Tags: Communion breakfast, fasting, First Communion
I had made my First Confession. Now, my First Communion Day had arrived. Like the other kids, I was full of excitement, and more than a little nervous. I was hungry too, because we had to fast from midnight until after Mass. We weren’t allowed to have Holy Communion if we’d eaten; that would have been an awful thing to do. This was the first time I hadn’t been able to eat breakfast before Mass, and it was already nine o’clock.
Mum had fixed up my older sister’s white dress for the occasion. I had new white socks, and Dad had freshly whitened my sandshoes. Mum had cut my straight blonde hair short, so it wouldn’t get in the way of the white veil I had to wear – that had been Pauline’s too when she made her First Communion two years before. I felt very special in my white clothes, and I was very careful to keep everything clean.
There wasn’t much room in our little Triumph Safety 7 car when we all piled in. The four of us kids had to squash up in the back seat. Mum held on to my veil, and the elastic and bobby-pins to fit it on with, until we got to the church. I tried to keep my dress from getting crushed, but it was useless. When we got out, I saw that someone’s shoe had made a mark on my clean shoes. I tried to brush it off.
“Don’t worry about that now,” said Mum. “We have to go over to the school with the other children. Sister wants you to line up ready to make a procession into the church. Come on.”
The boys wore navy blue shorts, white shirts and the school tie, navy blue with yellow stripes. They also wore knee-high grey socks, held up with elastic garters, and black shoes. Some parents wanted to hang around and help, but the school headmistress, Sister Mamertus, shooed them off to find their places in the old, white-painted stone church.
“Make two lines,” Sister ordered us. “One for the boys and one for the girls. Hurry up now, we mustn’t keep Father waiting.”
Each girl took the hand of the boy in the other line, giggling.
“Stop that and make your line straight. Remember, Jesus is watching, and you will soon be receiving Him for the first time.”
Thus, suitably chastened and demure, we walked across the grass to the church door. Sister lined us up again so that, when we got into the church, the boys would go to the pews on one side and the girls to the other. Someone must have given Mrs Harris warning, because, up in the loft at the back of the church, she launched into a hymn, though I cannot remember what it was.
The altar was a mass of flowers, and Mrs Harris had probably helped the nuns to arrange them. The first two rows of wooden bench seats on each side of the aisle were decorated at the ends with big white satin bows and flowers. This was to show that the seats were set aside especially for us. It’s a pity the red aisle carpet was worn and patchy, but everything else looked beautiful to me
We joined our hands together in front of us, as if in prayer, and walk to our seats quietly and sedately. Each of us genuflected before we turned into the pew, respecting the presence of the Lord Jesus in the tabernacle on the altar. We tried to keep our heads bowed to show we recognised the miracle that was about to happen. Receiving the Body of Jesus Christ was a momentous thing at any time, but the first time was extra special.
The Mass began and Father Greely, brightly vested and attended by several altar boys, launched into the usual Latin prayers, along with other special ones for us. Later in the Mass, his sermon was all about the importance of this day and the difference it would make in our lives. He reminded the older people of when they had made their first Communion, and asked them to re-dedicate their lives to Christ. Then, the ringing of the bell accompanying his movements, he consecrated the Host. It was time for us to fulfil the preparation we’d been undergoing for the past few months.
Strangely, about the only thing I remember about receiving my first Communion was how the thin wafer of Host stuck to the roof of my mouth; my mouth was dry I suppose, from nerves. I kept poking at it with my tongue, trying to loosen it. I did wonder if I was doing something awful to Christ’s Body, and when the Host did finally come loose, I made sure not to touch it with my teeth. I didn’t want to be accused of chewing His Body! The hymn that Mrs Harris played and the congregation sang was “On Your First Communion Day”.
At the end of Mass, we were presented with a silver medal, which we wore about our neck, and a certificate, attesting that each of us had made out First Holy Communion on that day at St Paul’s church. My sisters still have their certificates, but mine has been lost somewhere along life’s way.
After the priest announced, Ite Missae est (Go the Mass is ended), we processed down the aisle and out of the church. As we had not yet eaten, having had to fast from the previous midnight in order to receive the Sacrament, there was a Communion breakfast after Mass, at the school. There our families joined us to celebrate our special day. I, along with my schoolmates, tucked into the food, enjoying the sandwiches, cakes and cordial more than anything else.
Although I have copies of both my sisters First Communion photos, there isn’t one of mine as far as I know.
© Linda Visman
This day in August 1956, was one of excitement and promise, the culmination of months of preparation at the hands of the Sisters of St Joseph. I would be eight in a few days time, but this day was even more important than that. Birthdays happened every year, but this day came only once in a lifetime. It was the day of my First Holy Communion.
The stress of making our First Confession was over. That had happened the week before. We had sat in the pews at the back of the old stone church – St Paul’s – waiting our turn to go into the dark, wood-panelled confessional box. We’d practiced, but that didn’t make it any easier. There was a central priest’s box, with a confessional box on each side. The shiny wood was dark with age, and the designs carved into the door frames were almost black. The wooden kneeler was worn smooth by thousands of knees, but it was still hard. When the person in one of the confessionals had finished, the priest slid the little door over the grille on that side shut, and opened the one on your side.
The real thing was even stricter than the practice had been. We had to kneel and pray while we waited our turn. There was to be no fidgeting whilst we Examined our Conscience. Even though we were used to kneeling, it was hard to keep still. However, Sister Mamertus was there, so we did. I was both glad and scared when my turn came. At practice, when the priest slid the little door open on my side, I’d jumped, even though I’d been waiting for it. I jumped this time too.
We’d been well drilled in what we had to say, but I was flustered at first. Then Father Greely’s voice spoke quietly through the grille.
“Take your time, my child.”
Then I was all right and I started the routine, first making the sign of the cross.
“In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. Amen. Bless me Father, for I have sinned. This is my first confession, Father.”
Then I had to list my sins – how many times I disobeyed my parents, how many times I quarrelled with my brother and sisters, or didn’t pay attention in class – I don’t recall what I said. I was so relieved when I could finally say the Act of Contrition. Then Father Greely gave me absolution, told me to say three Hail Marys for my penance, and blessed me, telling me to go and sin no more.
“Thank you, Father.”
Then, his little grille closed and I could leave the confessional box, go to the pews on the other side of the church and say my penance. After that, I could go outside, feeling a great sense of relief that the ordeal was over, and that my soul was pure and white. I had made my First Confession. Now that I was pure, I could make my First Communion.
© Linda Visman
Tags: Catholic sodalities, Children of Mary, fasting before Communion, Our Lady, Rosary
The Church had sodalities (clubs I suppose they were) for different groups of the parish. Men joined the Holy Name Society; women the Sacred Heart Society; girls the Children of Mary; and the boys could become altar boys, serving the priest during Mass. We three girls joined the Children of Mary after our Confirmation. Sodalities had their own Sunday each month, so, on the Children of Mary’s Sunday, the girls would attend as a group, all wearing our blue cloaks, white veils and medal, and carrying our Missal (Mass book).
Sometimes, our parents decided not to go to the main church at Albion Park for Sunday Mass, and instead, we walked the two miles or so each way to Oak Flats. There, an early Mass was held for the people of that area in the community hall. I know I loved that early morning walk, especially when we went on Christmas mornings. Then, there was the added joy of knowing that, on our return, as well as being able to eat at last, there were presents under the tree for us to unwrap. No matter that they were almost always gifts made for us in the shed out the back by our father in his rare spare time. The wooden scooters he made for my younger sister and me one year were prized as much as any bought ones – even if they didn’t last as long.
I was an avid reader as a child, devouring Enid Blyton and other adventure books as fast as I was allowed to borrow them from the local library. But I also loved to read the lives of the saints that were written for children. I often imagined myself in a perilous situation, being asked whether I would die for my faith – I always believed that I would. I absolutely loved the movie “The Miracle of Fatima”, and cried through it. I wanted to be Jacinta – she was the one with spirit. I believe it was the first movie I ever saw.
Our family, like many other Catholics, were devoted to Our Lady – Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Every evening after the dinner dishes had been washed, dried and put away, we knelt as a family to pray the Rosary. It meant a great deal to us, especially to my mother, and I particularly remember saying the Rosary on my own in the lounge room when my father came down with polio in the epidemic of 1961. It was the only thing I could think of to do in that time of powerlessness.
We would never consider eating meat on a Friday. Eggs were the closest we ever got. But anyway, for me at least, Friday meant a break from those awfully tough mutton chops that Mum fried so often, and which usually took me so long to chew that I was the last one to leave the table. Instead, we could buy fish from the local fisherman – usually mullet from the lake because that was the cheapest. But, best of all, we were sometimes allowed to go to the local fish and chip shop to buy cooked fish in batter and chips. That was a real treat.
Religion permeated every part of our lives as we were growing up in the 1950s and early 1960s. Those were the days when the Church was at its height in the Australian community. For the first time, Catholics were no longer persecuted and discriminated against. It was a period when we felt safe and secure in the practice of our ancient traditions. Our religious upbringing certainly helped to keep us kids on the straight and narrow. It provided us with a basis for living a moral life, but in the process lumbered us with an overwhelming sense of guilt and inadequacy that many people were never able to overcome.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: Catholic schools, Confirmation, First Communion, First Confession, Sisters of St Joseph, St Paul's church
School was, apart from home, my security. I was good at my lessons, which usually involved rote learning of facts and passages. I was good at spelling, maths and Social Studies, and at Catechism. That was the ideal in the system – no questioning, just blind acceptance of what you were told. I was good at that, so I did well. I strove always to please and, mostly, I did.
The nuns schooled us in our religion, and we were expected to know our Catechism by heart. I can still picture the little green book we used that was set out in question and answer form (“Q: Who made the world? A: God made the world.”), and I knew every answer to every question. We were taught the importance of the Sacraments, and were prepared for receiving them at the appropriate age by the nuns. We made our First Confession just before receiving our First Holy Communion when we were about seven or eight. It was scary, having to confess my sins of fighting or being disobedient to Christ’s representative. I was always petrified that God would see me doing something bad, like sneaking a penny from my mother’s purse to go buy a lolly at the local shop. It didn’t always stop me from doing it, but boy, I sure enough felt so guilty about it that it was a long time before I did it again! I made sure I went to Confession every time too, so that I would be forgiven and not go to Hell if I died.
At about ten or eleven we were Confirmed by the bishop; in our case, Bishop McCabe of Wollongong. I took the name Bernadette as my Confirmation name because I loved the story of St Bernadette of Lourdes. We attended Benediction at the church every Friday, and visited at the day-long Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament on the First Friday of every month.
The Latin Mass was an ongoing institution, and we attended every Sunday. We also went with our parents on Holy Days, like Ascension Thursday and All Saints Day, as if they were a Sunday. I think the kids from the state school were jealous that we had those days off school. On Sundays (and Holy Days), as we often didn’t have a vehicle, we went to Mass on a special bus. It cost sixpence (6d) per school age child and a shilling (1/-) per adult – 4/- for the six of us. Dad received about eight to ten pounds a week wages. Our parents were also supposed to pay for our schooling. But, as we were poor, there were many times when Mum didn’t have the money, and we were treated as charity cases.
There were two money collections taken up at Sunday Mass – one assigned to the maintenance of the parish priest, and the other for the church and its operations. Everyone, no matter how poor, was expected to add coins to the collection plate. Whenever we saw a ten shilling note in the plate, we were amazed that someone had so much money to give away. From school, we also attended Mass on other special saints’ Feast Days, e.g. St Paul (as our church’s dedicated saint) and St Joseph (the nuns were Sisters of St Joseph).
 Exposition is a manner of honouring the Holy Eucharist (Christ’s body, in the form of the consecrated Host), by exposing It, with proper solemnity, to the view of the faithful in order that they may pay their devotions before It.
 One pound was equal to twenty shillings.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: 1950s Australia, Catholic Church, Catholic school, Sisters of St Joseph
We were a fairly typical Catholic family of the 1950s. Migrants from England, we were steeped in the Church’s ancient traditions and guided by its precepts. We believed all we were told: that the Pope spoke with the authority of God; that the Bishop was his representative; that the priest acted for Christ in the Sacraments, and was a respected teacher who would lead us on the way to Heaven. Everything I learned reinforced all this as I passed through the primary grades of our parochial (parish) school in the Illawarra area of New South Wales.
When I look back, I see that much of our life was related in some way to the church and its activities, and to the people who attended there with us. Some of the hymns I loved were those that asserted our Catholicism, especially “Onward Christian Soldiers” and “Faith of Our Fathers”. I was much chagrined when I later learned that other denominations claimed these hymns too!
Our three-roomed, red-brick Catholic school stood on a parcel of land at the edge of town, a water tank was attached at one end of the building. Between the school and the huge pine trees that lined the fence alongside the road, was a bare playground. In the same parcel of land as the school and not far from it, a the small wooden convent housed our three Sisters of St Joseph teachers. Beyond that was the two-storeyed presbytery for the priest. I could never understand why, being for only one person, it was so big. And finally, furthest from the school was St Paul’s church. This was a white-painted, brick building in the solid rectangular style, with a tiled roof. To me, it was a substantial reminder of the solidity of our Faith.
We lived about five miles from the school, and caught a bus there every day. Our school used one local bus company and the state school used the other one, though both sets of owners attended the Catholic Church. I have a feeling that, as well as it being logistically a good idea, keeping the two sets of kids apart was one of the reasons for this. Actually, while there was some animosity between the Catholics (Micks or Tykes) and the other denominations (Proddies) in the cities, we didn’t see much at all. Sometimes we walked in class groups into town, for Salk inoculations against polio at the Council Chambers, or something similar. We had to go past the state school and, if it were lunch time, there would be some heckling and cat calls from the Proddy kids. I’m sure we gave as good as we got in spite of our holy escorts. However, it seemed to me, that we kids got more stick for being Pommies than for being Catholic. The chant, “Pommy-whackers stink like crackers!” often followed us as we walked by a group of kids playing on the otherwise quiet dirt roads.
(c) Linda Visman
Tags: Baby Boomers, challenge, historical perspective, memories
I remember when…
The lake shore, the farms and the local streets
were all places where children could safely roam;
and we played pirates, and cowboys and Indians
and wandered ‘til dark in the bush near our home.
The milk and bread being delivered to our door
on a cart with a horse that knew when to stop;
when it was exciting to travel on a steam train
and a penny bought four lollies at the local shop.
And I remember…
Walking three miles to church on a Sunday
with my family and wearing my best frock;
and the joy of reading a library book
or of being allowed to stay up until eight o’clock.
Aah, the memory of…
Our excitement when Christmas morning arrived
and we couldn’t wait to see what Santa had brought;
when the family came together to share a meal
and we sang the old songs that we’d all been taught.
Do I want to remember…
Going outside down the path, in sunshine or rain,
to the backyard dunny with its newspaper and pan,
in daylight or dark, with the smell all around,
hoping they’d not come while you’re sitting to pick up the can?
I also remember…
The long hard hours Dad worked to get enough
for the basics of life and a deposit on some land;
And Mum, never knowing if ends would meet
or if there’d be enough money to go around.
And the polio that changed our whole way of life
when it struck down my brother and sister – and Dad;
How Mum coped with all the worry and stress;
Her fears we’d never keep even the little we had.
But the things I remember best are these…
the love that our family had for each other
and the strength this gave us in bad times and good;
the joy we took in life’s simple things;
the hard work that was something we all understood;
the respect that we knew was earned and not bought;
and the strong moral lessons that our parents had taught.
Maybe rose-coloured glasses have changed my perspective,
but I believe that our past is always subjective.
What we do with our memories shows who we’ve become –
so let’s use them to help us in times that will come.
(c) Linda Visman
This poem was first published in “I Remember When” an anthology compiled and edited by Julie Athanasiou, Legacy Books, November 2006.
Tags: iron crutches, medical ignorance, polio treatment, poverty, Royal Air Forces Association
Continuing the story of our family’s experiences during the polio epidemic that raged along the Illawarra coast of NSW, Australia, in 1961.
On a Tuesday, exactly two weeks after Dad became ill and four weeks after David had, my older sister Pauline came down with similar symptoms: nausea, weakness, difficulty walking. By then, Dad had managed to get his chest muscles working well enough that he was transferred back to Wollongong, although he was still in isolation. Not allowed out of our home, we couldn’t even see him.
I think that, at some stage during this period, David may have come home from hospital. I seem to remember him behind glass, crying for Mum, but, as we were still in isolation, it may be a false memory; we would not have been allowed out.
When Pauline was admitted, the doctors didn’t want Dad to know, as they thought it would retard his progress. However Mum disagreed and word was somehow got to him. As Pauline was also in the isolation ward, he was at least able to see her.
Pauline’s diagnosis had meant we had to remain confined at home another two weeks. Mum could not go shopping – we had no money anyway – and my younger sister and I ended up finishing the year unable to go back to school. Fortunately, Pauline had been inoculated with Salk vaccine, so she was only mildly affected once the initial sickness wore off. She came home after the two-week period of isolation was over.
Because all of us were isolated, Mum didn’t have even Peter’s meagre wages to bring in food. We lived on food parcels and other charity during this time. The local policeman, Sergeant Rose was great. He arranged to have money from the Police Benevolent Fund paid to Mum on a regular basis. He came to the house, in spite of the isolation order, to deliver it personally and make sure we were all right. The church and parishioners came to the rescue too. Father Greely, the parish priest, made an appeal from the altar, and two hundred pounds was raised. Mum was a great one for making pennies do a pound’s work, and that money lasted us quite a few months.
There were heavy rains around the region at that time, with roads closed due to flooding. David’s playmate Jeffrey’s father, went to bring Dad home from the hospital. He just managed to get there before floods closed the roads between us and Wollongong. After picking Dad up, they had to go a long way around to find roads that were still open and that would get them home.
Dad had been told not to try to walk, so he came home to a wheelchair. It was not a lovely padded and comfortable steel or aluminium one; I don’t even know where it came from. It was ancient, straight-backed, made of wood, with lattice-work seat and back. It had huge wheels, solid rubber tyres, and a flip-up footrest. I think a more uncomfortable chair could not have been found. The damage done to Dad’s nerves and muscles appeared to be confined to the whole right side of his body below the neck. My little brother was affected in his left leg, mainly at the ankle.
The specialist had told Dad categorically that he would never walk again. And that is what we all believed – apart from Dad. And again, the doctors didn’t reckon with Dad’s determination. Bill, the man who lived next door to us then was a boilermaker. He made Dad some crutches, the kind that has a handle and a wrist support. The crutches were made, not out of light aluminium, but out of heavy pipe steel. They were heavy, not adjustable for height, with only a rest for the forearm, not a grip, and with no padding at all. Using them, Dad forced himself onto his legs and feet again. Bill also made a mini-pair of crutches from the same materials for three-year-old David.
On his first return visit to the specialist, Dad used the crutches to get into the man’s office instead of using a wheelchair – he couldn’t have taken one up the steps and into the place anyway. The specialist castigated him for not following his orders to have complete rest. A few days later, Dad received a letter from him saying that as Dad was so unco-operative, he would no longer consider having him as a patient.
Dad was on his own – and glad to be. He didn’t want anything to do with the specialists, seeing them as stuck-up know-it-alls who actually knew nothing at all. Dad believed that he had to keep his muscles working if he wanted to get back any semblance of normality – if you don’t use it, you lose it. He wouldn’t let idiots tell him he had to do nothing. Unknown to us at the time, the work of Sister Kenny with polio patients had strongly supported this approach with great results. From then on, Dad worked at getting himself mobile with only the help of his family, a couple of friends, and his steely resolve to walk again.
In December, shortly after Dad came out of the hospital, with David also at home by then, the local newspaper, the Illawarra Daily Mercury sent a reported to interview him. Being the only family in the district with three members of the family affected by the polio epidemic, the paper decided it would make a good human interest story. Dad was interviewed as he half lay-half sat on a bed in the living room. The story was accompanied by a photo of Dad and David, Pauline was still in the hospital I believe, and wasn’t included.
But Dad still had other problems. Because of his debts, we were very close to losing the house that Dad had mostly built by himself. He had taken out a couple of mortgages on the place to finance the building and, I believe to keep his business going. He owed the bank a few hundred pounds – a fortune to us then. We were on the verge of being evicted from, with no place to go, when we heard from the head of the Royal Air Forces Association in Sydney.
The Association was set up to assist ex-servicemen who had belonged to any of the Allied Air Forces in WWII. The president had somehow seen or heard about the “Mercury” article on Dad and the dire financial situation he was in. As Dad had been an R.A.F. fighter pilot in the war, he arranged to come down and see him. The Association offered to pay off Dad’s debts. However, it was on condition that they be allowed to take over ownership of our home.
The alternative was homelessness. Dad couldn’t work to support his wife and five children. Here, he was being offered life tenancy of the house even though he could never own it. There was no other option for him but to take up their offer. We all lived there until we kids married and left home. Mum died in the house in 1984, and Dad lived there until his death, just before his 92nd birthday in June 2013.
That epidemic changed our lives. It took months before Dad was granted a T.P.I. government pension as being totally and permanently incapacitated. It was the charity of the church and friends that kept us going until then. There wasn’t much in the way of material gifts for us that Christmas, but our family was together again, with the promise of a more secure future than we could ever have expected. That was a priceless gift.
© Linda Visman
Tags: building recession, Illawarra region, iron lung, polio, quarantine, stress
There was a recession in the building industry in 1961 Australia. At that time, Dad worked as a concreting contractor, and was sub-contracted to a company that was building a large number of houses on new estates. The company went bankrupt owing Dad, among many others, several hundred pounds (a lot of money in those days). Dad had no savings, and could not pay his own suppliers. He couldn’t meet the mortgage he’d drawn on to build the house. At the height of the epidemic, he was on the verge of bankruptcy.
We all felt a responsibility, whether financially or through helping around the house (though we’d always been expected to do that). My brother, Peter, at sixteen the eldest in the family, had already left school the year before the polio hit us. Pauline had also just left school aged fourteen and was working. Then came another blow.
Exactly two weeks to the day after David fell from his stool and was admitted to hospital with polio, Dad was driving his truck to work. He began to feel very unwell, so he turned back and went to the doctor’s surgery instead. The doctor strongly suspected polio. Dad was kept away from the other patients and an ambulance called.
By the time it arrived, he could barely walk or sit up. He was taken to Wollongong Hospital, where David was still a patient. I do not know just when Mum found out that Dad had come down with the disease, as we four kids were at school. The doctor had probably called her. Perhaps she even went to the hospital with him in the ambulance, though I suspect she wouldn’t have been allowed to.
During the night, Dad’s condition worsened. He was having difficulty breathing, and the doctors decided to transfer him to Prince Henry Hospital in Sydney, where there were machines called iron lungs that helped people to breathe when their muscles wouldn’t work. On arrival, Dad was assessed by specialists. With the muscles of his diaphragm and chest affected, he struggled for breath. The specialists wanted him to be put into an iron lung to assist him to breathe. Dad said no.
“Leave me overnight,” he said. “If I can’t make it through on my own, then you can have your way. But I have to do the best I can first.”
Dad knew that, once in the iron lung, he would soon lose any control over his muscles that might still be there – the iron lung would take over. That could mean a lifetime locked in a machine, unable to do all the things he’d been able to do. He was always strong and active, tall but wiry, a determined man for whom major problems were simply challenges to be overcome.
The specialists reluctantly agreed, but kept a close watch on him through the night. He made it through, though they wondered how. But they didn’t know what Dad was made of. The constant hard physical work Dad had done since we’d come to Australia over six years previously, had probably helped him in his fight against the fatal effects of the disease. But his determination was his real strength.
Through all of this, Mum had to cope. She now had a son and a husband in hospital, the latter in a critical condition. She couldn’t visit either of them, one in Wollongong and one in Sydney, widely separate hospitals, and had to look after the four of us at home. Council health officials said that we were still not allowed to go out in public areas or attend school. The whole family was quarantined at home for at least another two weeks – after the two weeks we’d already been quarantined after David was diagnosed.
At that time, it wasn’t known just how polio was transmitted. Because two people in our home had come down with it, officials from the Health Department thought our place must have been dirty. They sent a team, masked and gowned, to fumigate our whole house with some sort of white gas or powder. The men who came said they were surprised at how clean and tidy it was.
There was now no income, and not likely to be for a long time. The telephone was cut off because she couldn’t pay the bill. Worse than that, Mum had not been immunised, so there was always the fear that she would come down with the disease too. It was a very stressful period. Mum had always been a worrier and easily upset. However, during this time her inner strength came to the fore.
We waited anxiously, not knowing what to expect.
© Linda Visman
Tags: Illawarra coast, immunisation, Polio epidemic, Salk vaccine
On the 21st of June, 1961, on the Illawarra coast of New South Wales, the first case of the disease commonly known as infantile paralysis was reported. We now know it generally as poliomyelitis.
Polio raged through the many small communities around Lake Illawarra and farther south for the next six months. By the end of October, fifty cases had been reported, five of which had been fatal. The peak month was September, with twenty-two new cases reported. From about then, the epidemic began to ease, with fewer cases reported each week.
Those numbers tell a story, but only a tiny part of it. They do not tell of the fear and the worry and the heartbreak that this dreaded disease caused to individuals and families as it swept through the Illawarra and South Coast that winter and spring. They do not tell of the lives torn apart, the futures of young and old forever changed by a tiny unseen virus. Some people avoided going into public places or visiting family and friends. Everyone was afraid they or a loved one would be next.
We were a part of that largely untold story, and three of my family are included in the case statistics. Salk vaccine, administered through injection, had already been available to all children who attended school, and had already been immunised against the disease. I remember walking with the other children from my school down to the Council Chambers to stand in line to be given the needle. Of the five children in our family, four of us had been vaccinated in the school programme.
As the epidemic grew and spread through the community, the vaccine was made available to all by the local Council. Because of the huge demand for inoculations, our local immunisation centre ran out. Because of that and probably other reasons too, Mum, Dad and David, my three-year-old brother, were never vaccinated.
David was too young for school, and often played with four-year-old Jeffrey from two houses away. One day, we heard that Jeffrey’s younger cousin, who lived nearby, was in hospital. It was polio, the diagnosis nobody wanted. We were really sorry that the little cousin, only fifteen months old, had been struck down. David continued to play with Jeffrey as usual. My older brother and sister, aged sixteen and fourteen, were working at that time, while my younger sister and I were at school. I was near the end of my first year at high school.
One Tuesday in early October, David was unwell, so he stayed inside. He was playing with his little boats, kneeling on a stool at the kitchen sink. When he went to get down from the stool, he fell. Mum lifted him up but he couldn’t stand. I think Mum knew right away what was wrong. We were fortunate to have a telephone and she rang the doctor, who said to get David up to his surgery right away.
I don’t know how Mum got him there, whether she pushed him in a stroller the mile or so, or if there was somebody around to take them in a car. The doctor checked David and called an ambulance. He was admitted to the isolation ward of Wollongong Hospital. We couldn’t go to visit him until after the incubation period of two weeks was up. As it turned out, we wouldn’t be able to see him for another four weeks.
© Linda Visman
 These figures come from various news reports in the “Illawarra Daily Mercury”, November 1961.
Tags: Catholics, guilt, isolation and quarantine, prayer, Rosary, Salk caccine
This story tells of a time in 1961 when everything changed for our family.
There’s a tiny pebble beneath my knee and I open my eyes a fraction. Reaching down, I brush it away, impatient at the distraction. I must keep my concentration total, or my prayers won’t be effective.
It’s difficult to stay focussed on the Mysteries of the Rosary when I am so worried about Dad. I’m not saying the Joyful Mysteries. They don’t seem right. Neither do the Glorious Mysteries. The Sorrowful Mysteries fit the situation much better. The rosary beads pass through my fingers, one for each Our Father, ten Hail Marys, and the Glory be at the end of each decade of the Rosary. I’ve done The Agony in the Garden. The next decade is The Scourging at the Pillar. But my mind refuses to focus on the sufferings of Jesus.
“Please don’t let Dad die. Let him come back home soon.”
My concern for my earthly father constantly interrupts my address to the One in Heaven, and again I have to force myself to concentrate.
Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with thee, blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus. Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us, sinners, now and at the hour of our death. Amen.
I can hear my older brother, Peter, in the kitchen. My sisters, Pauline and Sheelagh, are probably there too, though I can’t hear them. I’m in the lounge room, in the dark so nobody will see me. I don’t know why I don’t want them to see me, because we all know how important prayer is – and this is an especially important time for prayer.
The carpet is rough on my knees, but I’m used to kneeling on all sorts of floors. I’ve done it for most of my thirteen years, and I can ignore the discomfort. However there’s usually the back of another pew in church, a desk at school, or my bed to lean against. It’s hard to ignore the ache in my back from having no support for most of the Sorrowful Mysteries. I stretch, then say another Hail Mary, feeling guilty that I can’t keep focussed on Jesus and His Mother. My mind soon wanders again.
Mum’s at the hospital. I don’t know how she got there because there are no buses at night. It’s very hard for her. She always worries so much about everything, even little things. Now we have a really big worry. She’s already had to go to the hospital every day for the last two weeks to see my little brother, David. Now Dad’s in the isolation ward too, in the adults’ part, not the kids’ part. It’s pretty hard for us four as well. We have to wait at home, not knowing what’s happening. What will we do if Dad dies?
That’s what the prayers are for. Surely Jesus and Mary will help us. We’ve always gone to Mass and kept the Holy Days. But what if I’ve done something bad and God won’t listen to my prayers? I haven’t been able to go to Confession, none of us have. Not since we’ve been isolated in the house to stop the germs spreading. Surely Jesus will realise that. We can’t even go to school. I close my eyes tight and hold my breath, sending my prayers up to Heaven.
“Please listen, God. Even if I’ve been bad, Daddy’s a good man. He loves you and keeps the Commandments and goes to Mass. We don’t have much money even though he works hard. Please, don’t take him away from us. I’ll do anything you want me to.”
Hoping God the Father, Jesus and the Holy Ghost – and Mary too – are all listening, I begin the next decade of the Rosary, The Crowning With Thorns. I think about how that must have hurt Jesus. Then I think about David, and wonder why a three-year-old like him has to suffer.
It was Tuesday two weeks ago, and he was kneeling on the stool at the kitchen sink, playing in the water with his little boats. He wasn’t feeling too good and he fell off. Then he couldn’t stand up. Mum took him straight to the doctor. She had to carry him all the way, about a mile. Even though he’s only three he must have been heavy. The doctor sent him straight to the isolation ward at Wollongong hospital.
It’s Tuesday today as well. Mum said Dad was driving to work in his truck this morning when he felt sick and weak. So he went to the doctor’s surgery instead. By the time the ambulance took him to the hospital, he could hardly walk or even sit up. It sounds like he’s really bad. Oh, why didn’t they have the vaccine like we did? They wouldn’t have got this awful disease. Me and Peter and Pauline and Sheelagh walked from school down to the Council Chambers to get the needles. Salk vaccine it’s called.
We had our needles before people started to get polio around here. But for the last couple of months, polio has been everywhere, all along the Illawarra Coast, and it’s been really scary. They call it an epidemic – that’s when lots of people get it. Some people have even died. Now Dad has it as well as David, and we don’t know what will happen to them, or whether they’ll get better. Mum didn’t have the needles. Gee, I hope she doesn’t catch it too. I begin another decade of the Rosary.
Peter pokes his head through the door and sees me kneeling there.
“What are you doing?” he says.
“Saying the Rosary for Dad. Want to say it with me?”
“Nah,” he says. “I’m hungry. Where’s the tin of jam?”
I sigh and make the sign of the cross, putting my rosary beads away in a little bag. I’m hungry too, though I hadn’t noticed it until that moment. I get to my feet and go into the kitchen.
“I’ll cut the bread,” I say, picking up the knife. “I cut it straighter than you.”
(c) Linda Visman