Shirley Calnin had two reasons to celebrate on Sunday 14 May. Not only was it Mother’s Day; it was also her 100th birthday, and many of her family and friends gathered at her local parish hall, at St Luke’s in Wantirna, to celebrate this significant milestone.

The mother of three, grandmother of five and great grandmother of 11 was adamant: there should be ‘no fuss, speeches or presents’. But there was much to commemorate on such a momentous occasion. Shirley received letters of congratulations from His Majesty King Charles and Queen Camilla; Australian Governor General Mr David Hurley and his wife; Prime Minister Anthony Albanese; Victorian Governor the Hon. Linda Dessau and her husband; Victorian Premier the Hon. Daniel Andrews MP; and Archbishop of Melbourne, Peter A Comensoli. She also received letters from Minister for Veteran Affairs the Hon. Matt Keogh—her husband had fought in Papua New Guinea during World War II—and from her former local member for Aston, Mr Alan Tudge.

Speaking of her milestone birthday, Shirley says she ‘can’t believe it’. ‘I’m 100 years old, really? Just like that, it comes on you!’ she says with a big smile.

Reflecting on her life, she says she has much to be grateful for: a happy family life with a good husband (now deceased) and children, her own parents and siblings, and her health, which only recently has started to ‘fail her’. ‘I’ve had a good life,’ she says, ‘We’ve never had fights or disagreements between us, or amongst the kids or amongst our parents. I have nothing to complain about, really.’

Born in Clifton Hill, in Melbourne’s inner north, and baptised ‘Sheila’, she was the third of six children born to Mary and Joseph Cashen (three girls followed by three boys). She later adopted the name Shirley when a tennis friend introduced her to others incorrectly as ‘Shirley’. ‘I’d always hated the name Sheila, so when this chap introduced me as Shirley, I thought, “That sounds better than Sheila.” So it stayed.’

Shirley grew up in Thornbury with her family, attending St Mary’s Catholic School. They ‘never missed’ Sunday morning Mass. Speaking of her family’s faith, she says, ‘I suppose it’s born into you’. ‘My dad used to kneel on the floor of a night beside his bed and say his prayers before he went to bed—that’s how we were brought up. He was a good man.’

Shirley also enjoys telling the story of how her father always asked only two questions of any potential suitor who she brought home to meet the family: Is he Catholic? And does he barrack for Collingwood? ‘You had to be either Catholic or barrack for Collingwood to enter my father’s home,’ she says. So, when Shirley met a young man known as ‘Cal’ through a mutual friend—he had come home for a time while serving in Papua New Guinea—he too was asked the questions.

‘At the time, I wasn’t sure whether he was Catholic, but the fact that he barracked for Collingwood got him over the line,’ says Shirley. ‘We all had to barrack for Collingwood and everyone we knew barracked for Collingwood.’ Sheila still barracks for Collingwood, of course.

Taken by his sincerity and his talent for dancing—they’d often go dancing together—Shirley kept up a correspondence with Cal when he returned to Papua New Guinea. He spent some time working on the Kokoda Trail, as part of the Allies’ attempt to keep the Japanese Army from advancing. Fortunately, he was not captured and returned home on the eve of the war ending. Six months later, on 29 June 1946, Shirley married Allan Calnin; she was 23 years old.

Following their marriage, Shirley and Cal purchased a ‘comfortable home’ in Thornbury, in Melbourne’s inner north. Cal was working as a butcher and later bought a butcher’s shop in Ashburton in Melbourne’s south-east. The couple moved to Rosebud, on Victoria’s Mornington Peninsula for a couple of years, and then came back to Box Hill, in the outer east of Melbourne, where they lived for many years, raising their family. By this time Shirley had three children—two sons (Gerard and John) and a daughter, Denise.

When they married, Cal had said, ‘It’s important to have friends’, so they joined the local tennis club, playing on weekends, and then another one, and another one. Shirley then joined a mid-week tennis club, and the children all played tennis too. She played right up to the age of 75. ‘I loved tennis. It kept me fit and it kept me interested and I made a lot of friends through that, as you do,’ she says.

Shirley and Cal also enjoyed dancing and attended a lot of social dances together. ‘My husband was a very good dancer. We used to go to Heidelberg Town Hall of a Saturday night and dance there—the modern waltz. Not this clicking-your-hands type of business,’ she says. ‘My husband was a very good dancer. We had a good time in our life.’

She was also very involved in their local parish of 40 years, St Luke’s in Wantirna, and ‘loved’ visiting the sick and taking communion to different people over the years. To mark her recent birthday, Fr Maurie Cooney, parish priest of St Luke’s from 1987 to 1993, wrote a letter to Shirley, which included some of the following reminiscences:

I recall how welcoming they were to me into their home. The proximity just at the back of the church property may have been part of it … Of their sharing in the community life of the parish—nearly the last to leave the church foyer on Sundays, Cal’s commitment to the bingo teams to keep the parish afloat, and of Shirl and Cal gliding across the floor at St Luke’s Centre, transforming it into an elegant ballroom by the way they danced—followed by laughs and supper, never tiring!

Shirl admits she loves a good joke, and making people laugh. ‘Everyone says, “Shirl, have you got a joke?” There aren’t many jokes around, but the one I’ve been telling lately, which makes everyone laugh, is: What did the bra say to the hat? The bra said to the hat: You go on ahead and I’ll give these two a lift.

‘I think it’s very clever, don’t you? You can write it down.’

Shirley says her faith has always been an important part of her life. She tells a story of an encounter with a friend years ago. ‘One of the girls at tennis ... said, “All you Catholics think you’re wonderful because you go to Church”. I said, “No”. She said, “You do!” And I said, “No, I don’t. I go to church because I need it.”

‘I’ve always kept up my religion. I don’t know what people would do without it, honestly.’

Shirley says she’s been going to church for 95 years. She stopped physically attending Mass in the past couple of years due to her macular degeneration, but ‘I still say my prayers,’ she says.

‘My favourite is a simple prayer: Lord Jesus, as I live each day, walk with me along the way. Today I’m sure I need you here, so give me strength and wipe out fear. By myself I’d never cope, in your spirit lies my hope. And I ask you for your prayer as I face this very hour.

But a little easy one that I say normally every morning is: Please help me through the day.

Shirley’s life has not been without tragedy. Her husband of 64 years, Cal, died in 2010 after an illness, only two years after they’d shifted into a lovely unit, purpose-built by their grandson and situated at the back of her daughter Denise and son-in-law’s home. Shirley says, ‘Cal loved it here. He used to say, “It’s just like being on holidays, love.”’ And her daughter Denise died suddenly and unexpectedly three years ago due to an aneurysm in her brain, which Shirley says was a difficult and sad time.

Fortunately, there is still a lot in her life that brings her joy, especially her family. Her sons visit each Friday, and Gerard ‘cooks a few meals for me,’ she says. ‘And the grandkids and the great grandkids pop in all the time. When they’re going out the door, they sing out, “Love you, Nan.” They’re lovely.

‘At the end of the day, it’s no good feeling sorry for yourself, you have to keep laughing—that’s what it’s all about,’ she says.