Despite turning 97 on July 28 this year, Esther Whitelum lives independently and still drives – including to Mass in Nuriootpa twice a week from her home in Tanunda. Once the chief sacristan at Our Lady of the Valley Church, she reads “when they’re short” and joins the rosary group whenever she can.
Interrupted from playing ‘Wordle’ on her computer by my phone interview, Esther was quick to point out that there were “plenty of people doing the same”.
But they’re not all 97, I reminded her.
Esther celebrated her birthday with Northern Light parishioners after Friday morning Mass, as is the custom.
“Anyone who has a birthday brings a cake and we have it with coffee after Friday Mass,” she explained.
“It’s a beautiful congregation, it’s like a family to me. And we’re so lucky to have a hall attached to the church so we can have a cuppa after Mass on Sunday.”
Esther has been an active member of the Barossa Valley Catholic community since she and her husband Ross moved there 40 years ago from Broken Hill.
Ross was on the Parish Finance Committee and Esther was president of the Catholic Women’s League and a member of the Parish Pastoral Council for many years. She organised the annual trivia night to raise funds for the parish and never took no for an answer when selling tickets. Taking communion to people who couldn’t attend Mass and organising the Women’s World Day of Prayer are just a few of the other ways she served the parish.
In the wider community, Esther volunteered for Meals on Wheels and the Lutheran nursing home in Tanunda until Ross had his leg amputated and needed more help.
Esther has been on her own since Ross died 19 years ago, but her youngest son Matthew lived nearby until recently.
Her daughter, Sue Virgin, was a teacher in the Barossa Valley and prepared children for the reception of sacraments for about 10 years before moving to Canberra.
Born in a small town in the Hunter Valley, New South Wales, Esther grew up on a farm with her two older brothers. Her mother was of Italian Catholic background but her Welsh father was Church of England and the children were baptised Anglican.
“Although I was Church of England I loved going to the Catholic Church with my cousins who were a great influence on my life,” Esther said.
“I would go with them to confession on Saturdays in a beautiful church in Enfield and loved looking at all the beautiful statues; I had an inkling through that of the Catholic faith.”
At 18, Esther left the farm where she had been helping her father and “riding around on a horse” to join the Australian Women’s Army Service. Assigned to the Signals Corp, she trained to be a telephonist and worked on the switchboard at various sites in Victoria and New South Wales.
After the war ended she was awaiting her discharge at an army base in Greta, NSW, when she met Staff Sergeant Ross Whitelum, who had returned from overseas and was also preparing to be discharged.
He came into the switchboard office one day to collect his mail, Esther recalled.
Asked if it was love at first sight, she said “I suppose so” but laughed when asked about their first date.
“I’m 97 years old, do you think I can remember?”
After her discharge, Esther was employed in a telephone exchange at Tamworth while Ross returned to his job in the bank at Broken Hill. Esther began instructions with the Sisters of Mercy and was received into the Church that year.
She and Ross were married in St Vincent’s Catholic Church, Ashfield, Sydney, in 1946. They honeymooned in the Blue Mountains and Esther moved to Broken Hill where they lived with Ross’ parents until they could afford their own small place with a “dunny” out the back.
Being a “good Catholic girl”, Esther said she quickly became pregnant and had seven children. Three girls Christine, Susan and Kathryn came first and they were educated at All Saints Primary and St Joseph’s High School.
After a break of five years she had three boys – Anthony, Michael and Timothy – who also attended All Saints and then the Marist Brothers College until Year 10, before completing their secondary studies as boarders at Sacred Heart College in Adelaide.
Esther was 47 when, 11 years after Timothy was born, she was “blessed” with her youngest child, Matthew.
Ross and Esther were very involved in fundraising for the parish, particularly the annual fete which they held at their home on one occasion. She also volunteered at the Home of Compassion and for Meals on Wheels when it first started in the Silver City.
Esther said Broken Hill was a “real Outback town” and very different to where she grew up, but “you make the most of life, whatever is given to you, and Broken Hill was good to us”.
Ross initially worked in the bank and then was paymaster at the zinc mine in the days of the ‘lead bonus’ whereby employees would receive a pay rise whenever the lead reached a certain price.
“It was a real help bringing up a large family,” she said.
Although her children are now spread around the country – in Alice Springs, Orange, Casino, Canberra and Adelaide – they are a close family and keep in touch regularly.
“They’re marvellous. They all care about me and I get a call from at least one of them every day, I’m very fortunate,” said Esther, who has 19 grandchildren, 15 great grandchildren and one great-great grandchild.
“I thank God every day for my life.”
Sadly, her son Tim died from cancer in January 2014.
“He was a beautiful man, a lovely soul.”
Esther’s faith was also put to the test was when her grandson and great grandson died in tragic accidents. But her daughter, Sue, said Esther remained strong and was a huge support to the family, which she attributed to her “great faith”.
“Faith is the only thing that keeps you going,” Esther said.
“It keeps you sane, especially these days with all that’s going on. It’s my companion.”
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