Barbara Selina Zollinger

Barbara Selina Zollinger, Moravian Missionary in Labrador, 1847 to 1918

Barbara Selina Zollinger was clearly never famous, but certainly belongs to the honor roll of Zollingers. She was born in Üssikon near Maur in 1847, descending from a long line of Zollingers from that area. Her parents had moved to Bauma ZH, where they became very active in the local Brethren church. She met Johann Heinrich Meili there, likely at their church, which his family attended too. Johann Heinrich was born in Bussental, between Bäretswil and Bauma, in 1838 and had trained as a cabinetmaker. But Johann Heinrich was at the time not interested in marriage, because he had decided to become a missionary. He joined the Moravian Mission in 1866, and was sent for theological and missionary training in Neudietendorf near Erfurt in Thüringen, Germany.

The Moravian church was a fundamental denomination of the Protestant church, who had its roots in the early reformation movement in Bohemia and Moravia. The church was very active in missionary work, and one of its chosen mission fields was the indigenous population of North America. Here a particular focus was on the Innu and Inuit peoples of northern Labrador on the east coast of Canada. Like many of these fundamentalist missionary groups, the Moravian church had a set of rules regarding missionary life in general, and marriage in particular. The Mission at that time would only accept single males as trainees, but once they had completed their training, they had to be engaged to be married, before they could be sent into the field as missionaries. There he had to work as missionary for several years, while at the same time building up a home, before he could call his fiancee to join him. But marriage itself was then not to take place in their home land and among their own families, but instead in the mission field.

Johann Heinrich Meili too had to follow this process. He graduated from his missionary training in January 1869, and on June 19 that year he departed from London, likely via Halifax, St. John's in Newfoundland to Nain on the northern coast of Labrador. He established himself there, and in 1872 his fiancee Barbara Selina Zollinger was ready to join him. In the meantime Barbara had also received her missionary training, and by November 1871 she was ready for the missionary calling, and was now called Sister Selina. She traveled to Nain in early 1872, where the two were married on the 15th of September 1872.

For the next two years they worked in Nain, and in 1873 Johann Heinrich Meili was ordained as "Diaconus" (Deacon) of the church. By October 1875 the couple was moved to an even more remote location in Okak to build up a church there. Okak lies on the island of Kiwalek some 200 km north of Nain, near the 58 degree latitude, but that settlement was later abandoned by the Canadian government due to difficulties in providing supplies. By September 1873 their first son Heinrich Theodor was born, and in quick succession four girls had followed by 1878. The whole family then traveled back to Germany and Switzerland for home leave, departing Labrador on the 26th of October 1878, and returning to the mission field in June 1880. During their leave a daughter Lydia was born, and they resumed their work in Okak in September 1880, now with six children. A second son Friedrich Eduard was born in 1881, but by 1885 the health of Barbara Selina was so poor that the family had to be called back to Germany in order to have her try to regain her health. But Barbara Selina's health situation did not improve there, and at the end of 1885 the Mission decided to release the family from their Missionary duty. The Meilis then settled in Männedorf ZH, where they had two more sons, in 1886 and 1888. Barbara Selina died in Männedorf in 1918, and her husband Johann Heinrich Meili followed her three years later. This indicates that Barbara Selina seems to have recovered from her health problems, and enjoyed another twenty years of life after her missionary calling had ended.

Two of the Meili daughters followed their parents into the missionary field, both of them married missionaries who were sent to Tanzania, Africa. That was a different environment from the north coast of Labrador, with its long harsh winters and cool summers, and with much snow and fog for most of the year. In that environment, with no electricity, no running water, food or equipment supplies that were provided sporadically at best, and hardly any contact with the outside world, the Meilis worked for 16 years. One can imagine that most of the burden of making life livable in that remote location fell to the wife. Living in that cold and damp climate, giving birth almost once a year, and working literally day and night to carve a life out of the wilderness clearly affected Barbara Selina's health, and may have affected her for the rest of her life. She nevertheless has the distinction of being the first Canadian Zollinger, even though Newfoundland and Labrador at that time were still British colonies, and joined Canada only much later.

Source: Archives of the Moravian Church, "Evangelische Brüder Unität, HERRNHUT, Germany

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