The Reverend Florence Li Tim-Oi was born on May 5th in fishing village of Aberdeen on Hong Kong Island. At that time in her culture, boy babies were highly prized and a bowl of ash was kept on hand to smother girl babies. But Li Tim-Oi’s parents did want her. Her Christian parents named her Tim-Oi which means “much beloved”
She completed her primary schooling at the age of 14, but with five brothers and two sisters, there was no money available for her to continue her schooling until she turned 21. While she was a student, she joined an Anglican church. At her baptism she took the Christian name of “Florence.” In 1931, when was still a student, she attended the ordination of an English Deaconess. During the service the Chinese born priest asked if there was a Chinese girl willing to sacrifice to the Chinese church. She knelt and prayed “God, would you like to send me?”
In 1934, she started a four year theological course at the Union Theological College in Canton. Her New Testament tutor was Geoffrey Allen. Her family couldn’t afford the tuition fees, so the Anglican Church paid her fees. While she was a student, she led a team of students rescuing the casualties of Japanese carpet bombing during the Second Sino-Japanese war.
She was ordained as a female deacon by the Bishop of Hong Kong on Ascension Day in 1941. (There was no separate deaconess order in China. She had a brief curacy in Kowloon, and then was appointed to the Portuguese colony of Macau, neutral territory which was crowded with war refugees. While she was there she ministered to the refugees and converted many of them to the Anglican Church. There was no priest and the passage from Hong Kong to Macau was long and dangerous because of the war. In 1941, the Bishop of Hong Kong travelled to the United States and had a meeting with Ursula and Reinhold Niebuhr on the subject of ordaining women. In 1943, when the Bishop was in the part of his Diocese that was in free China, he sent a message to Florence Li Tim-Oi to meet with him. Her journey was dangerous because she needed to go through Japanese lines. On January 25, 1944, he ordained her as a Priest of God.
After the war, under pressure from the purple guard (diocesan officials), and to the dismay of her bishop, Li Tim-Oi resigned her license as a priest but not her holy orders. She was put in charge of a parish near Vietnam, where she started a maternity home to prevent girl babies from being suffocated. During the more than 30 years that she lived in the People’s Republic in China, she was required to keep her faith and her calling secret. She was sent for a time to work on a chicken farm where she became “the captain of the chickens.”
The “bamboo curtain” was eventually lifted and Christian ministers received their back pay from the government, but when she left to live in Canada in 1983, she left her money and pension rights to good causes in China.
The 40th anniversary of her priesting was celebrated in 1984 at Westminster Abbey in her presence. At this occasion she was invited to Lambeth Palace to meet the Archbishop of Canterbury, Robert Runcie, who at the time was unconvinced that women should be ordained. After meeting her, the Archbishop said “Who am I to say whom god can or cannot call? It takes one woman to change the thinking of the church.”
When she lived in Toronto she served as an honorary (non-stipended) assistant priest until her death on February 26, 1992. She is commemorated by the Anglican Church Canada on February 26th and by the Episcopal Church (USA) on January 24th