For 30 years one word written in chalk on pavements all over town in beautiful copperplate script moved the people of Sydney. Fifty years later we look back at the man behind the yellow chalk, Arthur Stace, and how he became ‘Mr Eternity’, a Sydney legend.
Stace’s life story has become a symbol of hope, and a very well-known one. He transformed from a drunkard who could barely sign his name to a devoted Christian inviting Sydney siders to seek “Eternity”, a word that came easily to his inexperienced writing hand and he wrote it on paths and pavements an estimated 500,000 times.
Stace was born in 1885. He grew up in an alcoholic household. Both parents and brothers were drunkards - all of whom sadly passed away alcoholic derelicts. Both his sisters were heavy drinkers and prostitutes who ran their own brothel. He recalled a time when his family sat around the table crying because there was nothing left to drink, and no money to buy more. Stace was arrested for the first time when he was 15, for drunkenness and indecency, which sadly became a regular habit. He enlisted to fight overseas in March 1916 and when he returned - half blind in one eye from a gas attack- his alcoholism had worsened.
So it went on for years, “ he recalled, “always drunk, always broke. I was just one of a bunch of no good derelicts…I started drinking beer, then wine, then spirits and finally I was drinking methylated spirits.
He lost numerous jobs because of it. He began thieving, stealing milk bottles off doorsteps, lollies and cakes from carts and any food he could find in the garbage.
With the promise of a free cup of tea and a rock cake, Stace wound up at a St. Barnabas school hall on August 6th 1930. He said in an interview that he took one look at the Christian people there and said to the man next to him, “Look at them and look at us. I’m having a go at what they’ve got. I got down and prayed for God to be merciful to me…. That night a sinner was saved”.
It wasn’t until November 1932, when Stace was motivated by a sermon from John Ridley, that Mr Eternity was born. After hearing Ridley exclaim;
“Eternity, Eternity, I wish that I could sound or shout that word to everyone in the streets of Sydney”
Stace began chalking his way through the Sydney Streets, reminding passers-by of God and his promise of hope in eternal life. Although he was in trouble from police on numerous occasions for ‘defacing pavements’, Stace simply responded, “but I have permission from a higher source”.
The identity of Mr Eternity was eventually discovered by the Reverend Lisle Thompson who saw Stace in action early one morning. Thompson said in his interview with the Sydney Morning Herald that “Arthur’s one-word sermon has challenged thousands. No one will ever know how many lives it has influenced, perhaps as dramatically as Arthur Stace’s own life was influenced on August 6th 1930”.
Although Stace continued his mission for 30 years, almost no evidence of his work survives; one example is reported to have been found on the inside of the bell of the Sydney Post Office clock tower; another can be seen on Stace’s grave and one is memorialised in aluminium at Town Hall Square in Sydney.
Stace’s legacy was honoured at the turn of the century, when the word “Eternity” was flashed in lights across the Harbour Bridge, reminding us all of the Sydney legends who made hope his lifelong mission.
Header: Wikimedia Commons