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Coffee lounge sandwiches will no longer have Marj

Service with smiles: Marjorie Williams (left) is calling it a day after 20 years running the Cathedral Coffee Lounge in Brisbane. She is with long-time friend Sandy O’Donohue on one of her last days at the coffee lounge. Photo: Joe Higgins

MARJORIE Williams was eight years old and, for a bit of fun, was baking a cake for her teddy bear’s birthday in the electric oven her brother had got from his electrical job.

It was baking better than the cake she had made for her dolly’s birthday, which had ended up as chook scrap when she threw it out the window after hearing her brother’s motorcycle pull up – she wasn’t supposed to use the stove being so young.

For teddy, the birthday treat was an iced and decorated orange cake that turned out “beautifully”. But her mum came home early.

“My mum never ever hit us but, boy, did I get a tongue-bashing,” Marj said with a laugh, sitting beside long-time friend Sandy O’Donohue in the quiet Friday morning Cathedral Coffee Lounge service.

“My brother came home, (and) my brother’s theory was you have dessert before you have tea, and he cut a piece of the cake and said, ‘Oh gosh who made the cake? It’s beautiful’.

“And mum said, ‘The guilty party is hiding under the bed’. So that goes back to when I was eight years old and I’ve been with food, cooking with food, ever since.”

Marj was hanging up her apron at the Cathedral Coffee Lounge after 20 years on January 31 and was looking for volunteers to take over her role ordering for the shop, general maintenance and rostering. The job was open to anyone, not just Catholics.

Marj said you could even be Callithumpian.

“I’ve had some wonderful times here,” she said. “We’ve had some funny times – we’ve run lots of St Paddies Days, fashion parades, Melbourne Cups.”

Her husband Neville Williams, with whom she had four boys and a girl, had lent a hand at the coffee lounge since retiring about 10 years ago.

But it had become difficult to find new people to take over the volunteering because of the economic situation most families found themselves in.

Marj said nowadays the grandparents had to look after the grandchildren because the parents both had to work to pay the mortgage. 

This made it challenging for retired grandparents to make time to volunteer at social community locations. 

It was a “rewarding” experience and a great opportunity for those looking to build skills or get social. 

Running the coffee lounge has thrown up “a lot of brick walls”, but it was in those times her faith was there to lean on.

“Our faith has got us through that,” she said.

“And you’ve got to have faith in something.”

Before her time at the cathedral, Marjorie had run a local catering business that serviced schools on the northside of Brisbane.

Her opportunity to become a caterer was thanks to some oddly oversized scones at a Year 1 mum’s morning tea at Geebung State School. 

“Scones as big as saucepans,” Marj said, holding up her plate. “There were so many left over it wasn’t funny – my daughter’s horse got to eat what was left over.”

The school principal had planned a meeting of local principals and, instead of the “huge scones”, was given Marj’s name as a suggestion.

Marj thought she was in trouble being called into the principal’s office but it turned out to be a blessing. 

She made such good food all the principals there were asking, “Who did the morning tea?”

“From there, that’s how my catering business started, from one principal to another principal, to eight different principals and the state education department,” she said.

Her association with the Catholic Women’s League started in 1984, becoming the first president of the Aspley branch, and she found her way to the Holy Spirit Hospital auxiliary to run its coffee shop.

She spent 20 years with the Holy Spirit Sisters.

Her love for her work with food – wherever her work took her – was meeting so many people from “all walks of life”.

It was the people she would miss the most. 

But her love for food was also engrained in the Brisbane girl from childhood.

Her dad became an alcoholic and had kicked her mum and the family out of home and when that happened, Marj’s mum had to work at a hotel. 

“In those days you had the glass bottles and you got threepence back on every glass bottle you took back to the shop,” she said.

In the complex where they stayed there was a canteen and so she would pick up all the bottles and go to the shop with them. 

The shopkeeper told the other children she would not take any more bottles, but as soon as she saw young Marjorie, she said, “Oh yes, I’ll take your bottles”.

That was because “I never bought lollies”, Marj said.

“I bought sixpence worth of Windsor sausage and a half a loaf of bread,” she said. “I didn’t believe in buying lollies when we needed food. 

“So that’s what I’m saying – food has been my life.”

After being kicked out of home, the housing commission was not sure where to send the family because “you had to have a man to be a family” in those days.

She and her family went to stay at the old army barracks at Victoria Park.

After a stay in Thangool, working at her grandma’s café when she was 11 years old, she went up to Rockhampton on the red rattler, where she remembered watching the Wizard of Oz at the cinema. 

But soon enough, she was back in Brisbane.

Her passion for food followed her to Four Square Store at Banyo where she worked after dropping out of high school to help her mum earn for the family, and onto a job at Fielders Corn Flower, through to her catering days and finishing at the Cathedral Coffee Lounge.

Anyone interested in volunteering for the Cathedral Coffee Lounge, contact Sandra at or call 0407 791 833.

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