(Ellen) Maev O'Collins June 1929 - July 2021
Emeritus Professor (Ellen) Maev O'Collins passed away suddenly on July 3, 2021 bringing to a conclusion a remarkable life serving the vulnerable in Melbourne, Papua New Guinea and Canberra for over 70 years.
Maev was an incredible person publicly and privately as all those of who knew her can attest.
Maev was born into a large immediate family and an extended family that has influenced the development of Australia in many and profound ways - P.M. Glynn, Bishop James O'Collins and Rev Dr Gerald O'Collins SJ are members of the family. However, it was in her own commitments that she shone so brightly to each person who met her.
Maev was a social worker - committed to the art and the practice of the discipline, not in and for itself but always to make a difference to people's lives, especially the most vulnerable - whether single parents, families in crisis, Indigenous Australians or the many marginalised peoples of her beloved Papua New Guinea.
She was one of the foundation contributors to Catholic Social Welfare taking up her first employment as a community development worker in the Melbourne Catholic Social Services Bureau in 1952, where she stayed for a decade before embarking on postgraduate study at Columbia. In New York, she met a young man from Papua New Guinea, Michael Somare, who encouraged her in a new direction.
Somare suggested instead of returning to Australia she should assist him and others in developing the University of Port Moresby and the new nation of PNG. Maev accepted the challenge, applied for a position at Port Moresby and spent the better part of 20 years there, eventually as Professor in the Department Anthropology and Sociology.
In 1987 she was awarded an MBE for services to PNG and on her retirement in 1989 made an Emeritus Professor of the University. Her love for PNG and its people never waned - in the last year she described being contacted by grandchildren of people she had taught in Port Moresby anxious to meet with her on any trips they might be making to Canberra. Maev remained close to Sir Michael Somare up until his own death earlier this year.
Returning to Australia for 'retirement', Maev took up residence in Canberra where she was made an Honorary Fellow at Australian National University and continued to contribute to scholarship in social work and in Pacific development and relationships. She undertook several consultancies in PNG, Vanuatu and Norfolk Island; contributed to a number of government reports in Australia and was a tireless advocate for women, First Nations peoples and, always for the people of PNG and Melanesia.
In 1996 Maev accepted an invitation to assist in the foundation of the School of Social Work at Australian Catholic University (ACU) as an Adjunct Professor - then only offered at the Signadou Campus but eventually spreading to Sydney and Brisbane - a position she held until April 12, 2019 when the university bestowed on her its highest honour: Doctor of the University (honoris causa). During her 25 years with ACU Maev gave incredible assistance to those seeking to develop their knowledge and skills in social work and beyond. She became part of the fabric of the campus community, shaping each of us and our collective story in ways that have altered each person. She was a person of extraordinary warmth, welcome and conscience - as all who knew her can confirm.
Emeritus Professor Peter Carpenter, the Dean of the Faculty of Arts and Science at the time of the founding of social work, recalled his conversations with Maev about the development of the discipline frequently became more occasions during which he "gave account of his own stewardship". In my own role, as campus dean of the Canberra campus, I know that Maev was not above making her views known and causing, at times a degree of discomfort (at least in me) by raising matters she thought should be addressed - whether that was encouraging greater interfaith dialogue and tolerance, where Maev held the view that ACU was obliged to be at the forefront of public discussion; reminding me of the centrality of our commitments to our First Nations students - especially when she thought I could and should be doing more; or, noting that particular members of staff were in need and ought be offered more support. All these and other pieces of advice were offered with Maev's trademark gentleness and kindness - though also with the steel that seems to be inherent in the O'Collins line - and an expectation that I would act on them!
In 2018 Maev determined to commit a substantial sum to a scholarship to support First Nations students to study social work at the Canberra Campus. Despite much 'encouragement' from people in the university to make this initiative more generalised in scope and especially in location, Maev stuck to her guns - allowing only that if there were no Indigenous social work student to take up the award, it could be offered to another Indigenous student at the Canberra campus!
At least twice a week for the last five or six years Maev came to my office to 'report in'. On each occasion she apologised for interrupting 'important work', reminded me we were doing good work (often signalling out people around the campus she had observed as doing particular good work) and to thank me for all the kindnesses people offered to her. She had very particular regard and affection for our facilities team and our IT personnel - current members and those of the past.
Maev was once described by Bishop Eric Perkins as the greatest Catholic social worker he had ever known. In typical Maev style, this was never referred to, just like the MBE or the honorary degrees - they came up only when talking about the people she loved and the causes about which she was passionate. We will miss her deeply.
Maev O'Collins, if called on to reflect on her own life and passing, would resonate with St Paul's words to Timothy: I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith (2 Tim 4:7).
We pray for the repose of her soul in the full confidence that she has been welcomed to the joy of heaven.
- Patrick McArdle is the Australian Catholic University campus dean.