It was 1940, wartime, and no one in their right mind was looking to take a ship across the Indian Ocean, but a young dressmaker was walking the streets of Melbourne looking for a merchant ship to take her to India.
Dora Barkla had been praying regularly for Sholapur, a girls’ home in Maharashtra. One night while praying and reading the passage “Take up your cross and follow me”, she heard a voice which clearly said, “India”. Timid, and with a low view of her own capacities, Dora wrestled with the implications. Her family was against the idea, but one by one her misgivings were overcome by the words of scripture and in January 1940 she was on her way.
Forty-two years later I met Dora capably managing a guesthouse in Mussoorie, North India. I should not have been surprised. This quiet, even genteel, woman had been running a girls’ home for decades. When we left India in 1995, I started to visit Dora in her retirement and gradually pieced together her remarkable story.
When Dora joined the Zenana Mission (now Interserve) in 1939, it had a long history of work in India with women in the separated sections (zenanas) of Hindu and Muslim households. It was an all-women mission, responding to the medical and educational needs of these women. Mission centred on “compounds”. After a famine in the early 1900s, female babies had been left outside the mission compound at Sholapur and the mission started to care for them.
Dora believed that she would be in India all of her life, so her first task was to learn Urdu, the local language, well enough to speak to the hearts of people. Her call was to evangelise local women. After a year of study and with the first of her three spoken Indian languages under her belt, she began her ministry of visiting local Muslim women. Some time later, she began work in the girls’ home. At a time in Australia when women rarely worked outside the home, Dora and her colleagues fixed roofs, removed snakes, kept accounts and liaised with local officials. The homesickness was ferocious in the early days and it was five years before she saw Australia again.
How do we measure the work of decades of care of girls in a home like Sholapur, with the yearly round of care and education; periodic epidemics of whooping cough, typhoid, mumps and measles; months of torrid heat and torrential monsoons; picnics, Christmas pageants and the weddings of the girls who were walked down the aisle by mission staff? Literally hundreds of babies grew into womanhood watched over proudly by a woman who would never be a mother herself but who gave her working life so that others may reach adulthood safely with a living faith to sustain them through life.
Dora’s time in India saw many changes. India became independent of Britain in 1947 and with independence came greater Indian control over mission activities. Gradually, foreign control gave way to Indian leadership, and in 1979 Dora handed over the home to her friend and colleague, Nancy Basaviah.
During her career Dora saw many other necessary changes in mission: children’s homes and zenana work were a response to a particular time and place and not a model that would be replicated today.
Dora’s was a life of great nobility, showing what the Lord can do through women with faith to follow Jesus into forgotten places. Till her last days, Dora prayed daily for the girls who passed through the home. There are to this day many women who owe their lives and their faith to Dora Barkla.
Dora’s story is shared by Barbara Deutschmann, a returned Interserve Partner who also served in India.