In our archdiocese, there are numerous persons who have toiled diligently in the vineyard. They laboured with love and their dedication and faithfulness to the church community and to God would have no doubt stood the test of time. One such lady is Martina Nessie Thomas, lovingly called ‘Aunty Nessie’ who hails from the community of Gasparillo in the parish of Tortuga.
She is 93 years and while it is quite common for seniors to be forgetful, her memory is still sharp. Aunty Nessie has been instrumental in spearheading Sunday School classes in the community and was also the brainchild behind ‘The Little Ones in Concert’ – the annual children’s Christmas concert which was a fundraiser for the annual Senior Citizens’ Healing Mass.
Aunty Nessie was born November 11, 1924, the third of six children born to Jonas and Octavia Wardell. She was raised in Tableland. She recalled that children in those times attended church to receive the Sacrament of Reconciliation on the Saturday before the Mass. They would then need to remain at home for the rest of the day in order to prepare for First Communion on Sunday morning and then Confirmation around midday.
Aunty Nessie married and eventually moved to Hardbargain. She then became a monitor, which was the term used to describe a Post Primary student performing assistant teacher duties. Her strong passion for the children’s education prompted her to volunteer to assist teaching the very young about the faith.
Aunty Nessie used a Catechist textbook as resource material for her students and recalls the then parish priest encouraging her to be the best teacher. He even encouraged parents from the area to send their children to Aunty Nessie so they could be taught Religious Instruction.
She moved to Gasparillo with her husband, Arnold Thomas (deceased) on November 30, 1966 at the age of 42. She joined her first two sons’ school PTA and a year after settling in her new home decided to get involved in church activities.
“When Fr Bennet was the parish priest, I remember him calling a meeting to discuss Sunday School. Brother Franklin Lee Sam spearheaded the meeting and it was suggested that someone could have made an attempt to have Sunday School at his or her home [due] to limited transportation facilities for the children in the area.”
Aunty Nessie volunteered to have Sunday School classes in a private school next to her home in 1994. Donalene Lewis (deceased) also volunteered. Aunty Nessie recalls having as much as 80 children in her class at one time and also remembers quietly celebrating her birthday with the children. Teaching was indeed her passion.
It is often said that great minds think alike. In the days when Fr John Woods OP (deceased) was the parish priest, meetings were held to suggest ways to raise funds for the luncheon for the annual Senior Citizens’ Mass, a special Mass that would be held before Christmas where each senior citizen would receive the Anointing of the Sick.
Aunty Nessie soon came up with an idea of having a Christmas concert. It would also provide a way for the Sunday School children to celebrate the season as well as have fun.
Aunty Nessie was a master baker and prepared pastries for the Senior Citizens’ Mass which she mentioned was an event she became very passionate about because of her love of helping others. Last year marked the 43rd year the Mass has been held.
When Aunty Nessie shared the idea of a concert with Donalene, she (Donalene) expressed similar thoughts and told Aunty Nessie that since it was her idea or ‘her baby’ she should be the coordinator. Donalene offered to provide assistance.
The first Children’s Christmas concert in the Gasparillo community took place sometime in the 1990s and it was a success. The remaining funds were used to purchase refreshments for the children for the Feast of Holy Innocents. “The concert provided the first opportunity for the two sets of Sunday School children to work together. Even children from the nearby St Peter’s Anglican Church and Girl Guides participated in the concert”, she added with a smile.
During her more than 20 years of teaching the Sunday School, children were often given a chance to witness baptisms in the church. Once they went to Carmelita Waterfalls which is located in Whiteland, and also a trip to the Emperor Valley Zoo.
Aunty Nessie recalls baking cakes, tarts and other pastries for the annual church harvest. Her banana bread was the best. She has fond memories of running the cake stall for 27 years with another church member, Theresa Sylvester who passed away last year.
One of Aunty Nessie’s many cherished memories in her Sunday School class was when her third child, Arnold made his First Communion and he recited the Responsorial Psalm (Psalm 34). He didn’t sing it but he read it beautifully. It was ‘Taste and see that the Lord is good, happy are they who seek refuge in him’.
Aunty Nessie was an active member of the Legion of Mary for three years and held the position of Secretary for a year. She’s also been a member of the church prayer group and even assisted in taking communion to sick parishioners.
Added to these activities, Aunty Nessie cleaned the church on a few occasions with two other community members: Monica Ryan and Victoria Malchan (both deceased).
Aunty Nessie is concerned that there are so many broken homes in our society and numerous single parents who do not attend Mass. She advises that these parents go to church with their children and encourages them to pray with them. She also recommends that parents start praying for their children from the womb.
It was indeed a wonderful and humbling experience to talk to Aunty Nessie about her years of work and dedication to the church community. At this time, she is unable to walk and receives Holy Communion at her home but her faith in God has never waned. Best wishes to the daughter of the soil! – Marisha Darneaud