Reflections from the Catholic Weekly’s oldest reader

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“Life just wouldn’t be the same without it” … one of The Catholic Weekly’s most loyal readers Gabriella May at her Coffs Harbour home. PHOTO: LANCE MILLER

Faith’s been the foundation for Gabriella’s Century

God is Number One for 100 year-old reader who recalls how she and her husband escaped
war-torn Europe to find a new life Down Under

Centenarian Gabriella May could be The Catholic Weekly’s oldest and most loyal reader.
At 100-years-young, the retired Coffs Harbour resident has been reading the paper since she arrived in Australia from Hungary more than 60 years ago.

She recalls buying her first copy in Pitt Street, Martin Place, while working in the now defunct Farmers department store and hasn’t put it down since.

She said she has seen many changes in the paper over the years and today particularly enjoys heart-warming stories about people of faith, the Letters to the Editor, as well as Sydney Archbishop Anthony Fisher’s homilies.

Even when times were tough and money was quite scarce, she recalls she would still make sure she bought a copy of one of Australia’s oldest newspapers every week.

“I can remember back to the times when we had little money but made sure we always bought The Catholic Weekly, it’s just what we did,” she smiled.

“I have been reading it for so many years and am so used to having it that I can’t finish my week without it.

“In all these years I have never been featured in the paper but I once wrote a Letter to the Editor about the history of Catholics assisting the Jews which was published, but at my age I can’t remember any of the details.

“My faith means everything to me … even if I have nothing else I always have it and The Catholic Weekly helps with that.

“I really love nothing more than to sit down and read it from front to back.”
Growing up in a committed family of faith, her father was a Lutheran and her mother a Catholic. She attended a Catholic primary school in Budapest, and educated by the Daughters of Charity who she laughs remembering them wearing a traditional habit including “head gear of The Flying Nun variety”.

“I can remember back to the times when we had little money but made sure we always bought The Catholic Weekly, it’s just what we did,” she smiled.

After finishing school and while studying acting, she recalls an experience in 1943 while walking across one of the main bridges in Budapest when from out of nowhere came a deluge of bombs.

“Many people were killed but as fortune would have it I was spared and to this day I will never walk over a bridge unless I really have to,” she said.

“All buildings had a bunker back then in which we would seek refuge in the event of an air raid, and often dinner was interrupted by a siren signalling that we needed to rush to it.
“There are so many stories of events that happened during those war years that reflect the best and worst of the human spirit.

“One that I recount is that of Archbishop Vilmos Apor, who is of particular interest to me and my family because his nephew married my cousin and some years ago was beatified.

A young Gabriella May just before fleeing Europe en route to her new life in Australia. PHOTO: SUPPLIED

“He was hiding many nuns in his palace and when the soldiers came to his residence demanding the women be made available he refused and was shot dead … A similar fate befell one of the uncles of my future husband who was a priest in a country town who was executed by Russian soldiers.

“He was hanged and left for three days before his body was thrown in a local river as a lesson to others so that people would learn not to rebel against the occupation authorities.”
Gabriella spent three months fleeing Budapest in what she describes as unimaginable terror, travelling under the cover of darkness, crawling through fields and much of it on foot until she reached the Austrian border.

On arrival, she remembers hearing the sound of church bells and instinctively following the familiar sound to the local church, where the parish priest assisted her to make her way to Bavaria, and ultimately freedom, fleeing Europe and the influence of communism.

My faith means everything to me … even if I have nothing else I always have it and The Catholic Weekly helps with that

Gabriella and her new husband George arrived in Australia in 1949 after seeing an advertisement for labourers and were successfully contracted to work for the government for two years.

Gabriella said she remembers the pair “roughing up the skin on their hands” to show they were used to hard physical work.

For many years, the-now family of four, following the arrival of two boys, moved around Sydney in a variety of jobs.

“I will never forget the morning our ship came into Sydney Harbour, it was such a glorious late spring day … such a beautiful sight,” she recalls.

“I was so happy and I’ve always been so grateful to this country that adopted us.”

Gabriella and George relaxing in their Sydney home. PHOTO SUPPLIED

Originally taken by steam locomotive to Bathurst and one of the major migrant reception centres in Australia, the family made their way back to Sydney where they found accommodation is a hostel in Kings Cross where inevitably “the gas would go off before the meal was cooked, or the shower would run cold before the shampoo was out of their hair” but they knew they would move on to better times.

Shortening their surname from Szentirmay, to the more-simple May made their life easier and recorded on the Welcome Wall at Darling Harbour. The family relocated to Edgecliff, Hurstville, Frenchs Forest and Drummoyne, before buying and establishing a very successful delicatessen in Balmain, and their children studied at St Aloysius at Milsons Point.

The family then moved to their own home at St Ives, and became very popular in the neighbourhood once they installed a swimming pool which required Gabriella to take on extra work at the local Woolworths to finance.

They became devoted members of the Corpus Christi Community, with George attending St Vincent de Paul meetings while his wife took a back seat due to her struggle with the language.

Gabriella’s Apostolic Blessing from Pope Francis on her 100th birthday. PHOTO SUPPLIED

“I remember we were all sitting in a circle sharing ideas at the parish when someone asked me a question and as my husband never wanted to see me embarrassed, stood up and proceeded to answer on my behalf and the nun who was facilitating told him in no uncertain terms that it was my turn to speak and that he should sit down,” she laughed.

“I don’t remember what I managed to say but I remember being supported and me thinking it was an important lesson for me to learn English.”

After the couple retired, they spent four years travelling around Europe and enjoying their grandchildren when George passed away from cancer and Gabriella moved to Coffs Harbour to be closer to her son Stephen, a prominent local GP.

Over the six decades Gabriella has been reading the paper, she has seen many changes including a vast increase in the variety of topics, particularly more international news as well as coverage on other religions both in Australia and around the world.

However one thing that hasn’t changed is her love of Australia’s biggest selling Catholic newspaper.

“I absolutely love The Catholic Weekly, my life just wouldn’t be right without it,” she smiled.

“It has been part of who I am for so much of my time in Australia and I have thoroughly enjoyed reading it for well over 60 years.”