On 24th September this year, Drouin lost a respected driving force of indigenous and non-indigenous reconciliation. Irma Pepper’s funeral was held at Christ Church, Drouin, on 5th October. Here, almost three hundred people from the Aboriginal community and non-indigenous community gathered to honour the passing of a woman whose life was filled with gracious acts of peace-making and forgiveness.
Irma Pepper’s life took a new direction in 1995 after suffering greatly from the loss of her husband George. At this time, she made a conscious commitment to find comfort in a relationship with God. Irma became a Christian and started to worship with Christ Church Anglican Church in Drouin. The decision to worship with an otherwise white congregation didn’t always meet with the encouragement of Irma’s own people, and required bold determination on her part. Irma’s decision was a great gift to the congregation at Drouin—and planted seeds of reconciliation that, it is hoped, will continue to bear fruit well into the future.
Below is a homily that the Revd Dr Dean Spalding delivered at Irma’s funeral service.
Irma Pepper (née Thomas) was a woman of great strength of character. Irma was born in Cummeragunja just on the NSW side of the Murray, not far from the majestic Barmah Red Gum forests. Irma’s father was a Yuin man, born at Wallaga Lakes on the southern coast of NSW; Irma Thomas was a Yorta Yorta woman, and met and married George Helman Clifford Pepper, who was a Gunnai-Kurnai man born at Lake Tyers but raised, not far from Drouin, at Jackson’s Track. Irma and George’s five children—Wayne, Colleen, Wilma, William and Jason—share a rich cultural heritage spanning at least three tribes of the south-eastern part of this great land.
Irma and George won enormous respect, not only of from their own people, but of also from their white neighbours. They were respected as quiet achievers, with a very serious work ethic, and as eminently wise family people to whom others often turned for strength or counsel.
In 1995, George passed away and was buried from this church on 7 August 1995. A photograph taken of George’s burial captured an image in which Irma believed she could see a vision of Jesus coming to take George home. She framed and treasured that photograph and that belief. A member of the Christ Church congregation, Ila Hine, consequently invited Irma to come and worship at the ‘8am’ Sunday services. Irma came and became an enthusiastic contributor to the Christ Church community. Irma joined Mothers’ Union and the Missions Group, and she was involved in Cursillo. Surrounded by her children, Irma was confirmed on 12th October 1997 by Bishop Arthur Jones, Bishop of Gippsland, who was delighted to confirm a woman of such faith.
Irma’s middle name ‘Doris’ means ‘gift’; and Irma’s joining of this congregation was a great gift to this community which allowed for a significant expression of reconciliation, mutual welcome and respect. This congregation was privileged to have an indigenous woman of Irma’s calibre.
Irma consequently moved to Stratford and other parts of East Gippsland. In her most recent years, a decline in health took its toll on Irma’s life.
Irma was particularly loved by three of the ‘elders’ of this Parish: as I mentioned, Ila Hine, who was the one who first invited Irma to consider joining this community—another is Iris Maxfield who had come to Drouin in 1948, and the other is Lorna Parke, who shared with me that she once drove Irma to Lorna’s home town of Jindivick to show Irma the place where George Pepper had spent his childhood—at Jackson’s Track.
Participating in today’s time of remembrance and of giving thanks for Irma’s life is a privilege for me. Today we celebrate Irma’s faith in Jesus who will come to bring his people home. In the parable we read from Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus promises entry into the Kingdom of Heaven for those who share his heart of compassion towards those in the world who are most in need; Jesus says that whenever we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, clothe the needy, or visit the sick or imprisoned that we actually do those things for him—for Jesus. These words of Jesus support Irma’s vision of Jesus’ visiting to come and take George home—and gives us confidence in knowing that Jesus has taken Irma to that same home.
Irma has fought the good fight, finished the race and kept the faith. There is now reserved for her a crown of righteousness in the presence of Jesus and his holy saints and angels. Today we celebrate a life lived well. Amen.
[A transcript of a eulogy prepared by Irma’s sons—Wayne, William and Jason—is available below. Two recollections in this eulogy—one of Irma, as a child, saving her little brother from drowning at the beach, and the other of Irma, as a young woman, spearing a snake that threatened her children—are beautifully told and add witness to the love and courage of this remarkable woman.]
Eulogy read by Irma Pepper’s son Jason Pepper at Irma’s funeral service at Christ Church Drouin on Thursday 5 October 2017 (Prepared by brothers, Wayne, William and Jason Pepper).
Irma Doris Pepper (née Thomas) was born on the 13 August 1938, on Yorta Yorta country; she was proud of her mother Florence Atkinson’s Yorta Yorta heritage and of her father Cecil Thomas’s Yuin heritage. Throughout Irma’s younger years, the family would travel to and from both Cummeragunja and Wallaga Lake missions.
Mum was a very sooky toddler; so the elders on Wallaga Lake mission did a smoking ceremony on her to stop the crying—it had a very positive effect as she became very placid and content. These characteristics stood out in her adult life.
During her early school years she attended Cummeragunga and Wallaga Lake mission schools. When Mum was 11, she, her brother Ivan and sister Cecile went swimming at Wintels Point near Camel Rock. The tide began to go out and the current was strong. Uncle Ivan got caught in the rip—he was getting dragged out to sea. Aunty Cecile began to scream for help as she and Mum watched in fear. Mum’s nurturing nature kicked in—she risked her life to save her brother’s, dived into the water and swam into the rip to reach him.
While she was swimming towards Ivan, Aunty Cecile began to scream at Mum, warning her that there was a big sea joongar (octopus) swimming behind her. Auntie Cecile was scared that the joongar was going to cling to Mum and take her under the water, but Mum kept swimming—she was determined to save her frightened little brother. And from that day on, Mum always worried about her younger siblings; this was even more so after the passing of her mother, just 12 months later.
Due to the government policy, at the age of 13, Mum was forced into the work force; she was sent to work on a farm near Cobargo, where she was a domestic servant. She worked until she turned 15, and that’s when she met the love of her life, George Pepper. They moved to Gippsland to begin a new chapter in her life. During her late teens, she took a keen interest in music which was influenced by Dad. He taught her to play guitar and soon they were entering singing contests—they were in high demand at community gatherings. People would say she had the voice of an angel.
Mum’s experience of losing her mum at an early age made her focus on her future motherhood. All she wanted to do was be a loving and caring mum, and she soon got that opportunity. She went on to have five children, and she and Dad were proud parents.
After Mum’s early childhood sadness, at the age of 19, Mum and Dad had their first child, Wayne, followed by Colleen, then Wilma—they were all born at Orbost. From there, they arrived at Bombala—once again following Dad’s work—they settled and William arrived.
Mum was able to show her loving caring nature to her young family. During these times there was no electricity or running water—only tank water. So while Dad was at work, Mum would stay home and maintain the house. This included washing clothes in an old copper washing machine where she had to light the fire underneath it, then boil the water, stir it with a stick (Mum was the agitator). As you can imagine, this was a lot of manual work which included her being the rinse and spin cycle. This is one example of what our loving mother would do to ensure we had clean clothes.
My brother Wayne wants me to share one of his early memories. He remembers a day when Mum was sending the kids off to school. Colleen and Wilma walked down the footpath and opened the gate. They walked past a snake not seeing it, but Mum and Wayne did. Wayne insisted on staying at home to kill it for Mum, but Mum sent all three kids to school. She said, “No way! You get to school.” And Wayne worried all day about Mum. When the kids got home, they saw Dad’s spear leaning against the fence with the snake hooked to the end of it—Mum had killed it to protect her children. She was very brave.
From Bombala, we moved to Bonang again to follow Dad’s work. They lived in the Mill house where we finally had electricity. We spent two or three years in Bonang. From there we moved to Drouin. Mum wanted a better education for us kids and Dad found work at the Longwarry sawmill. Drouin would be where our family finally settled. And 20 years later the family was completed with the arrival of Jason, born in Bunyip. After Jason was born, they had a brief time in Silvan where Mum and Dad did seasonal work together picking fruit and vegetables.
From this period on, it was all about family, love and community. Mum’s passion was country music, playing the guitar with Dad and staying connected to community. She also loved gardening, keeping her home comfortable and welcoming, she enjoyed camping and fishing and Dad always took Mum back visiting family at Lake Tyres, Wallangra Lake and along the south coast of New South Wales.
In 1995, we lost Dad and this was a pivotal point in Mum’s life. As she said, I can go one of two ways, I can drink and drown my sorrows, or I can find comfort in a relationship with God. She became a Christian and gave her life to the Lord.
Mum took great care of their family, including her mother-in-law, Alice, and her father Cecil. They both lived with Mum and Dad. When visitors would pop in, she always had some funny yarns about Nan and Grandfather.
Mum also raised her grandchildren, Melissa, Belinda and Graham, who all lived with Mum at various times. They would like to highlight how loving and nurturing she was—how she protected and encouraged them. She was a great role model on how to live a loving and productive life.
Soon after, Mum met Bob and relocated to Stratford where her life began a new and loving chapter. They shared ten fond years together that included Bob’s beautiful family, until Bob’s passing. After that, Mum’s health started to go down—her kidney function was deteriorating, which saw her on dialysis. This began to restrict her quality of life; however, it didn’t restrict her strong loving nature—she was determined to stay connected to her children.
Our family would like to thank and acknowledge the dialysis staff for their wonderful care over the last five years. Mum attended dialysis in the Sale hospital, Warragul and Latrobe Regional Hospital. And also we thank Ramahyuck for their reliable transport and medical support.