Marita Taverner had a big family in Shepparton. A mother and grandmother, Marita ‘adopted’ a great many other sons and daughters, particularly in the past 20 years when she supported African immigrants.
She took them to school, to medical appointments, advocated for them and even attended new births.
In 2019, on World Refugee Day, Marita Taverner shared her faith as she undertook her service to the African Community with the St Vincent de Paul Society and the Parish of St Brendans.
Inspired by her life-long faith and propelled out of love for the disadvantaged, Marita established her pattern of volunteering early in her life.
She had just joined the workforce in an accounting practice at Ringwood, after studying at a business college for 12 months, when she gave it up to do lay missionary work with a Catholic order in Western Australia for two years. She was just 19.
At her funeral service at St Brendan’s Catholic Church on September 28, attended by about 400 people, her daughter Liz and son Anthony recalled in their eulogies many stories from her life.
Born Marita Carmel Lewis, on July 16, 1944 at Kew, she was the fourth child born to Catherine and Francis Lewis, and a sister for Beverley, Leon and Judith. Some of her favourite childhood memories were of growing up on the family farm at Seville, helping her dad.
After two years in missions in Western Australia, Marita returned home to the farm in Seville before moving to central Victoria. It was while she was working in Ararat in an accounting firm she met a widower, and her future husband, Geoff Taverner.
Geoff was working at the Ararat newspaper but the couple moved to Shepparton in 1969 where Geoff found a job in advertising at the News. Geoff worked for the News for 10 years, purchasing their first house in 1970 in Regent St, Shepparton, and daughter Sue was born.
Marita joined the Nursing Mother’s Association and raised funds through cake stalls. In 1980 Marita and Geoff began work managing the Manchester Unity office. In 1985 the family, now comprising Liz and Anthony, moved to Bourchier St, where Marita remained.
Liz was excelling in athletics and eventually won a scholarship to the Australian Institute of Sport in Canberra and joined the Australian netball team. She is a former captain of the Melbourne Phoenix team. Anthony joined the RAAF in 1990 and held various posts at Laverton and Amberley.
Unfortunately, Sue, who had married Robyn Knaggs, died in a road accident and Marita stepped forward to play a strong role in supporting their children, Carly and Blake. Geoff became unwell and died in August 2002 aged 75.
In 2005, Monsignor Peter Jeffrey asked Marita to meet the first Congolese refugee family that arrived in Shepparton. It was here that her love of helping refugees began in practical ways and as an advocate. She once spent two hours on the phone to Telstra trying to reduce a $5000 phone bill incurred by one of the families.
She visited their homes, and they visited her. She attended weddings, funerals and baptisms and became a godmother to several African children. In 2009, 20-year-old Declo Bisimwa arrived in Shepparton from the Congo. Having lost his mum years prior, he immediately starting calling her “Mama Marita”.
She treated Declo as she did her own son and welcomed and supported his wife Console and their children, Joelle and Jovanny.
Speaking after the funeral, Declo recalled she baked the first birthday cake he had ever enjoyed and since then had baked cakes for each family member, every year.
She told him: “Keep loving people and continue caring for others. Look after those disadvantaged children in Africa and help them fulfil their dreams. Always put God first in your life; keep loving and supporting the community.”
Marita had also volunteered with organisations including St Vincent De Paul, Meals on Wheels, Red Cross, the Salvation Army, L2P driving program and a reconciliation group.
Father Joe Taylor, who conducted the funeral mass, described her as an extraordinary woman whose vision was fuelled by her love for God.
Marita contracted COVID-19 and died from complications in Shepparton on Monday, September 19. She was interred at the Shepparton Cemetery.
Read – and listen to – Marita Taverner speaking about her prayer on the Prayer and Reflection website