FAREWELL SHIRLEY DUNBAR.
Rev John Flynn pushed the Presbyterian Church into establishing the Inland Mission covering the inland with a mantle of safety through its pedal radio network and flying Doctor Service. The Methodist Church in Australia was far behind but anxious to catch up in its service to the inland.
So the NSW Methodist Conference in 1946 launched the Methodist Nursing Service. This was to be centred in Brewarrina and a double certificate nursing sister, Ethel Helyar (who was also a lay preacher and deaconess) was the founding sister. She was joined by Marjorie Wilkinson (who held similar qualifications) and subsequently by a score of young women who went from the Methodist Leigh College after theological training as deaconesses with additional medical training – to bring medical, dental, accident and emergency nursing, to conduct religious services, youth camps, weddings and funerals and with the practical skills to enable them to survive in such a harsh environment covering a region of 35,000 square miles in an ambulance truck called “Augustus”. This also necessitated the mechanical skills to repair the truck. Their base was in Brewarrina, half way between Walgett and Burke.
In 1950 Shirley Garlick joined them, one of the first of a score of other similarly dedicated and competent young women. Shirley came from a committed Methodist family, very concerned for the Church’s care for the poor. I saw those qualities in Shirley’s mother in her senior years. While working in Brewarrina she met a young wool classer who had developed his own wool buying business and who owned his own wool stores. He kept his property in immaculate condition, which may have attracted the attention of Shirley. He lived on a grazing property, “Fernlee”. He frequently met her when he was fighting floods and the sisters were providing the men with tea.
Lance Dunbar built up the grazing property and it became a substantial property. He and Shirley became engaged and eventually married. But the Methodist Church and Far West Mission leaders in Sydney took a dim view of the marriage of one of their nursing sisters becoming married, so Shirley was terminated causing her deep hurt which lasted 60 years. She told me often of her wish to receive an apology from the Church, but I did not think it would come, as apologising for their errors was not a habit the Methodist and subsequently the Uniting Church practised, as I also knew from experience (see above).
But if it was to be done a campaign had to be led by an outstanding negotiator. We had one on the staff of Wesley Mission and we gave the task to Dr Keith Suter. He argued and badgered until he was able to arrange the first Pastoral Concern Service of Forgiveness and Reconciliation for a married deaconess forced into resignation. A formal apology from the Church President was read out by the then Moderator at a special service organised for Mrs Dunbar in December 2005. It took half a century for the church to recognize its error and apologise for it.
Lance and Shirley made “Fernlee” a centre for the community with Shirley being the unsurpassed hostess. Their three children all attended boarding school. But their property had conservation areas for brolgas, wild birds, emus and kangaroos. Occasional church services were held in the open air on the homestead lawns, surrounded by the orchard and gardens.
Eventually, like many outback graziers, Lance and Shirley sold up and came to live in Bellevue Hill Eastern Sydney in a grand house with superb views over Sydney Harbour and the Heads. It was here that Beverley and I, in the late seventies, first became guests at a dinner party to meet some of Sydney’s “rich and famous” who lived nearby.
Shirley was a gracious hostess, but she was just as much at home among Wesley’s homeless and derelict people. She was a great supporter of Wesley Mission’s ministry to the poor and homeless, and a long-time supporter of Rev Noreen Towers. Every Christmas Day, my family and I spent the morning with two hundred homeless people at Edward Eagar Lodge, and Shirley was also present talking with our residents as they had a cup of tea. She knew many by name and took a real interest in their welfare.
That was also true every Sunday night in Wesley Theatre or in the Lyceum Theatre before the new Centre was built. She never missed a service of either Dr Alan Walker or of myself over a period of 40 years. The poor, the disabled, the unemployed, the homeless had in Shirley a true friend. Over time she visited all of our various congregations including those beyond the inner city. When Lifeline was commenced she became a life-long supporter. In the 1990’s when I was opening a new building or service centre every month of the year, Shirley was always present.
She was an elder who took her congregational activities seriously. The congregations regarded her as the most loved and well-known of members. She was an elected member of the Parish Council and Presbytery. For thirty-five years she was a Board member oversighting every decision made during our huge years of expansion and rebuilding. She was among the first committee of 8 Board members who came to Melbourne to interview Beverley and myself in 1977, before issuing a recommendation that we be appointed the new Superintendent. She sat at my invitation at many interviews I conducted to appoint senior staff. She mixed and mingled as a Board member at Staff planning days, and staff retreats. The staff deeply appreciated her presence and interest. I had lunch with her and some others over 250 times and we attended over 100 dinners together. She always was good company, and interested as we discussed developments and plans together. She was every year among our major donors and received from the church every honour we could bestow.
When Lance suffered a stroke in 1984 that was the start of a long period nursing her husband. I visited him regularly at home and hospital and later in two nursing homes. Shirley was totally committed to his care. They sold their house in Bellevue Hill and lived subsequently in a large unit overlooking the Harbour at Darling Point. Later, Shirley, who decades before fought cancer with radical surgery and chemotherapy, came to need assisted care herself. She continued to trust God and to thank visitors and staff for every attention.
A monument stands in the centre of Brewarrina recalling the ministry of those Far West Mission Sisters and Shirley’s name is carved into that monument with those of her colleagues. Wesley Mission will shortly conducted a service of thanksgiving for the life of Shirley Dunbar ( 14th January 1927 – 19th January 2013.)
We miss her greatly and thank God for every memory. We extend our condolences to her children and grandchildren of whom she was so proud.