SERAMPORE NEAR CALCUTTA was a Danish colony, or at least under Danish administration, between 1755 and 1845. It was then known as ‘Frederiknagore’. When we visited the place briefly in 2019, we were struck by the similarity of the type of design of its Church of St Olave (built 1806) and that of the far better-known St Martin-in-the-Fields (built 1721-26) on the east side of London’s Trafalgar Square. Although there are similarities between the two churches, there are also many differences. One of them is that the interior of St Olave’s is far plainer that that of St Martin’s. Even though many thousands of miles apart, there is a tiny aspect of Asia in the church on Trafalgar Square.
In the southwest corner of St Martin’s, I spotted a memorial, which aroused my curiosity. It is a simple green cloth-covered square notice board surrounded by a wooden frame in which various things are carved. These include the words “Requests for prayer”; carved plant motifs; Chinese pictograms; and the words “Praise God for his servant Florence Li Tim-Oi DD. 1907-1992. The first woman ordained in the Anglican Communion 25 January 1944”. There were several notices and a couple of plastic drinking cups pinned on the board.
Florence was born in Aberdeen, Hong Kong during a time that most Chinese parents favoured male children. However, her parents were unusual in that they challenged the then current prejudice against girls. As a student, she joined the Anglican church, probably after hearing a preacher (in Hong Kong) asking for women to dedicate their lives to working for the Christian ministry. At her baptism, she chose her English name, Florence, to honour the late Florence Nightingale. After studying at the Canton Theological College, she was eventually, in 1941, ordained as a deaconess. At that time, she was sent to the then Portuguese colony of Macau to help refugees fleeing there from war-torn China.
When the Japanese occupied Hong Kong, it became impossible for ordained Anglican priests to reach Macau. Although she was not yet ordained, Florence had to perform all the functions normally carried out by an ordained priest. In January 1944, she met Hong Kong’s Bishop Raymond Hall in an unoccupied part of China. There, the bishop, realising that there was no Anglican priest in Macau and that Florence had the ‘gift of priestly ministry’, ordained her as an Anglican priest. In so doing, on the 25th of January 1944, Florence made history by becoming the first woman to be ordained as an Anglican priest. This was 30 years before the ordination of women was permitted by the Anglican Church in the rest of the world. So, her ordination was frowned upon by some leaders of the Anglican Church.
After WW2 was over, Florence lived and ministered in China. In Maoist China, churches were closed (from 1958 to 1974), and during the so-called Cultural Revolution, Florence led a miserable life, as did many other Chinese people. She was sent to a farm to work with chickens and her home was raided several times. After a long time, she was allowed to retire from the farm and was given permission to leave China. In 1983, she was taken to Canada, where she assisted in the religious activities of a church in Toronto. By then, the Anglican Church in Canada had approved of the ordination of women. On the 40th anniversary of her ordination in China, she was reinstated as a priest. In later life, Florence served at the Anglican Cathedral in Toronto, where she lived the rest of her life.
I do not know when the memorial noticeboard commemorating Florence was installed in St Martin-in-the-Fields. However, on the 25th of January 2014, a service was held in the church to mark the 70th anniversary of her ordination as the first female Anglican priest. I am pleased that I spotted the somewhat unobtrusive notice board because if I had missed seeing it, I might never have known about this remarkable woman of faith.