Echuca Moama farewells Pauline Aitken, its Angel of Mercy

By Ivy Jensen

PAULINE Aitken is the woman who defied all the odds. And nothing could stop her from being an angel of mercy to hundreds of people, families.

Except death.

Pauline died on Monday. She was 81.

Even her failing health, then a cancer diagnosis in 2018, did not slow her; not stop her getting out to her garage every day to minister to the needs of the hungry and homeless.

This most pure of souls kept working until finally, on March 23, the doors finally closed on this remarkable one woman campaign to not just see suffering; but to try and stop it.

For the past 14 years, the great-grandmother has fed the hungry from her Echuca home.

Operating Foodbank from her Campaspe Esplanade garage became her mission and in the end, near her not even a terminal cancer diagnosis slowed her down.

In the end, it took a global pandemic to turn people away from her doors, forcing Pauline to close the relief centre late last month.

Less than two weeks later, on Monday, April 6, the 81-year-old was gone; her two daughters by her side.

One of them, Meredith Tharapos, said her modest mother had bequeathed the twin towns an indelible legacy.

“She never judged anyone and always saw the best in people despite their circumstances,” Meredith said.

“Her love for Jesus was manifested in her life through her endless love for people and her servant heart.

“Her sense of style was always evident right to the end, and she would never be seen without her trademark red lipstick. Her final request before passing was for the application of lipstick.”

To her family, Pauline was a loving mother and wife. To those struggling in the Echuca-Moama community, Pauline was a beacon of hope.

They counted on her for providing fresh produce, ready-made meals, basic kitchen supplies and even clothes and books as they couldn’t afford it themselves.

Up to 300 people passed through Pauline’s garage every week until its final closure at 5pm on Monday, March 23.

Although Pauline and husband Jim moved to Echuca to retire in 1998, the mother-of-four did anything but.

She began a new chapter of her life, working with intellectually and physically disabled members of the Echuca community through Community Living and Respite Services until 2009.

Her rural background and deep love for people from different walks of life, coupled with the sustained drought which significantly impacted our farming communities, motivated Pauline to support those in need in a practical way.

‘‘We just fell into it,’’ Pauline told the Riv.

‘‘People don’t choose to go hungry or homeless.”

Foodbank started in 2006 as a small venture, eventually becoming a fulltime job; as Pauline visited local food suppliers each day and spent hours each week co-ordinating food trucks and donations.

The Echuca Community Church first sponsored the community outreach program, with other churches in the area joining later.

Pauline was helped by numerous volunteers from the Echuca-Moama community, while many local businesses, farmers and community members donated supplies and Foodshare in Bendigo provided various items every Monday morning.

But Pauline didn’t just provide food and necessary items to support people’s physical needs, she offered a listening ear and general counselling and wisdom to support their emotional needs.

Visitors could receive spiritual support and more than 6000 Bibles donated by the Gideons were distributed from the garage during its operation.

Moama Bowling Club sales and marketing manager George Santos when the club donated hundreds of kilograms of food to Echuca Foodbank's Jim and Pauline Aitken.

Secondary school children also dropped by on their way home for a snack, which Pauline thoroughly enjoyed.

Pauline’s selfless work with Foodbank saw her receive the Echuca and District Citizen of the Year award in 2009 and a Campaspe Community Volunteer Award last year.

Pauline was born on Good Friday on April 7, 1939, in Box Hill to parents James and Marjorie Shields.

Her father was a farmer and her mother a primary school teacher during World War II.

Along with older brother Robert, Pauline lived on the family farm at Douglas, 80km south-west of Horsham, until she finished secondary school in 1954.

She worked at National Australia Bank in Edenhope for about three years, in Ballarat for under a year and another three years in Horsham.

Pauline met Jim Aitken at a Belle of Belles ball in Stawell in 1959, where she won ‘Belle of the Wimmera’.

Pauline when she won Belle of Belles.

Ballroom dancing was one of Pauline’s great loves, winning numerous competitions.

She married Jim on August 12, 1961, at Horsham Anglican Church before settling down on a farm at Marnoo until 1998.

The couple had four children, Meredith, Karen, Philip and Rohan.

Meredith said Pauline was ahead of her time in implementing a sustainable lifestyle.

Pauline and Jim Aitken on their wedding day.

“She maintained an amazing vegetable patch, the produce of which was used to create family meals,” she recalled.

“In one year, she accumulated 80lbs of fresh shelled green peas in the freezer. These were largely shelled by her two daughters.”

Lamb was always on the menu thanks to the endless supply from the farm, while desserts were milk-based (custard and junket) using the daily fresh milk supply, along with fruit from the orchard.

Pauline also used the cream separated from the fresh milk to make her own butter.

Pauline was well noted in the Marnoo district for her brandy snaps and pavlovas, made using the fresh eggs and cream from the farm.

Pauline with family at her 80th birthday on April 7, 2019.

All her children continue the pavlova tradition to this day.

On one occasion, Pauline catered for a sheep field day on their property, attended by about 600 people from around Australia to celebrate the property winning Victoria’s Sheep Flock of the Year competition in 1981.

Remarkably, there was food left over.

Pauline continued to use her excellent banking skills by undertaking numerous treasurer positions in local organisations.

She was an active member of the Marnoo Presbyterian Church and a Sunday School teacher for many years, also leading women’s Bible studies.

Pauline aged 16 on a family holiday at the Gold Coast.

When son Philip began working with Life Exchange, a ministry for homeless young people living on the streets in Melbourne, it was the start of Pauline’s lifelong ministry to help those whose lives were not always easy.

Many of these boys stayed for short periods of time at the Marnoo farm, helping with farm duties.

They came under the condition that drugs and alcohol were strictly prohibited; and only one boy was returned to Melbourne.

One of these boys, Ken, moved to Marnoo and lived with Pauline and Jim on and off for nearly 30 years.

Ken remained in continuous contact with Pauline until his death two years ago.

Pauline touched the lives of many during her lifetime.

Her next-door neighbour described her as the “go to woman” as nothing was ever too hard or too much trouble.

“Her first response was always ‘What do you need?’, ‘What can I get you?’,” Meredith said.

“Pauline’s love for people was always genuine and she had a unique ability to understand people’s needs without them having to tell her.

“Committed as always, up at the crack of dawn working in the garage and preparing it for numerous people that would pass through the door.”

Pauline’s grandchildren will remember their Nan as a resilient, staunch, humble and encouraging woman who always had a touch of sass.

“For her grandkids, the candle has burned out long before the legend ever will,” Meredith said.

Pauline at her 80th birthday last year.

While funeral details have not been finalised, it is expected to be a small affair due to the coronavirus crisis restricting public gatherings to 10 people.

But Meredith said that would suit her mother just fine.

“Mum was a very modest woman and hated the idea of being the centre of attention and having a big public funeral, so she kind of got her wish,” she said.

“She didn’t do things to receive accolades and recognition, she did it because she genuinely loved people and had a deep concern for them.”

Pauline is survived by her husband Jim, children Meredith Tharapos, Karen Sheridan, Philip and Rohan Aitken, 10 grandchildren and one great-grandson.

 Pauline and volunteers on the final day of Foodbank in Echuca.