She was a woman of many languages and many names. Her language of birth was Swedish, her language of adoption was English, her language of ministry the Taiwanese dialect of Chinese. And to those three she added a fourth under compulsion – the language of the conqueror, Japanese. Her names were many also: Hildur Kristine Hermanson in her language of birth, Ho Gan Yu among the Taiwanese, “Hermie” to everyone, and “Miss Wash” to those who loved her and whom she served.
Hildur Hermanson was born in 1901 in Hasjo, Jamtland, Sweden, one of a family of ten, seven boys and three girls. Her father, Herman, immigrated to Canada when Hildur was a small girl. The family homesteaded in Buchanan, Saskatchewan, a small community thirty miles northwest of Yorkton. From her farming childhood Hildur developed a strong work ethic and a great deal of practical common sense. She went on to Saskatoon and studied nursing at St. Paul’s Hospital, graduating with an R. N. in 1929. She then worked at the “Hugh Waddell” Hospital in Canora, sixteen miles from home.
The “Hugh Waddell” Hospital in Canora was one of a number operated by the Presbyterian Church in Canada’s Women’s Missionary Society for non-Anglo Saxon immigrants, primarily Ukrainians, who would otherwise have been destitute of medical care. Of all these W. M. S. hospitals the “Hugh Waddell,” opened in 1913, was the largest and most impressive – five story building with 60 beds.
It may well have been this experience that put Hildur in touch with the Presbyterian Church and its Women’s Missionary Society. She applied for an overseas posting under the W. M .S. in 1931, was appointed to the Mackay Memorial Hospital in Taihoku (as Taipei was then called reflecting its Japanese colonizers). Hildur then came to Toronto to take a mandatory six months of study at the Missionary and Deaconess Training School and was then sent on to Queen’s Charlotte’s Hospital in London, England, where she received a diploma in midwifery. This qualification was suggested by the Formosa Council because the Japanese Government was granting a diploma in midwifery to graduates of Mackay Hospital, and they wanted a second nurse to be properly certified.
At an impressive service at St. Andrew’s Church, Saskatoon, on December 16, 1931, Hildur Hermanson was designated for missionary service in Formosa. The preacher that evening was J. Allan Munro, then of Rosetown, who would later be denominational Secretary for Home Missions. She sailed from Vancouver on January 16, 1932.
Mackay Memorial Hospital had been established in 1880 as the result of a generous gift by the widow of a Captain MacKay of Detroit, an operator of boats in the Great Lakes. George Leslie MacKay, pioneer Canadian Presbyterian in Formosa, described it as “a great blessing to thousands of people” in his 1895 missionary classic From Far Formosa. A nursing school, connected to the Hospital, had been reopened in 1925 and Hildur’s assignment was to be a backup to another W M S appointee, a Miss Chisholm. In the first decade of operation, Hildur provided statistics about the graduates in 1935, there had been 25 graduates. Three of these had stayed in the hospital, in charge of wards, one had gone to the other Canadian Presbyterian medical ministry, the Happy Mount Leprosy Colony. Three others had served in English Presbyterian medical ministries in the south, two other had gone to work with private doctors, one in a mission hospital in China, another a Bible woman, yet another was studying at the North China Theological Seminary in Shantung, China, and the other thirteen were either married or at home with parents.
Hermie soon found herself involved in a physically draining activity. In her annual report for 1935 she described it as “ a very, very, busy year.” “Although I was very tired often, the joy of working for our Master helped me on. The Formosan nurses have been a wonderful help to me and so patient with my meager Formosan language.” Hospital work had a definite spiritual component. The Bible woman at Mackay Hospital, Po-Sian-Koa had been telling “the story of joy and peace.” On discharge patients were followed up by the local pastor, or in the city itself, by a Bible woman. “I always hope to have the time some day to go with Po-Sian-Koa when she visits, but so far I have been far too busy with quite commonplace tasks. Perhaps the Master meant me to do these ordinary tasks and so in my small way do my part in this great work.”
When Miss Chisholm left on furlough in 1936, Hildur was appointed Superintendent of Nurses at Mackay Hospital. She was being stretched to the limit of her professional and physical capacity. These demands, the Formosa Council reported to the church at home, “she has carried in a happy, cheerful and efficient manner.” Her stamina was amazing and her commitment to the medical work was always of the highest order. But her main concern was the evangelistic aspect of medical work. “Lately,” she wrote in a 1936 letter, “we have heard of several cases of people who have heard the Gospel in the hospital and on returning to their own district have continued their study of the Story until they have at last accepted Christ.” In August of 1937 she left for her first, and well-deserved furlough, which it was noted was “after a very strenuous year of selfless service.”. She spent that furlough upgrading her nursing credentials with a six week course at the University of Manitoba. She also made a special study of recent advances in tubercular work. On January 21, 1939, she sailed from Vancouver on the Empress of Russia..
It was not to Formosa that she would be sent but Tokyo where she was to spend a year advancing her knowledge of Japanese. By now the war clouds were gathering over the Far East. Japan had invaded China, and Japanese had become essential for work in the Empire. She took her summer holidays in August as an opportunity to return to work at Mackay Hospital and give Miss Chisholm a break. Throughout the year in Tokyo she kept in touch with the large number of Formosans who were studying in “medical schools, etc.” as she delicately put it. Many of the “colonials” were far from home, under duress, and forced to endure many indignities. The “etc.” covered the oppression these young people were experiencing which Hermie helped them survive with faith intact.
She returned to Formosa only briefly as in November and December of 1940 all expatriate missionaries had to leave the Island. The evacuation was not without its benefits for the indigenization of mission work. In May that year the three northern presbyteries of the Presbyterian Church of Formosa had organized into a North Formosa Synod. And in November a Formosan doctor had become superintendent of the Mackay Hospital and its affairs placed under a committee appointed by the Synod. The Mission Report noted that “Under the ‘new order’ in the Japanese Empire today the government authorities are opposed to any foreigners being at the head of any institution.”
Hermie’s return to Canada was providential for the Rocky Mountain House Hospital of the W. M. S. Almost on arrival she was appointed as Superintendent, replacing a Irene MacRae who had left in February of 1941 to be married. There was a substantial administrative responsibility to her new position: a staff of three nurses and general help, over 600 inpatients a year, and 150 outpatients, with x-rays and about a hundred obstetrical cases. During her time at the Hospital Hermie improved the facilities and never lost her commitment to its spiritual ministry. The church in Rocky Mountain House, in common with most in the Red Deer area under W. G. Brown, had remained Presbyterian at Union. She accompanied the medical treatment with a generous distribution of Bibles and other religious materials. ere three nurses
The Presbyterian Church ceased operating the Rocky Mountain House Hospital at the end of the War. After eight years, it was reported to the church, “the Presbyterian center for all the surrounding country, bringing not only medical but also spiritual help to people of all nationalities, in July 1946 was taken over by the municipality.” By then Hermie was back in Formosa, having sailed on April 29 on the Marine Falcon for Shanghai and then caught a plane for the flight (“just three and a half hours”) to Taipei (as it was now called, the island having reverted back to China at the end of the war) on June 20. She was under appointment to the China Relief Committee, seconded for a year by the W. M. S.
The city was in a terrible state when she arrived. The Hospital, and the neighboring mission compound at 94 North Chung Shan Road, Section 2, had been ravaged during the War. American bombers had scored a direct hit on the air-raid shelter next to the Hospital and knocked down a wall, with several casualties. She retorted to Canada that “Our Hospital is practically empty, what the Department of Public Health did not take away when they came the soldiers who have occupied the place have either broken or sold. I felt quite ill after seeing it.” James Dickson was on the east coast, where there was more positive news about an amazing swing to Christianity among the aboriginal tribes people while the missionaries were absent. Dickson eventually got the soldiers to leave, and men came in to repair. Within a few weeks the Out-patients Department was opened. Of the 80 beds that they had left in the building only 16 remained. There was hope that newly converted aboriginal woman from each village could come to study basic nursing skills and then return to teach others.
Hildur was also working with U. N. R. R. A., the United Nations relief agency,. During the summer of 1946 there was a cholera epidemic and the agency’s doctor and nurse asked her to translate. “I had never seen cholera before, and I do not wish to see any more! It has increased terribly in the south because of the lack of proper quarantine at the ports from China and also because of the ignorance of the people. They have not had cholera in Formosa before and the ordinary people do not know what to do about it. They keep the patients at home until it is too late to do anything and, of course, during this time they use no precautions. Last week so many died each day that it was terrible.”
Hermie set about with Dr. Hirschy, the UNRRA doctor, to clean up the Isolation Ward at the Tainan Hospital, “bringing basins, pails and brushes for cleaning and started a cleaning campaign.” I’ve never worked so hard! We cleaned one ward and with everyone’s help we did manage to get the three sickest patients washed and to bed the first day. The first four nurses who came did not appear the second day as they were too tired, but we finally got them back, the idea being to have the same groups over each day and teach them properly, instead of going through the business of having a new set each day. The Mayor was to arrange transportation for the nurses and feed them, but it seemed he had to be reminded each day.” She visited the midweek prayer meeting of a local church and afterwards had the Formosan nurse with her speak of the danger of cholera and the precautionary methods. The link between health education and Christian faith would be one she would pursue for the rest of her time on the Island.
She also visited Happy Mount, the other Canadian Presbyterian medical ministry. The Leprosarium had not been as badly damaged as Mackay Hospital “We are hoping to get some Promin for the patients, as that apparently has a better effect than the Chaulmoogra oil. I stayed for the afternoon injections, then walked back to the river and crossed over to Tamsui in time for a later dinner. All the patients work in their gardens, tend their rabbits and ducks, and clear away weeds on their grounds. Even the one who is most crippled does gardening with his poor stumps of hands!”
Following her year with UNRRA she resumed her work as Director of Nursing at Mackay Hospital. Returning to Canada in December 1947 for furlough she returned twelve months later to a China going through dramatic military and political change. By October 1, 1949, Mao Tse-tung had declared the new People’s Republic of China and Taiwan, as it was now being called, was the sole refuge of the Kuomintang under Chiang Kai-shek. There was no respite to the demands made on the Hospital as mainland Chinese poured into the Island, refugees using every possible means of escape from the Communists. Among those evacuated were two Norwegian nurses who greatly relieved the strain Hermie was feeling, and a young relocated English medical missionary, Donald Dale, who had responded to the call for a resident physician at Mackay Hospital.
The year 1951 was described as “the best ever for opportunities in Christian work.” The first General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church of Taiwan met. But at Mackay Hospital it was a different story: “The Hospital had a record year in its medical service and also a record year in internal problems of administration.” The report continued: “a skeleton missionary staff carrying an almost impossible load of responsibility in addition to the ceaseless round of normal daily duties and oft-recurring problems.” Donald Dale resigned in June for a private practice in Taipei, as did the two Norwegian nurses, and in December Hildur Hermanson drew almost twenty years of service (with the exception of the war years) to a conclusion.
The remaining thirteen years of her missionary service Hermie would be known as “Miss Wash.” She would be free to pursue her interest in combining health and faith, healing and wholeness, hygiene and Christianity. She explained her vision in a 1953 field report: “Classes in ‘Hygiene’ and ‘Health in the Home’ were started in the Women’s Groups in the church. These classes are in a series of six lessons, and were held in 23 grous during the years. At each class there was time for a devotional period and in new places, for an evangelistic service which was usually given by the ministers. These classes are bringing the women together in fellowship and study. The talks were prepared primarily for women, but in many places there were men and young people as well. Where there Aborigines and Mainland Chinese, the talks had to be interpreted into those languages. The hospital Bible Woman visited all the nearby groups after the series was finished, encouraging them and also taking some members of the groups to visit ex-patients in each district and invite them to the church.”
It was particularly those in the mountains that she was anxious to reach. On one such trip, accompanied by a nurse and the wife of a business man who spoke the tribal language, Tyal, she was driven as far as a car could travel, then the three walked on to the village. “I had some medicines to give out so after my talks we did treatments. The little church, holding about 250 people, was filled so we were very busy, talking from ten to eleven o’clock, then clinic until lunch. We met again at half past two, another talk, the aborigines did one of their dances for us in costume and then clinic again until seven o’clock – and was I tired! The second night we slept in the preacher’s house and ate at his place. I am afraid that none of us had much sleep.”
Hermie took two furloughs in that final period of missionary service: in late 1953 to early 1955 and again in 1959 to 1960. Following her return for what would be her final term of service it was noted that “Miss Hermanson has been away on furlough during the year but has now been welcomed back to continue her work of wielding soap and other medicines and giving health and hygiene talks, as well as distributing Christian literature.” Taipei in the 1960s was growing rapidly, and the old Presbyterian compound of “bungalows” at 94 North Chung Shan Road, Section 2, was now downtown. The compound consisted of four buildings, each with wide verandahs and high ceilings and seven bedrooms, had been occupied since the first decade of the century. , was downtown. Hermie’s house, where she and the other Women’s Missionary Society appointed had lived, had been known affectionately for many years as the “Hermie-tage.” Now she would be the first to relocate to spend her final three years in Taiwan at 2, Lane 100, Sung Chiang Road, Three years later the property was taken over by the Hospital and the “Hermie-tage” became a polio rehab house, much to Hermie’s delight.
One of her last letters to her friends in Canada, which appeared in Glad Tidings in June of 1964, was full of her enthusiasm for the missionary task and love of the people she had served for thirty-five years: “How can we help these Mountain people, who are just emerging from a ‘Bow and Arrow’ existence and are now trying to find a place in this present age, and also to take their place in the structure of the Taiwanese Presbyterian Church? As they begin to undertake responsibility, and, as Presbyteries are in the hands of their own Pastors and preachers, many with little training or formal education, they need our prayers, our support, and they need personnel to tech them and encourage them in their work, for the furtherance of the Kingdom. The women, too, want a part in the task of Evangelism and nurture.”
On June 30, 1966, Hildur Hermanson officially retired. But her ministry was just beginning on the home front. Many of us who visited her in her cosy Vancouver apartment found her a continual repository of stories, reminiscences and – above everything else – laughter. She seemed, even when almost ninety, never to grow old. Young people always found her common sense approach to life refreshing, much as had the teenage children of her missionary colleagues in an earlier time. She always made one feel good to have been with her. Hermie could always be counted on, with her familiar words “Let’s have a party”, to bring out the positive when everything might appear negative and dark. And she had a wonderful collection of nicknames for her friends, many of which seemed to show shrewd insights into their personalities and foibles..
Hildur Hermanson was a supportive member and elder of West Point Grey Presbyterian Church. In 1990 she received a long overdue honour as she was granted a doctorate of divinity honoris cause from the Vancouver School of Theology at the University of British Columbia. On June 19, 1992, in her 92nd year, she passed peacefully away, having outlived all of her siblings. She was a unique gift of God to her church and to the people of Taiwan. Even today, when the name “Hermie” is spoken, it is always with a smile and a sense of gratitude for having known such a remarkable human being who lived to make others happy and never thought about herself or her own comforts.