Remembering Doreen

Come May each year, it is time to reflect on yet another Gordonton trail blazer – Rev Doreen Riddell, QSM, 1933 – 2021.   Alan Sharp offers the following reflection on a woman who travelled a long way from her roots in Gordonton and changed the lives of many.


From Gordonton NZ, to Jagadhri, North India,

and back to retire after 34 years


THOUGH LOCALLY less well known, in North India, Doreen Riddell is the revered founding principal of St Thomas School, Jagadhri.

All were welcomed, from the able, to less able, and impaired. From new entrants, to year 12 school leavers. With a roll in excess of 1600 students, when she retired in 1993, and 2000 in more recent times. The maths suggests that well over 100,000 students, or families in the tens of thousands, owe their co-education schooling, in English and Hindi, to her perseverance, guidance, and love.

Doreen was the daughter of Olive and Thomas Riddell, and raised on a portion of the Woodlands Estate, that in 1905 the Riddells came to, from Waverly.  Unfortunately, in 1940, her father Tom, aged 42, died of TB, leaving her mother Olive, with five children to raise, and the farm to run. The family clan gathered around offering help, workers were hired, and as soon as he could Lex, the eldest sibling, left school to convert the farm to dairying. In turn brother Arthur, joined Lex as soon as he could.

Her formative years were in Gordonton, attending the local primary school, and with her extended family, fully participating in witness and youth activities of the Gordonton Presbyterian Church, which the Riddell clan had helped build. Gordonton being the country Church of St Andrews Parish, at Claudelands, and then later Knox Parish, at Hamilton East. Though money had been tight, Olive had always found a way for her daughters to be able to attend Easter, and other youth camps. Steadfast in faith, Doreen decided teaching and youth work, not nursing like her sister June, would be her calling,
She gained her Secondary School, and University Entrance exams, at Hamilton High School, and went on to Ardmore Teachers Training College.

Three years later, she commenced teaching at Rotowaro Primary School for a year, followed by Tauhei Primary School for two years. Then the desire to further her knowledge, by the study of Theology, saw her enrol in Dunedin, to become a Presbyterian Deaconess. Joining about 15 other women in the College hostel, at Mornington for the 1956 intake. The three who had gained university entrance, did the full three-year course, that included attending morning Theology lectures across Dunedin, at Knox College, joining the Presbyterian Ministers in training. The rest of her intake, did a simpler Deaconess course, solely at Mornington.

Though those men ordained at Knox, became Presbyterian Ministers, Doreen and her colleague Nan Burgess, were only ordained as Deaconesses of the Church. They were not ordained to celebrate the sacraments of Holy Communion, or to Baptise, nor sit on the Church Courts. Over the two-month summer breaks, she enjoyed the challenge of practicum work in Parishes. In 1955/56 at Point England Auckland, she offered pastural care to the new housing settlers, going street to street on a push bike, and helped in the Maori Girls Hostel. In 1956/57 she did similar pastural care visits, in the new Christchuch housing at Hoon Hay, plus engaged with Church youth groups, and led Sunday services.
Her final year at college was very demanding, but she gave it her all, passed her exams and was ordained a Deaconess. Feeling exhausted, she was advised to take on less challenging work, than in a new parish, or in social work, so instead for a year, she joined the team at the Lawrence Presbyterian Children’s home. Working with the children there, she found very fulfilling.



While there, she became aware of a call for Deaconesses to assist with missions, and pastural work, for the North India Church. Doreen applied, not expecting to be accepted but in October 1959, found herself on a ship leaving NZ, at the start of her journey to Jagadhri, North India. Her first three years were spent learning Hindi, and answering the Churches call for social work, within the villages that surrounded Jagadhri, and the twin city across the river. Into her third year she started teaching in Hindi, at a Girls School run by the North India Churches, and soon found herself, also becoming its administrator.

After four years in India, it was time for a furlough, in Australia and New Zealand. During which time, she recovered from a bout of Hepatitis.

In August 1956 she returned, to learn that the church authorities were having to reprioritise. International funding was harder to find, and that the girls’ school was being phased out. It was proposed to start a co-educational school teaching in English, in two years’ time, with a school principal who was making themselves available. Doreen was not happy, and made her opinion well known. In two years, the facilities would have decayed, such are the ravages of termites etc, when not maintained. She consulted with all who would listen. Finally, to her surprise, she was told, if she felt so strongly that was God’s call, she could make an immediate start, as school principal, on such a self-funded school, using a couple of the dilapidated, disused classrooms. Volunteering as founding principal, was not her plan, but she accepted, and the rest, as they say, is history.

On the 2nd of May 1966 St Thomas School, Jagadhri, opened for teaching with five paying, day-school students. Parents saw opportunities for their children, if proficient in English, and were prepared to accept the North India Churches professionalism, and ethics, in teaching at a co-educational school. Accepting all paying students, regardless of gender, ability or infirmity, under the leadership of Deaconess Doreen Riddell, who’s motto for her new school was “With love, serve one another”.


Doreen’s solution for safely getting new entrants through the city streets, to school.


The first years were tough, and progress was slow, as they were starting from scratch. She had no other local co-educational Church schools to learn from. No school syllabus, no course materials, and there was a national education syllabus, and certification to be met. How do you introduce English, to new entrant children who only know Hindi? She was very grateful when an Anglo-Indian boarding school, put her on to Cambridge University Press readers, and course material, developed for Hindi speaking Kenyan’s.

In four years, the roll had grown to 120 students. On top of faculty issues, were school finances. Increasing rolls called for more classrooms, and more ongoing maintenance. No State funding was available, so it was up to parents, and the generosity of Christians around the world, to fund the expansion. Study in bookkeeping skills were called for which Doreen did locally, and then on furlough she undertook accountancy studies with the help of a St Andrews Church, Claudelands, parishioner. Then in 1976, it was again at St Andrews, that she was ordained, by the Waikato Presbytery, as a New Zealand, Presbyterian Minister.

Local Jagadhri recognition of Doreen’s dedicated contribution to their city, was acknowledged in 1982, when the Bishop of Delhi, ordained Doreen Mary Riddell, as the first Woman Minister, within the North India Church. Success breeds success, and the school under Doreen’s skill full governance, continued growing. As did women entering into Ministry. At her retirement in 1993 there were 1,600 students, and the roll continued to grow to 2,000. Housed in spacious three storied brick classrooms, plus amenities. Fifty-six years later it has over 100 teachers, 75 classrooms, a gymnasium, sports field, and other amenities for its students.

New Zealand honoured Doreen’s life of faith, and dedication to humanity, with a Queens Service Medal (Public Services) in the 1995, New Year’s Honours list.


Fittingly in to mark Doreen’s 85th birthday, Alumni from St Thomas School, Jagadhri purchased local press advertising space, to post an illustrated address acknowledging Rev Doreen M Riddell, as the founding principal of their school, that gave them their start in life. And what an accolade it is.

The Rev Doreen Mary Riddell, QSM, born July 25th, 1933, passed away on June 2 2021, in Hamilton, New Zealand. Sadly, on July 20 2021, her brother Arthur followed her, leaving only sister June, still alive and in care.



Dedication, Devotion, Devoutness
One will run out of sobriquets and fall short of accolades but words can never encompass the yeoman’s service that Rev. Doreen Riddell rendered to education in the twin towns of Yamunanagar, Jagadhri and surrounding villages during her three decades in the region. When Rev. Riddell left the shores of New Zealand for away India in 1959, she only had a suitcase in her hand but zeal and vision in her heart.
India had attained independence just a decade ago and the nation needed quality education institutions at the grass root level. After the mandatory spadework, Rev. Riddell was appointed the founding principal of St Thomas School in Jagadhri on May 2, 1966. Starting with just five students, that day marked the beginning of an incredible journey – a journey that will not only hone and chisel but also enlighten thousands of young minds and turn them into responsible citizens.

In many ways, Rev. Riddell was a sage with a mission. Even as she built St Thomas from scratch and turned it into an institution of formidable repute, she led a fugal lifestyle on the campus that was far removed from the luxuries of the world. Armed with a charismatic smile and down to earth disposition, she was accessible to one and all and embodied the school motto – With Love Serve One Another.
Such was her single-minded focus on providing top notch yet affordable education to children of Yamunanagar, and Jagadhri that she used to commute in state transport bus to Delhi for various meetings and always refrained from using a car for her personal use. While Rev. Riddell was fair to all children, she always made it a point to help the poor and needy students in every possible way. She also ensured that the school campus was welcoming and not intimidating for parents of underprivileged children so that they could share their issues and concerns in a candid manner.

That St Thomas could blossom into one of the leading schools in Haryana is also attributed to the unique pattern, set up by Rev. Riddell, for imparting education. With an excellent and talented faculty, the school emphasised on boosting reasoning and cultivating creativity rather than resorting to mundane cramming. This allowed the curious minds to explore, discover and experiment and move beyond text books.

She believed in giving opportunity to each and every student for participation in all school functions so that none of the children felt left out. Thanks to her sharp memory and eye for detail, she knew the names of all of the students in the school. Not just a remarkable leader but Rev. Riddell was also a magnificent teacher of English Literature. Her sharp insights and comprehension of Shakespeare plays like Caesar and Hamlet are still fondly remembered by the students.

For her tireless work in the noble field of education, Rev. Riddell was a proud recipient of Queen’s Service Medal from New Zealand government. But perhaps a bigger reward for her was shaping and nurturing students from diverse backgrounds with varying interests.

Rev Riddell retired in July 1993 at the age of 60 years. As she bid adieu to St Thomas that was the perfect result of her relentless pursuit, the school that started in 1966 with only five students boasted of a strength of 2000 in 1993!

Today, as the living legend celebrates her 85th birthday, we not only applaud and salute Rev. Riddell’s mammoth efforts but also bow down to her tenacious perseverance. For someone who just had a prayer, “we shall overcome” on her lips and determination in her heart when she first stepped into Jagadhri, the immense contribution of the Rev. Doreen M. Riddell in turning the twin towns into cradle of quality education will never be forgotten!

Transcription of advert – Alan SHARP. E. & O. E. 2022.

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Number 8 Network - a community website for the rural areas northeast of Hamilton, NZ, is run by Gordonton journalist/editor Annette Taylor.

One thought on “Remembering Doreen

  • May 18, 2022 at 4:13 pm

    I thoroughly enjoyed the article on Rev Doreen Riddell who’s outstanding contribution to community and humanity will be revered for many years to come.
    R Raniera


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