Vale Ellen Maev O’Collins

Campus Dean (Canberra) Associate Professor Patrick McArdle pays tribute to Emeritus Professor (Ellen) Maev O’Collins:

Ellen Maev O’Collins 16 June 1929 – 3 July 2021

Emeritus Prof (Ellen) Maev O’Collins passed away suddenly earlier in July bringing to a conclusion a remarkable life serving the vulnerable in Melbourne, Papua New Guinea and Canberra for over 70 years.

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.

Her professional life began 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 that 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 ANU 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 ACU as an Adjunct Professor a position she held until April 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.

In 2018, Maev committed a substantial sum to a scholarship to support First Nations students to study social work at the Canberra campus. In this gift she combined three of her enduring loves: social work, First Nations peoples and the Canberra Campus. Since her passing her family have made frequent mention of just how she treasured her connections with the Campus.

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 (2 Tim 4:7):

I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race, I have kept the faith.

We pray for the repose of her soul in the full confidence that she has been welcomed to the joy of heaven.

Patrick McArdle
Campus Dean

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