you have something Biblical as well. A lot of the people in here have great faith in the healing power of religion.”

Gordon nodded, his mind had already switched into top gear. “I shall be glad to do something to help them.”

As he drove home he thought of half a dozen ideas that he would discuss with his church and the other chaplains who served at Aradale. He presumed that apart from visiting and Sunday Services, none of them had ever tried any large scale patient involvement. It would be an interesting experiment.

At the hospital’s chapel next Sunday Gordon announced that he would hold a mid-week Bible class where they would study the gospel of Matthew verse by verse.

Armed with material gathered from Barclay’s three-volume commentary on Matthew, Gordon arrived at the appointed time and found two hundred people eagerly awaiting him. Helpers provided copies of Matthew’s gospel for those who did not have them and the class began. Each week he set `homework’ for his eager students; verses to learn or passages to read and discuss. He divided his huge student body into discussion groups and appointed a leader for each group, so that they could meet between classes.

One of the group leaders was a highly intelligent, well-educated man who had gradually lost everything when he became an alcoholic. Cured now, he could have left Aradale and begun a new life. However, he knew his weakness. Dangerously aggressive when drunk, he had lost his wife, family, friends and business, so he preferred to stay where he was safe from temptation. In an effort to keep sane he worked in the library at the hospital.

For more than six months Gordon continued his gigantic Bible class and student interest remained high right through to verse 30 of the 28th chapter of Matthew. Then Gordon announced that next week he would have a Pick-a-Box competition and ask twenty chosen competitors to answer 100 quiz questions on the book of Matthew.

The names of the competitors would be chosen by chance. No one knew who would have to answer the questions, so every day of the intervening week the two hundred class members `swotted’ the gospel of Matthew. No other word could describe the diligence with which they read and memorized and reviewed all their past assignments.

When the great day arrived two hundred people and a number of curious warders packed into the class venue and sat in bubbling expectation while the twenty competitors were chosen. Then Gordon asked the 100 questions he had prepared. To his surprise, eighteen of the twenty answered each question correctly—they had memorized the entire gospel of Matthew.

“All right,” Gordon’s voice could scarcely be heard above the excited hub-bub, “we’ll have to run another quiz competition next week and choose a winner from among these eighteen.”

During the next week Gordon asked the Ladies Fellowship at his church to donate a silver cup for the winner and some bags of sweets for the runners up. He also prepared another 150 questions based on the gospel of Matthew. Questions such as: What was the fifth name given in the list of genealogies in chapter 1? What kinds of birds did Jesus mention in Matthew? What did Jesus say about the prophet Jonah as recorded in Matthew’s gospel?

Next class day the onlookers could scarcely keep their seats as the chosen 18 lined up. One by one in a long drawn-out process of quizzing, 13 of the group were eliminated. That still left Gordon with five equal first place winners and only one silver cup.

Fortunately, in a flash of Solomonic wisdom, he declared that the cup be on display as the property of all the students and the five winners each be given bags of sweets.

For those simple souls who did not have the mental capacity for Bible classes or quizzes, the Ladies’ Fellowship organized monthly Social Afternoons. Beverley and other musicians took turns in playing the piano and leading their audience in a “Sing-a-long” of old favourites such as “Daisy Daisy” and “Tipperary.” Listening music lovers must have shuddered at the impromptu choir’s discordant efforts, but those who could, sang lustily with scant regard for tune, tone or words.

“Now let’s have some games and after that we’ll all have afternoon tea. Wait till you see some of the cream cakes we have for you.”

The Fellowship Ladies sat with them at small tables and played board games such as Ludo, Chinese Checkers and Snakes and Ladders. Beverley Moyes played with a group of handicapped women but her attention was divided. She had to keep an eye on Jenny pattering in and out among the inmates. The old folk drooled and smiled at the little fair-haired girl, and gnarled old hands stretched out to touch her as she trotted past. The warders assured the Ladies Fellowship that these inmates were harmless but Beverley’s mother-heart beat faster as she watched mentally handicapped old men reaching out to touch her precious child.

The warders proved correct. No harm ever befell Jenny or anyone else during their compassionate visits, but one of the old men took a `shine’ to Beverley herself. Old Bill was a trustee, and every fortnight he trudged the two miles into Ararat and appeared at the front door of the manse to present Beverley with a gift—a grubby scarf, a worn handbag, a string of beads.

Beverley never knew how he came by the gifts, they were certainly not new. But she accepted them graciously and put them in the poor-bag as soon as she could. Nor did she know her admirer’s age, though she guessed he was well past seventy. After a cup of tea and a slice of cake Old Bill said, “I must be gettin’ back now.” He touched his battered hat and took his leave.

Christmas time at Aradale proved to be a watershed for Gordon’s persuasive powers. Planning a party for his large class he foolishly asked the group leaders what they would like most. The women were easily pleased but the men had some very definite ideas. They came to Gordon privately and confessed that what they’d like most of all at the party was ballroom dancing, not with fellow inmates, but with real ladies from `outside.’

Now Gordon was in a dilemma. Asking his Ladies Fellowship to provide dozens of Christmas cakes, to arrange party games and gifts for all, even balloons and decorations, was one thing—but to dance with male inmates of a mental asylum was quite another.

On top of all that, most Churches of Christ ladies did not dance. They regarded dancing as a pastime dreamed up by the devil and calculated to lead to all kinds of evils.

Gordon’s smooth tongue worked overtime. On the appointed day a sprinkling of those dear ladies, considering it as part of their Christian charity, came to the Christmas party and waltzed sedately with some of the inmates of Aradale.

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