Woman Merry, Isabelle (1908 - 2002)


Coburg, Victoria, Australia
Congregational minister, Hospital chaplain and Social worker

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Isabelle Merry was born in 1908 and grew up in the Melbourne suburb of Coburg. She completed her secondary education at University High School where she was head prefect in her final year. After leaving school she worked at the State Bank, but also volunteered at the Latrobe Street Congregational Mission during the worst years of the 1930s Depression.

Convinced that she was called to the ministry, she trained at the Congregational College as a self-funded student, completing a BA at the University of Melbourne alongside her ministerial training. Her ordination in 1937, the first for a woman in Victoria, attracted considerable media interest. However, the church presented her ordination as a natural success to the ordination of South Australian Winifred Kiek ten years earlier. Describing Merry as 'a young woman of charm and ability' the principal of the college declared that 'the present age was the happier for the introduction of women into public life' (Argus, 20 December 1937, p. 4). Merry supported this interpretation arguing that she had 'studied for the Church because she believed women had their place in every profession' (Argus, 16 October 1954, p. 9). In 1943, she threw her support behind the Women for Canberra movement for the same reason, suggesting that getting more women into public life would be a good place to 'begin in social reform' (Age, 13 January 1943, p. 3).

Although Merry maintained a high profile within the denomination, her experience of local ministry was less fulfilling. In 1942, she took leave from Croydon, where she had ministered since ordination, to work with the YWCA developing services for women working in the munitions factories (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 April 1942, p. 2). When the war ended she returned to the university to study social work and on graduation worked as an almoner both in Melbourne, and from 1949-50 in the United Kingdom. Her travels opened her to new ideas about hospital chaplaincy, which was to become her occupation for the rest of her career. Appointed to the North Balwyn Congregational Church in 1952, from 1954 she combined her Sunday duties with a position as chaplain at Melbourne's Queen Victoria Hospital. Where chaplains in the past had been appointed by their denominations and remained on the church pay roll, Merry was funded directly by the hospital committee and saw herself as part of the medical team responsible for patient care. She became a vocal advocate for hospital chaplaincy but argued that ministerial training alone was not sufficient for future applicants for such roles (Age, 9 January 1954, p. 9).

After resigning from the Queen Victoria Hospital in 1970, Merry had two further appointments in which she combined the roles of social worker and chaplain, before returning for her last two years of ministry to Croydon North, in the area to which she had been originally appointed in 1937, Awarded the OBE for her chaplaincy work in 1976, Merry retired in 1977 and died in 2002.

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia

  • Biographical cuttings on Isabelle Merry, social worker and Victoria's first woman ordained as a minister, containing one or more cuttings from newspapers or journals, 1900 - 2000, 2404101; National Library of Australia. Details

Published Resources

Newspaper Articles

See also