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Jack Nicholson and Vera Nicholson (née Civil)

Jack Nicholson 1923-1924 / NZBTI Diploma
Vera Nicholson (née Civil) 1924-1925 / NZBTI Diploma

Jack was born into a farming family in Gore, the third of six children. He left school at the age of 14 and spent the next seven years working in a variety of farm-related roles. He was converted at an evangelistic meeting under the preaching of British evangelist, Alfred Mace, in 1918. From a nominal belief in God, Jack began studying Scripture at every opportunity and got involved in teaching Sunday School and Bible Class. One day, while ploughing, he saw a vision of a vast plain which he guessed was Africa. From that moment, Jack felt his destiny would be linked to that continent.

In 1923, aged 21, Jack began his studies at the NZ Bible Training Institute in Hopetoun Street. He joined a weekly Sailors’ Mission outreach – preaching the Gospel outside the Auckland Ferry Building on Sunday afternoons. His final year of study was a momentous one – it was the year he felt led to apply for mission work in Nigeria with the Sudan Interior Mission (SIM); and it was the year he met Vera Civil, a young woman who entered NZBTI in the 1924 intake.

Vera was the same age as Jack, born in Dome Valley, Warkworth, the second of eight girls. As a teenager she made a public commitment to serve God wherever he might lead her. She trained as a nurse, sensing that this was preparing her for some kind of future service.

As Jack and Vera’s friendship deepened, they began to feel that God was calling them to serve together in Nigeria. Application to SIM had to be made to their Toronto office, with no SIM representation in NZ at that time. Rev. Joseph Kemp was deputised to interview Jack, and later Vera, on behalf of the Mission. They announced their engagement soon after hearing they were both accepted by SIM.

Jack sailed for Nigeria in July 1925, leaving Vera to complete her NZBTI training and then to finish a midwifery course. They were to be two years apart. Jack reached Nigeria in December 1925 and began an 800-mile trip by train and car to Gelengu, home of the Waja people – and what was to be Jack’s (and later Vera’s) home for the next 40 years. As Jack neared Gelengu, from the brow of a hill he gazed down on the plain before him – the place he had seen in his vision years before.

It was pioneer work establishing the Gelengu Mission Station. There was no written language. Jack spent days and nights with the Waja people, absorbing their language and customs. For the first two years he trekked on foot or horseback, establishing contact with all the Waja villages and unreached tribes in the area. When Vera arrived in Nigeria in June 1927, she spent the first year language learning at a station 50 miles from Jack. He visited her by foot each month, and also spent that year building their first home – two round mud huts side by side. They were married in Gelengu’s first mud-built church in June 1928.

Life was primitive in those early years. The couple had to be self-sufficient, with the nearest store two to three days away. There were the usual tropical illnesses to endure, along with ant infestations and high humidity making cool storage impossible. For 13 years Vera was the only European nurse in the district and was summoned at all hours for medical emergencies. Their son Ian was born in 1930, and it was a great grief, and sacrifice, on all their parts to leave Ian with Vera’s parents back in New Zealand at age 5 for his education.

In 1934 revival swept through the Waja tribe, with numbers attending daily services increasing to 150-200 people. The couple taught Bible classes, with Vera also teaching antenatal and postnatal classes. Their second child, Elizabeth (Betty) was born in 1940 – providing a living example of baby care! By the time she reached 5, a boarding school (Kent Academy) had been established in Nigeria which enabled Betty to spend summer holidays with her parents.

Over their 40 years among the Waja people, the Nicholsons saw thousands of lives transformed by the Gospel. Bible schools were set up, a medical dispensary established, pastors, medical workers and teachers trained, schools built, and 46 churches planted. On their return to NZ in 1964 they left behind an established indigenous church. Jack spent some years developing mission interest in NZ for SIM. He died at age 76 in 1997, with Vera living another 15 years and passing away at age 91.

Material for this story was sourced from No Turning Back: The Story of Jack and Vera Nicholson, edited by W. Capill and J. Belding, SIMNZ, 1998

Returning to Nigeria, 1931

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