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Mary Gavin, a woman with a passion for justice

Loving soul: Mary Gavin.

Loving soul: Mary Gavin.

This is a eulogy delivered by Wendy Cusack at the funeral Mass for her aunt Mary Gavin at St Bernard’s Church, Upper Mt Gravatt, on April 23. Ms Gavin died on April 16 in Brisbane.


MARY Catherine Bernadette Gavin was born in Stanthorpe on March 12, 1934, the first-born child of Winnie and Basil.

In December 1939 the family moved to Brisbane and a month later my mother Maureen was born. The Gavin family was now complete.

Despite the six-year age gap, the sisters were very close and had a happy and care-free childhood at 819 Ipswich Road, Yeerongpilly.

Mary attended primary school at Mary Immaculate, Annerley, and then went on to complete junior at All Hallows’ School. After leaving school she worked as a secretary at Shell and then an insurance company.

She had a wide circle of friends, which included her cousins Monica and Donna, and was actively involved in the parish Catholic youth group.

From an early age she was known for her strong faith and more than one parish priest tried (unsuccessfully) to persuade her to become a nun.

In the late 1960s she began work at the Catholic Missions Office in Brisbane and later became the first lay director of the Catholic Immigration Office. She went on to hold other senior positions within the archdiocese, including director of the Centre for Multicultural Pastoral Care.

Mary never really retired and at the time of her death, she was the Australian co-ordinator of Always People, a worldwide movement helping people across all faiths and cultures.

What I want to share with you today is our memories of Mary Gavin – the much- loved daughter, sister, aunt, great-aunt, cousin and friend.

When Mary was first diagnosed with her brain tumour in November last year, we found ourselves being forced to have one of those conversations that you hope you never have to have. We talked about the practical matters associated with death if she did not survive the surgery. It was then that Mary asked me if I would speak on behalf of the family at her funeral – a great honour but also a daunting and emotional task, and one that I have struggled with over the past few days.

That’s not because I don’t know what to say, but because there is so much to say – so many “Mary” stories and memories. How do I capture the essence of my aunt and what she meant to our family in just a couple of pages?

To put it in context for those unfamiliar with our family history: My father was an only child. Mary was our mother’s only sibling. Growing up, we had no cousins, no uncles and no other aunts: just my four grandparents and Mary.

Our family was small but incredibly close – so close in fact that my parents moved in with Grandma and Grandpa Gavin and Mary soon after they were married and lived there for almost four years.

For Paul, Susan and me, 819 Ipswich Rd was our first home. We were as close as a family of five adults and three children under three years could be living in a house with only two bedrooms and one bathroom.

And then when my parents saved enough money to build their own home, they built it at the back of my grandparents’ block. There was no fence to separate the two houses – just a well-worn path from back door to back door. And if we got too lazy, just shouted conversations between my grandmother and mother from their respective back steps.

You see, Mary was more than the distant relative we saw once at year at the Christmas lunch. We saw her everyday as we were growing up and shared many meals and late-night suppers around my grandmother’s kitchen table. (Usually cups of Bushells tea and arrowroot biscuits smothered in butter or grandma’s jam drops).

Mary was there for all our big family events (birthdays, Communions, graduations, weddings, christening) as well as the minutiae of our everyday lives. She knew the names of our friends, our teachers, our workmates and most of them knew her.

She would listen to our problems, take pride in our achievements, and offer advice when needed. She was the late-night phone call you could make when you needed help.

She constantly demonstrated her love for family and took a great interest in our partners and our children.

Mary’s love for us was unconditional. She never judged us, or was disappointed in us, and when our lives became busy, she never put undue pressure or unreasonable expectations on us.

So, you see, Mary was far more than an aunt for my siblings and I. She was our confidant, mentor and friend.

Mary had a unique relationship with each of us and we all have our own special memories of our aunt.

For my sister it was a “Thelma and Louise style” road trip as Susan started a new job in Melbourne with Mary riding shotgun to help settle Susan into her new hospital and new life.

Susan also has very clear memories of Saturday mornings spent sharpening pencils at the Missions Office in the Hibernian Building, ready for the Sunday appeals and then being rewarded with a milkshake at Christies before catching the tram home.

Mary called my sister “Honey” and was grateful for the tender nursing care she received from my sister over the last few months.

My brother Paul says he never had trouble finding his way as he stumbled home from his late-night drinking sessions as the lights of 819 Ipswich Road shone brightly in the otherwise darkened streets. Our aunt was a night owl, who considered it an “early night” if she went to bed before 3am.

Even in the hospital she somehow managed to convince the staff to give her special privileges and she could be found watching her DVDs well after lights-out. She actually managed to watch seven series of Foyle’s War in the two weeks before her death.

For Mary, Paul was the boy with the big smile and the big heart and she was touched by his unquestioning generosity to her.

My brother David also remembers going into Mary’s office at the Catholic Centre after school sports days (looking at the wood carvings of crocodiles sent from the different groups that they had helped) and then getting a lift home in her yellow Corona Sedan.

He wondered why Mary only drove automatic cars – but as he drove with her, sucking in his breath at near-misses and holding on for dear life, he came to realise why. Driving was one of the few areas where Mary did not excel.

Mary looked forward to her fish-and-chip supper with David and cherished her conversations with him.

And then there was her very special relationship with my youngest brother Michael. He was her Mickey and she was his Mare-Pear and they idolised each other.

Michael’s little feet would fly between the two houses when he knew Mary was home from work and Mary would make sure she was there each night to read him a bedtime story.

She was a wonderful support to my parents during his too-short life and, like all of us, she was devastated when he died. But even in her grief, my aunt was a visionary woman of action and, within four months of his death, she and my parents had established the Michael Cameron Fund at the University of Queensland to support research around Down syndrome and to honour my brother’s memory.

And I have no doubt that that last Wednesday Michael would have been running with open arms (and probably his favourite story book) to greet Mary once again.

For me, Mary was the “fun” aunt who performed cartwheels on the front lawn of Grandma’s house as we sat watching the traffic on lazy Sunday afternoons. She was the “sophisticated” aunt with her own personal dressmaker, who each year would pack her red Samsonite suitcase to travel to exciting and exotic locations.

In the days before computers, she would stay up late at night typing up my uni assignments on her golfball typewriter. And if I was still writing that assignment at 4am, I knew I could rely on Mary to also still be up to type it for me.

She instilled in me a love of books, theatre and travel and I will be forever grateful for the closeness we shared.

I particularly want to thank my husband and my sons for welcoming Mary in our home when she got sick. I would never have been able to share the last months of Mary’s life without your love and support.

Despite the differences, my mother and aunt were also very close and enjoyed a strong friendship.

One of Mum’s early memories is a giant chocolate egg Mary bought for Mum the first Easter she started working. Typically my mother couldn’t wait for her Easter treat and managed to find where Mary had hidden it. You will find that chocolate plays a recurring theme in the life of the Gavin sisters.

Mum also has happy memories of family holidays at Redcliffe and Kirra, and even laughs about Mary being known as the thin Gavin girl, while Mum was the fat one. (Maybe too many of those Easter eggs, Mum!).

They have supported, encouraged and cared for each other through the good and bad times, as only family can do.

Mum herself is not well and so she has found it frustrating and immensely sad that she hasn’t been able to care for Mary over the last five months as she would have liked. But they spoke every day on the phone, when they couldn’t see each other in person.

When Mary was in the Princess Alexandra Hospital, Mum’s was the first voice Mary heard of a morning and usually the last voice at night. Mum would gather the news of Mary’s day and share it with the rest of us.

And I know that my aunt appreciated my mother’s generosity as well. Mary told me several times how generous Mum was in “sharing her children”. She said many sisters would have been jealous or resentful of the time we spent with our aunt and our special relationships with her – but not my mother. And Mary was forever thankful for that gift of family from my mother.

And finally there was my aunt’s relationship with my grandmother.

My aunt never married, although as Grandma was very quick to point out “She had her chances, you know” and then would rattle off a list of three or four names of Mary’s suitors.

Mary lived with my grandparents for their entire lives. And even though the love between them was there for all to see, in many ways my grandmother and my aunt were the classic odd couple.

Growing up, each of us had a night when we would have dinner and sleep over at my grandparents’ house. And if you were to ask each of us about our strongest memories of those nights (besides my grandmother’s cooking), it would be my grandmother constantly yelling “For God’s sake Mary”…. And then one of the following variations: “stop washing your hands and come to dinner”; “turn off the lights and come to bed”, “you’re not going to start cleaning at this hour” “get out of bed, you’ll miss the bus and be late for work”.

My aunt was not a vain person, except with respect to her age. It was top secret, not to be divulged to anyone outside the family. In fact, one of the first conversations my aunt had with hospital staff was to request them not to ask for her year of birth in front of visitors.

Unfortunately in a hospital, you probably get asked your date of birth nearly every hour. In the end, we were able to persuade Mary to have a party for her “big” birthday in March. And, really, once everyone started telling her they thought she was 10 years younger, she was quite flattered and comfortable with her “coming out”.

Food was one of my aunt’s great passions. It was a family joke that you needed to double the food if Mary was coming around for a meal. She loved her food and the cooks at the PA hospital loved her – as she was the only one in the ward who said yes to everything offered at breakfast, lunch and tea and left nothing behind on her plate. And she had the record for eating the largest post-op meal after brain surgery. While most patients made do with sips of water, Mary’s nurses had to find toast, custard, and more toast.

Chocolate was a particular weakness and her fridge was always stacked with Cadbury’s Dairy Milk, Crunchies and Cherry Ripes. And her eyes would light up when visitors to the hospital turned up with chocolates or TV snacks. Although she was not always good at sharing!

Friendship was important to my aunt. Mary made life-long friends and worked hard at saying in contact with them.

She inspired loyalty and respect. Friends and relatives flew from around the country to catch up with Mary during the last couple of months and she had regular visitors, including her close friends Maria and Jose.

She was genuinely interested in people and knew the names of all the doctors and nurses and health professionals who took such great care of her at the PA. She loved learning more about people and their families and valued people from all faiths and cultures and all walks of life. It didn’t matter if it was a bishop or the tea lady – Mary treated them all with equal respect.

As Mary said to me several times, most people don’t know how loved they are until after they die. People usually wait until the funeral to say nice things. But she felt very blessed that her illness gave her the chance to know how much she was loved by family and friends. She was at times overwhelmed by the phone calls, the visits, the letters, the gifts of chocolates and the prayers she receive over the last few months.

The switchboard operator at the PA hospital told me he knew her extension off by heart because of the hundreds of phone calls she received. So many people whose life she had touched wanted to thank her and acknowledge her for all her kindness and generosity.

When my aunt was diagnosed with cancer five months ago it was a very difficult time for us. A brain tumour is a cruel and debilitating disease, especially for someone as intelligent and active as Mary. Change was not something Mary naturally embraced, but the tumour gave her little choice. It robs you of your independence, your mobility, your speech, your ability to communication, your dignity – all things that my aunt valued so very highly.

But Mary was an incredibly positive, strong and resilient lady. She had an extraordinary faith and not once did I hear her complain about the unfairness of her situation. Mary accepted and trusted completely in God’s plan for her and believed that God would give her the courage and strength to deal with her illness. And He did. She was an inspiration.

When we were talking on the day she died, my brother Paul said to me that he pitied St Peter when Mary met him at the Pearly Gates. But as I said to Paul, you needn’t worry about St Peter. Mary would never bother with a middleman; she’d have gone straight to the top and headed for God.

Her passion for justice and equality for the disadvantaged and marginalised could hardly be contained on earth and there will be no containing her now she’s in heaven. [And we have no doubt that she is in heaven – I’m sure she was taken in the express lift].

Mary was determined, generous, loyal, loving, strong, uncomplaining, intelligent, passionate, fearless and faithful. Mary was an incredible daughter, sister, aunt, great-aunt, cousin and friend.

We love her and miss her. Her death leaves a massive hole in our hearts and our lives. Mary, I wish you the peace, happiness and joy you so richly deserve.

Written by: Staff writers
Catholic Church Insurance

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