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Isabelle Elizabeth (Belle) Merry (1907–2000)

by Shurlee Swain

This article was published online in 2024

Isabella Elizabeth (Belle) Merry (1907–2000), Congregationalist minister and hospital chaplain, was born on 20 February 1907 at Scarsdale, Victoria, elder daughter of Victorian-born parents Charles William Merry, engineer, and his wife Elizabeth, née Wrigley. When Belle was young the family moved to Geelong, where her sister Doris was born in 1909, and then to Melbourne, settling in Coburg in the city’s north. She was educated at local schools before moving to University High School. An active participant in student life, she served as prefect, sixth form captain, and vice-president of the school’s Christian Union.

Having been raised in a Methodist household by supportive parents, Merry had harboured an ambition to be a minister since childhood but felt that ‘it seemed an impossible wish for a girl to have’ (Australian Women’s Weekly 1938, 12). After leaving school at the end of 1925, she worked at the State Savings Bank of Victoria and in 1928 began but soon abandoned studies in commerce at the University of Melbourne. Through her membership of Collins Street Independent Church, she began to volunteer at the Latrobe Street Congregational Mission. Having heard the well-known English preacher Maude Royden preach during her 1928 Australian tour, it was here that she discerned her calling to the ministry. Merry was accepted into the Congregational College of Victoria in 1932. Although the Congregational Church had no theological objections to female ordination, as her friend Dame Phyllis Frost put it, the strength of the many ‘anti-feminists’ (Bodycomb 2000, 23) within the church placed barriers in women’s way. Merry returned to the University of Melbourne that year, studying philosophy, logic, and ethics (BA, 1938) alongside her theological training and student pastorate at East Preston. Unlike the male theology students, she had to pay the costs of her tuition.

On 19 December 1937 Merry became the first woman to be ordained in any denomination in Victoria. Her initial appointments were at Croydon and Croydon North. As a single woman, she found that she was expected to be both minister and minister’s wife. Believing that the Church had a duty to help the community ‘materially as well as spiritually’ (Australian Women’s Weekly 1938, 12), she also had a strong interest in social work. In 1942 during World War II she took leave to fulfil the role of extension secretary for the Young Women’s Christian Association and helped run its social club for munitions workers at Footscray. In 1944 she returned to her alma mater to study for a diploma of social studies but was not awarded this qualification as she failed the economics component. After gaining experience as a medical social worker, or almoner, with the Victorian Society for Crippled Children, in August 1950 she sailed to England, accompanying a young Scottish patient suffering from polio who was returning home.

During her almost six-month stay in Britain Merry visited and worked at several hospitals in London and the Midlands. While there she found a way to reconcile her two vocations in the emerging role of hospital chaplains: ordained ministers with special training to work as full-time members of hospital staff. On her return to Australia in 1951 she took a position as an almoner at Queen Victoria Hospital in central Melbourne before being called to North Balwyn Congregational Church the following year. In 1953 she was approached by the society figure and charity leader Dame Mabel Brookes to become the chaplain at the Queen Victoria, the first such appointment in Australia. She remained in this position until 1970, also occasionally delivering the Australian Broadcasting Commission’s ‘Daily Devotional’ radio broadcast. After retiring from the hospital, she worked as a counsellor at the After Care Hospital, Collingwood (1971–73), and the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (RVIB; 1973–75), before returning to Croydon North for the last two years of her ministry (1975–77).

Though in her own words ‘not a feminist’ (Hutchesson 1987, 33), throughout her career Merry was an advocate for greater participation by women in public life. She was present at the launch of the Women for Canberra Movement in 1943 and was president (1962–63) of the Victorian Congregational Women’s Fellowship. An active participant in the Women’s Inter-Church Council of Victoria, the Congregational Women’s Association of Australia and New Zealand, and the Congregational Union of Victoria, in 1961 she travelled to New Delhi as a delegate to the World Council of Churches Assembly. She was appointed OBE in 1976 in recognition of her lifetime of service.

‘With fair, wavy hair, and smiling eyes’ (Recorder 1937, 2), Merry never married but maintained a wide circle of friends who valued her kind nature. She was admired as a vibrant speaker and was a popular guest preacher throughout her career. A ‘keen motorist’ (Usher 1954, 9), she enjoyed travelling around the country and continued to volunteer at the RVIB and preach in retirement. She died on 16 May 2000 at Glen Iris and was cremated at Springvale crematorium. At the turn of the millennium, the pathbreaking Merry was the oldest and longest-ordained woman minister in Australia.

Research edited by Michelle Staff

Select Bibliography

  • Australian Women’s Weekly. ‘Woman Minister is as Merry as Her Name.’ 22 January 1938, 12
  • Bodycomb, John. ‘Reverend Isabelle Elizabeth (Belle) Merry, OBE.’ Age (Melbourne), 2 June 2000, 23
  • Church and Nation (Melbourne). ‘Croydon Called First Woman Minister.’ 11 May 1988, 8–10
  • Hutchesson, Marli. ‘Isabelle Merry O.B.E. Marking 50 Years of Ordained Ministry.’ Church and Nation (Melbourne), 28 October 1987, 33
  • NSW Congregationalist. ‘Women for the Ministry.’ October 1966, 7
  • Pitman, Julia. ‘Our Principle of Sex Equality’: The Ordination of Women in the Congregational Church in Australia, 1927–1977. North Melbourne: Australian Scholarly Publishing, 2016
  • Recorder (Port Pirie). ‘Woman as Minister.’ 23 December 1937, 2
  • University High School archives
  • Usher, Jim. ‘With the Churchmen. A Woman of the Cloth.’ Argus (Melbourne), 16 October 1954, 9

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Shurlee Swain, 'Merry, Isabelle Elizabeth (Belle) (1907–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, https://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/merry-isabelle-elizabeth-belle-33388/text41708, published online 2024, accessed online 14 April 2024.

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