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Albrecht, Friedrich Wilhelm (1894–1984)

by Maurice Schild

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Friedrich Wilhelm Albrecht (1894-1984), Lutheran missionary, was born on 15 October 1894 at Plawanice, County of Lublin, Russian Poland, eldest of ten children of German-speaking parents Ferdinand Albrecht, a farmer from Kroczyn, and his wife Helene, née Reichwald. Educated in the Russian language at a village school, Friedrich entered the Lutheran mission institute at Hermannsburg, near Hanover, Germany, in 1913. World War I interrupted his studies; lame in one leg from childhood, he served in the German medical corps on the Russian front. He was awarded the Iron Cross for tending wounded soldiers under fire. Returning to Hermannsburg, he completed his course in 1924 and received a call to work with the Finke River Mission, Hermannsburg, Northern Territory. He was sent to a seminary in the United States of America for five months to improve his English. Minna Maria Margaretha Gevers, whom he had met in Germany, joined him in Canada and they were married on 14 September 1925 at Winnipeg, Manitoba. The couple arrived in Sydney on 18 October and travelled on to South Australia.

Ordained a pastor in the United Evangelical Lutheran Church of Australia on 14 February 1926 at Nuriootpa, Albrecht reached Hermannsburg in April, replacing Carl Strehlow as mission superintendent. In November Alfred Traeger, assisted by Rev. John Flynn, installed a pedal wireless, which lessened the community’s extreme isolation. In 1927-29 severe drought and scurvy led to an exceptionally high death rate in the mission; 85 per cent of infants died. Financed by public appeals in Victoria and South Australia, and helped by many friends of the mission, including Violet Teague and her sister Una, Albrecht set about piping water from a spring 5 miles (8 km) away. Construction work, undertaken by volunteers, was completed in 1935. With reliable water and adequate supplies of fresh fruit and vegetables assured, the child mortality rate dropped significantly. Albrecht later lamented: `How many graves could have been left undug if we had had the water during those long years of drought’. An adept communicator, he contributed to church newspapers and fostered strong support among Lutheran clergy and lay people. He had been naturalised on 7 August 1931.

Envisioning that the Hermannsburg Christian community would develop into a fully fledged Indigenous church, Albrecht gave local elders and leaders responsibility for making decisions in areas of administration and congregational discipline, and he trained Aboriginal evangelists. He became fluent in the Arrernte language, supported the Bible translation and publication program begun by A. H. Kempe and Strehlow, and encouraged public worship and preaching in the local vernaculars. Although he held a deep respect for Aboriginal spirituality, he could find no way to reconcile traditional religion with Christian faith. His son Paul, who was to succeed him as field-superintendent in 1963, later noted that the Hermannsburg Christians affirmed the theological tenets of their faith but quietly retained ritual practices relevant to their continuing tribal and social existence.

While his missionary vocation remained paramount, Albrecht was always concerned with the Aborigines’ material and social welfare. Arduous camel treks brought him into close contact with remnants of the Arrernte, Loritja and Pitjantjatjara peoples. He identified the destructive threat of European encroachment on fragile tribal lands and opposed the removal of part-Aboriginal children from their mothers. With Charles Duguid and Theodor Strehlow, he worked tirelessly for the establishment of more Aboriginal settlements (as at Areyonga and Yuendumu), and for secure reserves on tribal terrain. Keen to create employment opportunities for people within their communities, he and his wife promoted arts and crafts. They encouraged Albert Namatjira and helped him to sell his paintings. Albrecht fostered a cattle-raising enterprise and established a tannery to supply hides for leatherwork products. By 1957 he was convinced that the church should facilitate integration of Indigenous people into the larger Australian society.

Of medium height and thickset, Albrecht possessed a robust constitution and had `tremendous capacity for hardship and work’. His wife was a supportive and dedicated partner, but her health was often under strain and in 1952 the family moved to Alice Springs. There Albrecht ministered to urban Aborigines and visited workers on cattle stations. He was appointed MBE in 1958. In 1962 the Albrechts retired to Linden Park, Adelaide, where he continued to carry out pastoral duties. He was a co-author of a history of the mission, Hermannsburg: A Vision and a Mission (1977). The government of the Federal Republic of Germany awarded him the Officer’s Cross of the Order of Merit in 1973. Survived by his three sons and two daughters, he died at Fullarton on 16 March 1984, four months after his wife, and was buried in Centennial Park cemetery.

Select Bibliography

  • S. Baldwin (ed), Unsung Heroes & Heroines of Australia (1988)
  • B. Henson, A Straight-Out Man (1992)
  • P. G. E. Albrecht, From Mission to Church (2002)
  • People (Sydney), 5 Dec 1951, p 28
  • series D1915, item SA1236 (National Archives of Australia)
  • Albrecht papers (South Australian Museum).

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Maurice Schild, 'Albrecht, Friedrich Wilhelm (1894–1984)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/albrecht-friedrich-wilhelm-12126/text21725, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 23 October 2017.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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