By Jamie O’Brien and Fr Paul Pitzen
The Lithuanian Community of Perth last month gathered together in celebration of the 100th birthday of North Perth resident and long-time St Francis Xavier East Perth parishioner Marija Stankevicius.
Speaking through her eldest son Eugene, Marija re-told the journey of her life to Emmanuel Community Centre and occasional Lithuanian community priest, Fr Paul Pitzen and Archdiocese of Perth Communications and Media Office Editor, Jamie O’Brien.
Born in Obeliai, Lithuania on 28 February 1915, Marija admits her life has not been easy and her journey to Australia was somewhat of a traumatic experience.
Marija begins by telling the story of her life following the invasion of Lithuania in 1941 by Germany and subsequently by the (former) Soviet Union in 1944.
It was then that Marija and her husband Aleksandras had a choice to stay in Lithuania and be deported to Siberia or flee to Germany.
Fleeing with little more than the shirts on their backs, Marija and her husband stayed in refugee camps in Germany while they waited for an opportunity to migrate to Australia as displaced persons.
It was while they were in Germany that their first-born son, Eugene, was born in Augsburg.
The two-month trip via their designated ship MS Anna Salen was uncomfortable and, even after arriving in Fremantle in December 1950, Marija, her husband and (then) new-born son Eugene were forced to stay on the boat for two weeks while accommodation was found.
Finally moving to a disused army camp in Northam and eventually to a shared house (with four other families) in early 1951, Marija and her family were happy to have escaped war-torn Lithuania and the Soviet occupation, but found life in a new country difficult.
It was hot, they didn’t speak the language, and they had to work hard to pay back the cost of their journey. Aleksandras took up a job with Bunnings Timber Mill in Yornup near Manjimup.
By 1957, that debt was paid and the family increased in size with the birth of a son, John.
In 1962, Marija was naturalised as an Australian citizen, an occasion that is one of her proudest.
Marija and Aleksandras and their family then moved to North Perth, living in a room with an Italian family until they could buy a house in Loftus Street, where Marija still lives today.
Since arriving in Australia, Marija has been very involved with the Lithuanian Community in Perth, saying she always really enjoyed helping other people.
“It’s what kept me going,” she said.
“She worked tirelessly within the Lithuanian community cooking meals and keeping the premises clean and tidy at the Lithuanian Centre in South Perth for more than 25 years,” said her son, Eugene Stankevicius.
Meeting at St Francis Xavier Parish, East Perth, Marija would spend much time with fellow Lithuanians, celebrating cultural events, folk dancing, organising basketball teams and a Lithuanian choir.
Until very recently, Marija supplied the flowers for the church each Sunday, most of which came from her own garden.
“Going to Sunday Mass was the most important activity for Mum.
“She would have to be very ill not to go each week,” Eugene said.
Today, Marija is still very independent and lives with her son Eugene, walking with the aid of a walker, going shopping and enjoying cooking.
So, what is Marija’s secret to a long life?
“Ask God,” says Marija.
“But don’t sit around and do nothing. Have a healthy diet.”
“Oh, and eat porridge,” she says.
“Porridge gets me through everything.”