RECEIVING a blessing from Pope Francis and a birthday message from the Queen were pretty special but not the highlight for Margaret Stephensen on turning 100 at the end of last year.
It was being surrounded by more than 140 of her family and friends for Mass and a party in her home parish of Our Lady of Mount Carmel, Coorparoo, in Brisbane.
That’s what mattered more than anything else.
Family’s been number-one for Margaret “Peggy” Stephensen all her life, and faith is what’s sustained her through some tough times.
Born the eldest daughter among Patrick and Nellie Hackett’s eight children, Margaret married Merv Stephensen and they had 11 of their own.
Mrs Stephensen, who lives in the Casa Damore aged-care complex at Coorparoo not far from where she and Merv raised their children and where she lived until two years ago, was a little “astonished” at all the fuss over her turning 100.
“All I really wanted was a thanksgiving, not a celebration but, however, I got both and obviously it’s still going on,” she said.
The thanksgiving Mass was about her being “grateful that I’ve got all these people who are celebrating with me”.
“It was amazing. I couldn’t believe the number of people that turned up that I hadn’t seen for so long,” she said.
“It was lovely to be with my family and friends, and I’m still relishing it all.
“I couldn’t believe I had so many friends and relatives.
“It was just a highlight to have people gather and celebrate with me.”
Mrs Stephensen, who is a lay Carmelite in the Our Lady of Mount Carmel Parish, has drawn on her faith throughout her 100 years, living through the Great Depression and the Second World War.
“We’ve always had a Catholic background – all the grandparents on either side they were the old Irish Catholics,” she said.
That faith was her bedrock especially during the war when her husband Merv went off to serve with the Royal Australian Air Force, then when he died at the age of 60, and when two of her children – Peter and Tony – died in accidents.
Mrs Stephensen said Merv’s health never fully recovered after war service.
“He had problems with his lungs and he was never healthy after the war,” she said.
“He died at age 60, which makes me very sad that I had all these days extra without him, but, as I say – accept what comes.
“That’s always been my motto – accept what comes; what comes, you deal with it.
“And it’s a case of I trust in the Lord, no doubt.
“Along the time, I’ve always felt my faith was carrying me through all the ups and downs of life, and I still rely on it.
“And we brought up the kids that way.
“I feel my trust in the Lord is what has brought me right through to these days.”
Mrs Stephensen said it was “a very, very busy, but a happy life” raising 11 children, and she enjoyed her time as an office worker.
“I enjoyed every bit of it,” she said.
“I worked for the American army during the war.”
She said her children “accepted what came but dealt with it, and we’re still dealing with it”.
They grew up in the house she and Merv built.
“We bought our land in Coorparoo, I think before the war; we paid 70 pounds for it, and now I think it’d be worth $1 million,” she laughs at the thought.
“We built the house and we lived moderately and we gave the kids an education …
“But it took us a while (to get the house established) – you couldn’t buy timber. They couldn’t get anything for a long time.
“You couldn’t buy a bath for about three months and we had Primus stoves, no lino on the floor and no curtains …
“I lived through a war and a depression but, with the Depression, I can still feel sad that some people, they never had work …
“Some people in the district, they had to open a soup kitchen and you’d see the people coming of an afternoon with a billy-can – but the billy-can was an old fruit tin with a wire (handle) over it …
“And you’d see them bringing this home for the family …
“People don’t realise how well off they are … this is what I feel now – how we made do, and nobody complained.
“That was my memory about having gone through that Depression and seeing all the people out of work and suffering, and now how they’ve got it all and don’t appreciate or don’t realise how things were.
“I just hope and trust that they’ll never go through it again.”
Pondering the suggestion that she must be a strong woman, she laughed and said: “Well, I always think of the song during the war – ‘With a full crew aboard and our trust in the Lord, we’re coming in on a wing and a prayer …’
“And that’s the way it’s always seemed to me … you know, ‘we’re coming in on a wing and prayer …’
“But if anything happened, we had to deal with it; you can’t sit in the corner and worry, but we got there.”
With her parish priest and friend Carmelite Father Wayne Stanhope celebrating Mass before her birthday party, she was joined by her brother Brian, 88, and sister Eileen, 91, most of her her 11 children, 32 grandchildren, 46 great-grandchildren, four great-great-grandchildren and her friends.
Her children are Anne, Peter (deceased), Merv, Brian, Patricia, Margaret, Michael, Tony (deceased), Angela, Paul and John.