Missionary’s outstanding service to Christian outreach in Africa

Mary Steele, who passed away peacefully in her native County Antrim on December 20, gave over half a century of distinguished and committed service to Christian outreach as a missionary in Ghana.

Mary had worked for 50 years as a missionary, where she was recognised in 2015 by being appointed as a Member of the Order of the Volta by the President of Ghana.

She worked tirelessly to not only translate the Bible into native languages but also to ensure a better quality of life for the people she worked among, and this was also recognised by the awarding of the MBE in 2006.

Among those present at her Thanksgiving Service in Killymurris Presbyterian Church was a former director of the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation (GILLBT), Mama Grace, who travelled from London to represent the Ghanaian people.

A message was also read from the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation which said that when the news was sent from London by email informing of the death of Mary Steele, it had “hit us like a thunderbolt.”

Describing the County Antrim missionary as “an institution”, the message noted that she had come to Ghana in 1962, the same year the GILLBT had been founded, and retired in 2016 after 54 consecutive years.

“Mary Steele translated two complete Bibles in two completely different languages: Konkomba and Bimoba. And she supervised the revision of these two Bibles.

“In the field of Mother Tongue Bible Translation, where most people spend a lifetime to translate a New Testament, Mary’s work can be described as superhuman. It takes an institution to do what she did. Her work in literacy was also pioneering and outstanding,” the message read.

In 2015, when the Ghanaian President made her a Member of the Order of the Volta, he said she had contributed significantly to the intellectual, material and spiritual wellbeing of Ghanaians, mostly in the northern part of the country.

“Ghana became your adopted home and you manifested this by strenuous travels on unmotorable roads with attendant deprivations in remote villages, in a bid to develop unwritten languages alongside literary, spiritual and community development activities. Your personal successes in literacy and community development in Ghana have been laudable,” the President said.

He also noted that she had been instrumental in the publication of the Phonology and Grammar of Konkomba and the Dictionary of Konkomba, as well as authoring anthropological papers on aspects of the Konkomba and Bimoba languages, transforming these two previously oral only languages to written forms as well.

This work in language development and literacy programmes was accredited with collectively enabling the two communities to participate substantially in national development.

All of this was a long way from rural County Antrim, where Sarah Mary Pinkerton Steele was born in April, 1928.

She was one of seven children and attended church at Killymurris and also the Craigs Mission Hall.

She was greatly influenced by a Gospel mission run by the Faith Mission at Dromona Hall when she was 11-years-old.

Within a few years, she was reading biographies of famous missionaries to Africa such as David Livingstone and Mary Slessor. When she was 15, Mary decided that she would follow the missionary path as well.

She attended Carlinty School and Millar’s Academy in Ballymena, then took a secretarial job before training as a nurse in Belfast City Hospital.

Her medical training was intended to equip her as a missionary nurse, and she went to Glasgow to study midwifery and undertook further training in London. She also travelled to Canada with the Grenfell Medical Mission, which worked with deep sea fishermen in Newfoundland and Labrador. Mary was stationed at the small town of Mary’s Harbour, site of the International Glenfell Association hospital and boarding school.

Following three years in Canada, Mary responded to a need for nurses in a Church of Scotland hospital in South Africa, and she worked there and in Rhodesia. During her time in the hospital, she began to feel the need for Bible translation. She said in an interview that no matter what medicine could do to help a person, ultimately they had to die and it was better to prepare someone for that.

This led to her returning to the United Kingdom at the age of 31, and attending Bible Training Institute in Glasgow for theological training. She heard of the work of the Wycliffe Bible Translators and felt that her calling was to do their work.

After studies in the University of California and working in a jungle camp in South America, she set out for Ghana in 1962 aged 34, and arrived after three weeks at sea.

Mary was attached to mission work among the Konkomba people. She had to learn the local oral language from scratch. This involved living among the tribe and analysing the sound system to form an alphabet to suit the language, then identifying how the grammar worked before starting to write it.

It took three years of learning the language before a trial translation of some Bible stories could appear. Alongside the work, local people had to be taught how to read so they could understand scripture for themselves. The translations resulted in hundreds of thriving churches developing with a great interest in reading the Gospel. Many young people were also enabled to go into formal education.

After 15 years in Ghana, the New Testament in the Konkomba language was completed in 1977 and within a year there were 15,000 students attending 700 literacy classes as a result. The classes, organised by a trained Ghanaian, also developed practical skills such as how to make butter and soap.

During the 1980s, Mary continued to work on the translation of the New Testament into a second language – Bimoba – and by this time the Ghana Institute of Linguistics, Literacy and Bible Translation had been formed.

In 1986, Mary Steele gained a Master’s Degree in Aspects of Biblical Interpretation. In the late 80s and early 90s she worked on translating the Old Testament in Konkomba, and in 1998 another significant milestone - after 36 years – was completion of the Konkomba Bible, Old and New Testaments. In 2004, the whole Bimoba Bible was completed.

Mary also faced other challenges, suffering various diseases over the years, including malaria and river blindness as well as encountering ethnic conflict which led to her evacuation in 1994. She admitted that sometimes she was discouraged, but the welcome from the children in one village when she returned was enough to encourage her to continue her work.

Support from her home congregation at Killymurris was also deeply appreciated by her.

Rev Roland Watt, conducting the Thanksgiving Service, noted that she was always reticent about retiring because she knew there was so much work to be done. When she did officially retire from the Wycliffe Bible Translators in 2014, she continued working with GILLBT for a further two years before returning to Northern Ireland.

The congregation was reminded that her heart was always in Ghana and included raising funds for reprinting Bimoba Bibles last year.

The County Antrim missionary had been a humble woman who only accepted some honours reluctantly, but refused others: she had vehemently rejected the offer of the Konkomba people to erect a statue in her honour, insisting that she was only doing her work. A former government minister from the Konkomba area, speaking in 2014, said that he and other successful Konkombas could not have received an education and done so well without the work of the woman they affectionately called their ‘mother’.

In an article in the Ballymena Times a few years ago Mary was quoted as saying “I can’t think of any better way to spend one’s life; if I had my time again, I would do exactly the same thing”.

Mary Steele is survived by her brother Bertie and sister Alice as well as her sisters-in-law Annie and May, nieces and nephews and a wider circle of family and friends.