This December marks 50 years since the passing of one of The Salvation Army’s brave missionaries, Captain Shirley Millar, who served overseas with her husband, David, and their three children. Shirley passed away from bowel cancer during their time serving in medical ministry in India, in 1972. David and Shirley’s son Greg reflects on Shirley’s life and the incredible sacrifices she made for her faith and for the mission of The Salvation Army.
On the first day they met, David Millar proposed to Shirley Rose Gray. It was over fish and chips, and Shirley said yes! To be fair, much earlier she had carefully cut out the War Cry photo of David’s commissioning and told her older sister that this was the man that she was going to marry.
This story perfectly encapsulates the life of love and focus of Captain Shirley Millar.
Early years of promise
David and Shirley were engaged for two years while Shirley completed both her nursing training and Salvation Army officer training. She was commissioned as an officer in 1962, and they were married on 12 January 1963. Their marriage brought together two Salvation Army family dynasties: the Grays and the Millars.
Both Shirley and Dave felt called to missionary service even before they met. In 1963, soon after Shirley and David were married, they were on a ship to their first missionary appointment in Mumbai (then Bombay), India. They began serving at King George V Memorial and Lady Dhunbai Jehangir Home for the Destitutes, an organisation managed and supported by The Salvation Army on behalf of the Indian Government. The service provided residential care, work support and training for up to 500 people with disabilities who would otherwise have to beg on the city streets, along with a 100-bed hospital. Shirley was head of nursing and Dave worked in administration and management during their time there.
Soon after his visit to the young missionaries in Mumbai, Major Ken Bridge recalled the following:
To see Dave and Shirley Millar in action is something I shall never forget. Shirley is seen moving around the hospital wards—a smile and a pat of the hand for everyone regardless of the severity of their illness and bodily sores. She loves them each clearly and knows them all by name—the lad without arms whom she feeds and attends to his personal needs—her arms around the blind beggar-mother [who] Dave had lifted out of a gutter in the city along with her children.
Growing family unit
During this five-year period, while living in poor conditions, Shirley gave birth to Greg, and then Janice. Shirley and Dave both continued their ministries while raising two children together—they had very full lives.
After five years in Mumbai, Shirley and Dave accepted an appointment at The Salvation Army Evangeline Booth Hospital in Ahmednagar, 200 kilometres inland from Mumbai. Shirley was able to continue her nursing ministry and Dave was appointed head administrator. Their youngest son, Bruce, was born during this time.
The couple made many heartbreaking sacrifices for their ministry, but one in particular stands out. Once Greg and Janice turned five, Shirley took them on a two days and a night train journey through the middle of India, to a boarding school in the Nilgiri Hills of South India.
‘Although Mum lovingly and sadly said goodbye, as a five-year-old I was distracted by whatever game I was playing,’ Greg explained. ‘There was deep sobbing from many boys that first night, and for many weeks after—I was one of them.’
During their Ahmednagar appointment, Shirley helped train local young people in the nursing school. She worked tirelessly in the hospital, showing the love and commitment she had for her Lord and Saviour, and the deep love she had for others who needed some extra support and care.
They had been serving in India for nine years when Shirley was diagnosed with advanced bowel cancer. She immediately went into hospital in Pune, and was operated on days later. Greg and Janice were called back from boarding school. ‘I was picked up at the darkest moment in those early morning hours at the top of the Nilgiri Hills. Janice was in the back of the taxi already and had been picked up earlier from Hebron school.
‘We drove quickly and silently down the hill, through the dark morning, and I remember waking from a half dream in the early hours of dawn to see a large herd of elephants crossing the road in front of our taxi, and in the distance, a wild animal chasing down its breakfast,’ said Greg.
Shirley underwent two major operations. Dave stayed at Shirley’s side day and night for the four weeks she was in hospital. Greg can remember visiting once, but as a nine-year-old he was not able to comprehend the situation and remembers turning away to stare out the hospital window. He thinks Shirley may have found it difficult for her children to see her so sick.
Prayers from around the world
There were lots of prayers and overwhelming support from around the world, but Dave watched Shirley’s body give up fighting, and had a sense of when her spirit was promoted to Glory—no more pain, with the Saviour she loved.
Shirley died of cancer on 8 December 1972—now 50 years ago—at the age of 34. Shirley was buried in Ahmednagar district in the state of Maharashtra, beside Captain (Dr) Murray Stanton, who died seven months earlier after contracting leptospirosis. Murray had also been working at the Evangeline Booth Hospital, as chief medical officer, before his promotion to glory in May of 1972 (for more information about Captain (Dr) Murray Stanton, see page 33).
Dave Millar describes these 10 years of missionary service in India with Shirley as a wonderful privilege; so full and busy that they felt more like 20 years, but they went by in a flash.
In a letter Dave wrote soon after Shirley’s death, he describes those final weeks:
We had no warning of Shirley’s illness. There were no idle moments with Shirley; her life was lived for the Lord, regardless the demand that it made on her.
Following admission to hospital, they operated on the 14th November and then again on the 6th December. In the first operation they removed about 15 feet of small bowel and, even then, could not remove the root of the growth.
I was with her moment by moment and was able to share wonderful fellowship with her in the Lord and also to tend to her needs as she gradually became weaker and weaker, yet we awaited a miracle from the Lord.
…As I tapped the heart along with the nursing sister and worked at Shirley’s ribs to keep the tired body going, it wasn’t difficult to understand that when the spirit had left the body—it was the body remaining with us, that was the important factor in this difficult experience. It was the glorious fact of the death of one of his saints, and we know that precious in the sight of the Lord is such a happening. Immediately I could in my sorrow praise God, especially in honour of Shirley’s radiant, wonderful faith.
Days of sorrow and mourning
It was a large funeral, attended by so many people who loved and respected Shirley; so many lives she had touched. This all happened far away from her beloved family, long before the days of easy contact; even phone calls between New Zealand and the hospital ward in Pune were almost impossible.
Greg had just turned nine, Janice was seven and Bruce was only three when Shirley died. During the service, Dave cut a small lock of Shirley’s curly black hair while her body lay in the coffin and turned away from everyone. He remembers holding his young son’s hand with tears in his eyes, and thinking the devil has her body, but he will not have the life and future of our family. That was the beginning of a steely resolve of this new solo father, and the family’s new life and future.
Homeward bound and counting the cost
Dave returned to New Zealand with the children. He continued to serve in The Salvation Army and was a wonderful father and sole caregiver. Dave eventually married the much-loved Ofelia on his retirement as a Salvation Army officer, in January 1997, and will turn 90 in February 2023.
Greg says, ‘I think sometimes it’s easier to just focus on the heroic side of stories of sacrifice and service, but at times it is also just deeply sad, personal and there is a sense of loss. There is still beauty; there are no regrets about my life, our family’s life, and it’s wonderful to have the opportunity to remember the young life of my mum, which was so full and well lived—just far too short.’
The sadness surrounding the deaths of Shirley Millar and Murray Stanton—so young, their deaths so premature and so far away—is still remembered and keenly felt by many in The Salvation Army community. But equally, it is indisputable that Shirley and Murray’s legacy lives on through their families and the people they served, who remember them both with love, and through the way they lived and practised their faith.
Return to India
Greg remembers returning to Mumbai in December of 1988 and meeting a man named Shankar, who had both his legs cut off by robbers. When Greg met him, Shankar had his own much-loved sweet shop in central Mumbai, where he also slept. It was no bigger than a kitchen pantry, but he was very proud of this, his livelihood and his own place. When he was introduced to Greg, Shankar smiled so broadly at his memories of Shirley and Dave. With great emotion, he reached behind one of the sweet jars and pulled out a solitary photo album with only three photos, which were of him, Shirley and Dave, during a time he remembered with pride and reverence.
At the hospital in Ahmednagar there is now the Shirley Millar Memorial Hall, a place of worship, renewal, peace and joy that continues to this day, and is such a fitting way to remember the spirit and love of Shirley’s life, 50 years later.
The Gray family will have a small remembrance of Shirley at Foxton Salvation Army hall in early December. Fifty years on, she is remembered by many for her love, work and service, and there is a personal sense of loss for her family. She was a loved mother, wife, sister, daughter and an unknown grandmother, and the family will share and celebrate her life, her deep faith and her service to those in need.
Words Greg Millar with Holly Morton