Deaconess Catherine Ritchie
Updated: 3 June 2021*
Deaconess Cath Ritchie was the 2nd National President of Australian Church Women (ACW), and she served admirably in this capacity in 1967 and ‘68. Her life was devoted to serving Jesus and the people to whom she ministered, especially women as she was a life-long advocate for the spiritual formation and theological education of women.
Catherine Isabel Ritchie was born in 1909, the eldest of six children to Alexander and Marjory Ritchie. She grew up in this Scottish Presbyterian family on the family farm in the Gippsland district of Arawata, near Korumburra. Her local primary school had few pupils and a teaching staff of one, and on completion of her studies there, she was promoted to the elementary school at Korumburra, followed by Leongatha High School and Melbourne University. Cath graduated from university with an Arts degree.
When she was asked by the Foreign Missions Department to consider going as a teacher missionary to Korea, she committed herself to two years residence at Rolland House, the Presbyterian Deaconess and Missionary Training College in East Melbourne. Whilst there, she completed a Diploma of Education as well as studying theology.
She went to Korea in 1937, and in Seoul she studied the Korean language before undertaking youth work with the Youth Committee of the Presbytery and being responsible for two kindergartens and a girls’ dormitory. At that time Korea was under Japanese rule, which influenced the length of her stay when in 1941 Japan entered World War II. Australian missionaries were forced to return to Australia. Even though Cath hoped to return to Korea, this never eventuated.
In Australia, Cath had other church appointments and roles, and even travelled through the Pacific war zone on mission research in 1944. She was appointed principal of Rolland House in 1945; this appointment lasted 23 years. It was a remarkable achievement because few women had a place in church leadership then, and even fewer in her denomination. For the young women who entered Rolland house to train, she obtained for them a theological education equal to that given to the young men being formed for ordination and in the same classrooms at Ormond College, Melbourne University, with the same illustrious professors.
Cath dealt constantly with Presbyterian Assembly officers and staff, the Senatus of the Theological Hall of Ormond College, principals and teachers of state schools, the Presbyterian Women’s Missionary Union, and various auxiliaries, winning the respect of all. Her efforts paved the way for the complete integration of the education of women and men called to Diaconal Ministry for future Ministers of the Word under the United Faculty of Theology.
Keenly ecumenical, Cath encouraged her students and graduates to forge strong links with church workers in other traditions. Cath was also supportive of the move towards the formation of the Uniting Church in Australia, which was achieved in 1977. And she represented her church at two General Assemblies of the World Council of Churches.
On the 22 April 1994, the Melbourne College of Divinity conferred on Deaconess Ritchie the degree of Doctor of Sacred Theology in recognition of her work as a theological teacher and, in particular, of her contribution to the theological education of women across denominational divisions and state boundaries. She also received a British Empire Medal for her services to the Church.
Cath Ritchie never really retired. In her retirement years, she researched the history of the Presbyterian Deaconess Order, which was published in 1998. She continued to be active in church and community to the end of her life. Just three weeks before her death, she conducted a service of Holy Communion for the residents of Carinya Lodge Retirement Village, Korumburra, the aged care facility into which she had recently moved. Rev. Dr Catherine Isabel Ritchie, BEM, Dip. Ed, BA, died on 15 February 2003.
I believe that Deaconess Cath Ritchie was a very humble woman, so we’re probably unaware of all her achievements. However, she was another extraordinary woman who made a unique and valuable contribution to the herstory of Australian Church Women and the Church at large.
The Uniting Church Archives, Synod of Victoria, holds a commemorative plaque of appreciation that was presented to Deaconess Catherine Ritchie in 1989 by the Presbyterian Church of Korea for her missionary service there. The plaque sits within a small, but beautiful, two-door timber and metal box and reads:
‘PLAQUE OF APPRECIATION
Deaconess Cath Ritchie
The Uniting Church of Australia
October 2, 1989
We give thanks for the precious work of missionary [sic] who for the salvation of our Korean people came to this land with the love of Christ and through the tears and sweat gave us the good news of the gospel. By these words the Presbyterian Church of Korea at its 74th General Assembly records this intent as we offer a service of praise to God commemorating one hundred years of Korea-Australia mission.
(Rev.) Meng Syul Park, Moderator
Presbyterian Church of Korea’.
The ACW Archive holds very few photographs of Deaconess Catherine Ritchie. If you have a photo of her, please allow ACW to have a copy and email me email@example.com
The records of Presidents of Australian Church Women held in the ACW Archive.
3 June 2021
The information re: the retirement home that Cath moved into was incorrect. It should have read: Carinya Lodge Retirement Village, Korumburra, not 'Quambi', Arawata, which was the Ritchie property where she grew up and then lived at during her retirement, except for the last few months of her life.
I am very grateful to a niece of Cath Ritchie for advising me of this error.