Elizabeth (Johnston) Copeland (née O’Brien)


Missionary to the New Hebrides (Vanuatu)


by Donald L. Forbes

     Elizabeth O’Brien, born 4 Aug 1835 in Noel, was the daughter of William O’Brien[1] and Margaret Davison. Her eldest sibling, Osmond (1828-1906), went on to found the O’Brien shipping business, which built four brigantines, 11 barques, and four schooners behind the O’Brien store in Noel between 1856 and 1918. Operating these vessels around the world, local men and some women travelled the seven seas. But Elizabeth’s family did not go far.[2] She was the exception.

      On 8 August 1859 in Noel, Elizabeth married Samuel Fulton Johnston. Ten days later, on the 17th, he was ordained in Upper Stewiacke. After farewells to both families, the couple embarked in November on a lengthy passage via Australia and Fiji, arriving in the New Hebrides (now Vanuatu) in June 1860. Elizabeth and Fulton began their ministry together on the island of Tanna, where inter-community warfare and cannibalism were still practised. The Johnstons devoted themselves to learning the language and establishing a rapport with the local people. But sadly, after a night-time assault, followed by malaria, Fulton passed away on 21 January 1861. Widowed so soon, Elizabeth returned to the main mission in Aneityum, where she assisted Mrs. Geddie[3] in the girls’ school.

      In 1863 at Aneityum, Elizabeth married the Rev. Joseph Copeland, who had arrived in the New Hebrides in 1858. Together, they re-established a Presbyterian mission on the small, precipitous, volcanic island of Futuna, easternmost of the southern New Hebrides. Five children were born there, two of whom (Alexander and Josephine) went on to have descendants in Australia. When Elizabeth travelled to Sydney with the children in 1873, John and Ann Goodlet, a prominent business and philanthropic couple, took care of them and informally adopted the children. When the Copelands returned to the New Hebrides with the two youngest in 1875, Elizabeth’s health was in rapid decline, and she died of consumption on Futuna on 20 January 1876. There is a photograph of her grave marker, of which I am currently trying to obtain a good copy.


[1]. William O’Brien (known as “Uncle Billy”) was the eleventh and youngest child of Jacob O’Brien and Mary Spencer and grandson of Timothy O’Brien and Margaret Gilmore, who settled their family in 1771 on a grant of land including the present village of Noel. William O’Brien and Margaret Davison were married in Londonderry, Colchester Co., 28 Nov 1826.

[2]. Like Osmond, Elizabeth’s three other surviving brothers, John William (1830-1916, farmer and ship carpenter), Charles Douglas (1839-1910, plasterer and mason), and my great-grandfather Samuel (1841-1910, teacher, enumerator, and merchant), all remained in the village. Sisters Sarah Ann (1832-1867) married Richard Sterling of Lower Selma, Eleanor (1834-1865) married John Christie of Clifton, and Nancy (1837-1916) married Andrew Gilmore O’Brien and remained in Noel.

[3]. Charlotte Leonora Harrington MacDonald, a doctor’s daughter from Antigonish, married Rev. John Geddie, raised in Pictou, on 21 Sep 1838. The Geddies began their mission on Aneityum (Anatom), most southerly island in the New Hebrides (Vanuatu) in July 1848.