Summer 2016-17

Farewell to a great Vincentian – Maureen Catherine Dunham

13 November 1933 – 10 October 2016

Maureen became the first female president of the Northern Territory council in 1987. At her funeral on 17 October at Holy Spirit Church, Casuarina, family members recalled her long and happy marriage to husband Peter.

The story of Maureen’s life is essentially a love story.

Photo of Maureen.
Maureen Dunham

The critical elements revolve around her unshakable love for her husband of 63 years, Peter, her family and friends and her faith.

Maureen Catherine Kearnan was born in Katherine, 320 km south-east of Darwin, to Jack and Johanna Kearnan, after a prolonged and difficult birth.

At one stage during labour the doctor asked Jack which of the mother or child he wished to save. Jack gave the doctor clear instructions to give his best endeavours for the survival of both and Maureen was delivered safe and well, albeit with a broken leg.

She and her sister Lynette were schooled in Mataranka, Alice Springs and Darwin before the family eventually returned to Katherine, where Maureen worked at what was then known as the Postmaster-General’s Department (the corporate forefather of Telstra and Australia Post). It was there that the 19-year-old telephonist worked alongside a postal officer named Peter Dunham.

Love blossomed between the two and, despite initial misgivings from Maureen’s extensive and very matriarchal family, Maureen and Peter married at St Joseph’s Church, a requisitioned Sydney Williams hut left over from the war. Father Frank Flynn came down from Darwin to perform the ceremony, as Katherine did not yet have a resident parish priest. Maureen’s uncle, Pat Kirby, hosted the reception at the family hotel and the entire population of Katherine attended.

Following the wedding in 1953, they had five children in six years: Mark, Elizabeth, Stephen, Catherine and John.

The river was their playground and there was always time for camping, fishing, horse riding or shooting.  The children later helped out with several businesses the family were involved with: a dress shop, the family hotels and a caravan park, to name a few.

Maureen and Peter lost two sons, Mark in 1962 and John in 1993.

Although both boys were haemophiliacs, both deaths were preventable and had a profound impact on Maureen. Mark died following a tooth extraction at Darwin Hospital. The impact of Mark’s death created a powerful sense of advocacy and protectiveness in Maureen. Along with adopting her mother’s dismissive attitude to stupidity in government actions, Maureen challenged the status quo and became an agent for change.

She instilled confidence, tolerance and assertiveness in all her children. John in particular exemplified these traits.  When he died as a 33-year-old father of four in 1993,  Maureen again felt let down by those charged with the responsibility of overseeing his care.

Maureen and Peter worked in several hotels (in the Northern Territory) including the family hotels at Larrimah and Katherine and later at Cooinda in Kakadu. Maureen first held a liquor licence when she was the licensee at Larrimah in 1957, after her Uncle Johnny Mahony was injured and badly burnt. At this time she had three small children, one of whom she was still breastfeeding.

Hotels at that time could be violent places and Peter was assaulted on at least two occasions. Luckily, both happened while Maureen was nearby. The family still enjoys the story of Maureen rendering unconscious one particularly large drunken man who had Peter in a choke-hold. A well-placed blow to the back of the head with a Coke bottle was effective in releasing the choke-hold. In those days Coke was supplied to hotels in large heavy glass bottles which were pretty much indestructible and similar in shape to clubs.

The police were called to the unconscious man who awoke with the same fury as he had when he first attacked Peter, now accompanied by a splitting headache. It took several police to subdue him and he was locked away, unable to harm others for a period.

That said, there were very few people Maureen didn’t like and she was blind to distinctive features such as a criminal record, financial status, race or religion.


Maureen with two other Vincentians attending the congress.
Maureen at a Victorian State Congress in the 1990s.

Maureen was associated with the St Vincent de Paul Society and as President, saw the Northern Territory become an independent state entity.

She was the first ever female State President of the Society in Australia.

Interestingly, while her fellow state presidents commuted from the outer suburbs of whichever capital city they lived in, Maureen attended meetings from Cooinda, where she and Peter were working. This involved an early morning road trip to Jabiru, a light aircraft flight to Darwin, a jet to Sydney or Melbourne and a taxi trip to the accommodation, usually arriving late at night: The travel time totalled 20 or so hours each way.

Even though Maureen’s involvement with the St Vincent de Paul Society dates from about the time of the 1974 cyclone, she and Peter were always involved in charitable work. Numerous people were helped with ‘loans’ in hard times. Often the girls would see a favourite dress that they had just grown out of being worn by one of the kids from a large family up the road. The parish priest always ate at the family pub and church cleaning, gardening and fetes were normal family activities. Maureen and Peter sponsored football and cricket teams and were the inaugural sponsors of the Katherine Golf Club.

When the family moved to Darwin just before Cyclone Tracy, Maureen went to night school and became a welfare worker.

About a year ago Peter began to think that the government might get a bit nervous about his driver’s licence, so he and Maureen took off for one last driving holiday. They went to Mount Gambier and back. Seemed like a good idea at the time!

Peter did an extraordinary job of nursing Maureen throughout her final months. While in hospital, getting out of bed was a grand production. Sometimes up to four staff were on hand. The hoist usually had a flat battery and the back-up one was usually flat as well. Peter is a highly organised person and this level of ineptitude was a source of aggravation.

When it became apparent that Maureen’s condition was worsening the longer she stayed in hospital, they decided to go home. Technically, this is called ‘a voluntary discharge against medical advice’. In reality it means that you are on your own and all care, equipment and consumables have to be provided by yourself. Community nurses came weekly to change dressings on her feet, but everything else they paid for. In Maureen and Peter’s view, picking up the entire cost of home nursing was a small price to pay for their improved quality of life.

Peter bought a badly damaged lifter from the dump, cleaned it up, bought the parts and had it repaired. This cost about $1600 compared to $6500 for a new one. Interestingly, Peter, aged 86, achieved all of Maureen’s transfers out of bed and to the shower, toilet and wheelchair by himself … and the battery never went flat!

They lived a long life together full of adventure, laughter, some tears and abundant love.

Rest in peace, Maureen.

This is an edited extract of a eulogy delivered by Mick Fox on behalf of Maureen’s family at her funeral on 17 October 2016.

Show More

Related Articles

Back to top button