APPRECIATION: Carmen Testa OAM, MQR (1934-2017)
A prominent member of the Maltese Community in Melbourne, Carmen Testa passed away peacefully with dignity after a long battle with cancer on 11 April 2017, aged 83 years.
Carmen was locally, nationally and globally recognised for her community work. She was the recipient of an Order of Australia Medal (OAM) from the Australian Government, the Midalja ghall-Qadi tar-Repubblika (MQR) from the Maltese Government, the Victorian Premier’s Award, a Senior Citizen’s Award, Brimbank’s living Treasure, a Multicultural Award, and an MCCV Community Award for her social work.
Carmen was born in Birkirkara, Malta on 8 March 1934 to Michael and Helen Grixti. She had one sister and seven brothers. At aged 18, in 1949, and having to let go of her dream to enter teachers college, Carmen, her mother and five brothers, migrated to Australia to join her father, who had left nine months earlier to prepare for his family a humble house in the suburb of West Sunshine. In her words: “We came to this room with nothing else. And we were so shocked. We came in summer and by winter we lived with mud, mud and more mud. But we were happy.”
Against the cultural norm and expectation, Carmen started work in an office at Drayton’s Pottery one week after she arrived. In her own words, “I was expected to stay in this paddock all day, doing nothing at all, but I went to the factory and asked Mr Drayton for a job. He said I don’t’ have one, but I was persistent and showed him my school results. He started me the next day.”
Carmen Mum worked at Drayton’s until she married Frank who followed her ten months after her arrival in Australia. They married in 1953 and moved into the family home built in Glengala Road, Sunshine by Frank and his grandfather. There they raised seven children, welcomed their partners and supported the comings and goings of sixteen grandchildren and their partners and seven great grandchildren.
Carmen’s community involvement spanned some 52 years. This involvement began before her children were at primary school as a volunteer helping in various ways. She helped in the primary school running the Mother’s Club and Tuckshop. For women back then, there was a language barrier – so she helped out as an interpreter.
While doing all this, raising a family and supporting her own mum and dad and brothers and sisters, encouraged by Sr Laserian, Carmen managed in 1980, thirty five years after leaving her dream behind in Malta, to realise her dream of becoming a teacher. Mum taught at St Paul’s School and Mother of God School.
In 1970 Carmen joined the St Paul’s Feast Committee, organising a week of celebrations that continues 46 year later. 30 years ago, she began the Maltese Women’s Group, with a membership of 100 women, for housebound Maltese women, meeting weekly and facilitating many monthly day trips, weekends away and in the earlier years with her husband, group trips overseas for those who would not otherwise have had the courage or support to travel.
Following her teaching days, Carmen completed an interpreter’s course and became a much called on Maltese interpreter for the Maltese Community.
With her great friends, Carmen delivered the weekly Maltese radio program which reaches, to this day, the Maltese community and keeps them in touch with their language and culture.
A skilful community worker who managed to attract the various community grants needed to resource the many community programs that became available to the Maltese Women’s Group. Coincidently, notification of a grant has just come through.
Carmen was a woman who embraced her life as one that must be lived in the service of others. She described herself ‘as a woman doing ordinary things’. Her greatest love and delight was her husband Frank, her children, their partners, her sixteen grandchildren, their partners and seven great grandchildren.
The relationship between Carmen and her husband was a great example of a long faithful and strong romance that they shared until her last breath. She often claimed that the saying “behind every great man is a woman” was not true for her. She described herself and her achievements as “behind this woman is a great man – her husband”. To watch her with her children, grandchildren and great grandchildren was to watch strength and love guiding and giving wings to fly.
Carmen’s smile shone on all whom she met. Her warm welcoming embrace gathered the dignitary as much as it did the despairing. If she was disappointed in anything, it was when she met unkindness, injustice or bitterness. These had no place in her world.
Carmen was a person who made central in her everyday living, the place of faith and fidelity in action. Her ordinariness was to make extraordinary the lives of the lonely, of the isolated, of the parish and of the wider community. She was the wise woman who saw a need and did not wait for another to answer it.
Carmen was one who lived Ghandi’s mantra “be the change you want to see in the world”, and Christ’s command “Love as I have loved.” She was that women in the gospel who went looking for the lost coin. She went looking for those lost because they could not communicate in English, for them she spent herself translating for them.
She went looking for those lost in the grief of loneliness, for them she spent her time making sure that they were connected to others. Mum went looking for the grief and struggle within families and spent her time whispering peace and wisdom, building bridges where others had tried and failed.
Over the last years, Carmen carried the burdens of her cruel sickness with selflessness, making it easier for those around her to carry the pain of seeing her struggle. On Tuesday 11 April, at 2 am, her husband Frank and Helen with her, Carmen went looking for her last breath, and as she did in her life, without fanfare or drawing attention to herself, she spent her last breath, gathering her life of faithful discipleship and left quietly to her place of rest. May she rest in peace.
This is an edited version of the eulogy written by Mrs Testa’s daughter, Sr Doris Testa PhD.