NINETY-three-year-old Dorothy Russell landed in hospital after a fall at home recently, and her parish felt the pain.
With Dorothy laid up and the parish priest away, there was no-one to open the church for Mass on Saturday.
That was the first sign of how much the Darra-Jindalee parish, in Brisbane’s west, relies on Dorothy.
And it soon dawned on parishioners that this diminutive dynamo was doing far more than anyone had realised — much of it in the background.
Dorothy believes that’s been behind someone in the parish nominating her for the recent Community Leader Awards hosted by The Catholic Leader.
She was a finalist in the Volunteer of the Year category and Archbishop Mark Coleridge was one of the many to marvel at the tireless achievements for someone of such age.
Dorothy, of course, was a little embarrassed and could think of many other people who she considered should’ve been there in her place.
Although she wasn’t the eventual winner, she almost stole the show and she had a ball.
Only a few months earlier she was lying in the Mater Hospital in great pain.
Fortunately, there were no broken bones, only severe bruising and shock.
“I was in a bad shape for a few weeks, and that’s when all this (fuss about what she does in the parish) happened …,” she said.
“Nobody knew what I did (around the parish), and there are a few jobs I’m doing (while the parish priest was absent), so there was nobody to open the church at 5 o’clock on Saturday night.
“I think a couple of the collectors didn’t turn up … Nobody knew what I did, and I really didn’t know what I did myself, because I just automatically …
“So that’s when all this has started. I got a shock when they told what they were doing.
“So this is why I am now trying to step back, that they’ve got to keep doing what they’re doing, just in case something like that happens to me again.
“And, also, they’ve got to take over, different ones to do it.
“Since then Dorothy’s been very quiet … Hopefully, I’m back on duty.”
And “back on duty”, for the evergreen livewire who still drives her car, plays bridge in the city once a week, and goes to Vinnies and Probus meetings, can mean quite a lot – from arranging collectors at Mass, operating the St Vincent de Paul Society’s piety stall, to washing altar cloths and being the source of knowledge to answer all sorts of questions about parish operations.
Dorothy points to others who take Communion to the sick and elderly once a week, to deflect attention from herself.
“I don’t do any of that kind of stuff. That’s why I feel if anybody should’ve been going in this (Community Leader Awards), it should’ve been the likes of them,” she said.
“That’s what they’re doing; I’m only trying to … well, I just washed the alter cloths …”
But she acknowledges that much of what she does helps keeps other aspects of parish life going.
She calls it “housekeeping”.
“I say I just do some of the ‘housekeeping’ around the parish and that’s about all,” she said.
And a lot comes under “housekeeping”.
“Yeah … well, it does in your own house, doesn’t it? You just do everything to keep the place going,” Dorothy said.
Living only a stone’s throw from the Church of the Twelve Apostles at Jindalee for the past 27 years, it was only natural that she’d be called to do the little things that help “keep the place going”.
“As a parent you just kind of get involved in the school work first, and we just kind of got involved here (in the parish) …,” she said.
When another busy couple of parishioners were leaving Darra-Jindalee, they said, “Well, Dorothy, the church is just up the road there … you can do this …”
“So I just did it,” she said.
For years, she’s been operating the St Vincent de Paul Society piety stall at the church and is a Vinnies member, and associate life member now.
She welcomes parishioners to weekend Masses, and another parish member said, because she’s so involved Dorothy was able to answer anyone’s queries about the parish and give directions to the best contacts.
“Working on the St Vincent de Paul stall, you’re there at the church, there’s no office staff working of a weekend and, because you’re there on a regular basis, people just expect you’re going to be able to answer their questions … And you do get to know who’s the one to be doing what …,” Dorothy said.
“And that’s how all things have started … I never went looking for anything but I found out recently that I’ve been doing a hell of a lot and I didn’t realise that I did it.
“… And just living here (so close to the church), and if they’ve got somebody coming into the office, for instance, and they’re having a funeral, the first thing Father seemed to do was offer them a cup of tea after, so then you get the phone call, ‘Oh, Dorothy, I’ve got so and so here …’, so you either run up there and meet the people or have a conversation.”
It’s not been a burden for someone so cheery and obliging.
“It’s enjoyable, because you’re meeting people and, because you are around, it’s surprising what families will ask you something about what’s happening at the church, so you just tell them the best that you know,” she said.
Keeping busy is what gives her energy, she said.
“It’s the friends I’ve made; now, that’s where you get (the energy). It’s the people that you mix with …,” she said.
“I’m just thinking of all those ones up at Care and Concern – because they’re involved in things, they’ll ring and say, ‘Hey, have you got a half-hour or something, could you come and do this?’
“So you just get up and do … If there’s enough doing it, well, I’ll sit at home doing knitting or crossword puzzle or something like that.
“I’m just hoping I can keep going …,” she said.
Being so busy, Dorothy said she was someone who “in a kind of way” prayed on the run.
She said having a Presbyterian mother and a Catholic father, had given her a “rounded” faith. And influenced the way she lived it.
“Go back 93 years ago, the Catholic Church only had Mass on a Sunday morning, so my mother was the one, being a Presbyterian, raised us as Catholics, because my father couldn’t go to Mass – he was a milkman, he was delivering the milk,” she said.
“I don’t really sit down and kneel down and pray … I do just anytime and say ‘Please, God, help me get through this …’ or something like that.
“Deep down, I’m happy I’m a Catholic.”
And the Mass was the main reason for that.
“It’s the Mass, more than anything else …,” she said.
“I say a prayer every morning and every night, and whenever I want something during the day … (she laughs)
“I just enjoy going to Mass …
“I’m not a person that runs to Mass every day but, just when I’m there, I’m lost in it.”
And Dorothy’s fellow parishioners love having her there.
One of them cleans Dorothy’s window shutters once a month.
“I get a bit spoilt; I don’t know why …,” Dorothy said.
“One, because you’ve been a very wonderful person to all of us …,” her parishioner friend said on the most recent cleaning day.