Maria Von Trapp in PNG: Mary Mennis
On a Web site of the Rabaul E-Course, the question was recently asked whether a member of the famous Von Trapp Sound of Music Family were on one of the E-Courses. Yes it was true.
Maria Von Trapp, bottom row second from left
I first met Maria, step-daughter of Baroness Maria Von Trapp, in 1962-63 in Rabaul while she was doing the fourth E-Course at Malaguna. It was over on the other side of the town and I only had a bicycle to get around, but we often met at the Church on Sundays where Fr Franke said Mass. The E-Course was a six month long teacher-training course designed to train people to teach in primary schools in rural areas. The Administration sought people with something of a missionary spirit who would be willing to live in native material houses in villages. Maria threw herself into the course, especially the musical side with Fred Ebbick as music teacher.
Of course, Maria was already a gifted musician and singer trained with her family group the Trapp Family Singers on which The Sound of Music was based. At that stage it was a Broadway Musical which had run since 1959. The family was already quite famous but Maria was self-effacing and called herself Maria Trapp not Maria Von Trapp. She was very charismatic and her face lit up brightly when she smiled.
The movie The Sound of Music with Julie Andrews was produced in 1965. Many years later, I watched the movie with Maria and she pointed out some differences between her own family life and that portrayed in the film. Overall her family liked The Sound of Music but they felt the story was far from reality in many aspects.
Maria’s father, Baron Georg Von Trapp, was a submarine commander in the First World War and married Agatha Whitehead in 1912. They had seven children with Maria being the third child. The oldest child was a boy, Rupert, born 1911 and [not a girl called Liesl as in the musical]; then Agatha, born 1913, Maria, 1914; Werner, 1915; Hedwig, 1917; Johanna, 1919; and Martina, 1921. Maria’s name was changed to Louisa for the musical as there obviously could not be two Marias. Maria was about eight when she and her mother, Agatha, both caught scarlet fever and became very ill. Her mother died in 1922 and Maria was sick for a long time and unable to attend school. In 1926, unhappy at the death of his wife, the Baron moved from their home to another beautiful mansion in Salzburg. It was at this time that he appealed to the Reverend Mother at the Abbey for a tutor for his daughter, Maria. Enter Maria Augusta Kutschera who at twenty years of age, was sent from the Salzburg Abbey to be a governess for Maria. She married the Baron in 1927—not just before the Nazi invasion as depicted in the musical. Together they had three more children: Rosemary, 1929; Eleanore, 1931; and Johannes 1939.
My friend, Maria, thought the portrayal of her father in The Sound of Music as quite a dictatorial man who ordered the children about was misguided. He may have blown whistles but it was more in fun. He was a warmhearted man who enjoyed music with this family. He hesitated to let them sing in public but was over-ruled by a family vote. Reverend Franz Wasner acted as their musical director with the family singing group winning first place in the Salzburg Music Festival in 1936,
They sang in many cities across Europe. They became so famous that Hitler wanted them to sing for his birthday when he visited Salzburg. This was one reason the family decided to leave Austria as they did not want to jeopardize their principles. They hated the Nazi party and refused to hang flags from their house with swastikas on them. “We called them spiders,” Maria remembered. Captain Von Trapp had been ordered to command a submarine for the Germans. Time was running out as some of their servants were spies. Maria said in those days her sister would hardly have befriended a postman as the Trapp Family was aristocratic.
When the children were told they would leave their large estate and all their belongings, Maria remembers dancing around saying “We will be poor, we will be poor.” It may have been the Biblical poverty she wanted and indeed they lived in poverty for quite a number of years. When they left Salzburg they went by train to Italy whereas in the film it has them climbing the Alps to Switzerland. They travelled to many European countries as poor refugees, singing as they went for the cost of food or accommodation. Later they moved to Norway, where they boarded a boat at Oslo for the US in 1939. Here ends the story of the family as depicted in The Sound of Music, the 1959 Broadway musical and the 1965 Academy Award-winning Best Picture.
But, of course, the story of the real family continued when they made the United States their home. They established their singing group, The Trapp Family Singers, and bought a farm as a home base at Vermont where members of the family and their descendants live today. Maria sang soprano with her sister, Martina, when the family of ten children and their parents toured America. The Trapp Family Singers was finally disbanded in 1955.
After this, some of the family wanted to become missionaries so Baroness Maria Von Trapp accompanied Maria, Rosemary and Johannes to Papua New Guinea where they travelled around the country helping in various mission outposts. They worked for six months with Fr Atchison at Budoya on Fergusson Island in the Milne Bay Province where Johannes built a church and Maria and Rosemary helped the village women. Next they stayed in Vunapope, New Britain, where they met Bishop Scharmach who entertained them with stories of the war. He sent them to many outstations where they enjoyed the local chants and singsings. From here they travelled to Wewak and were flown to many outstations by Bishop Arkfeld, the flying bishop, travelling to the Sepik River and into the Highlands. Soon afterwards Maria decided to do the E-Course as already mentioned.
After meeting her in Rabaul in the 1960s, I did not see Maria for another 15 years as we lived in Madang for eight years, before transferring to Port Moresby in 1979. One day while shopping at Boroko, I noticed a sign advertising pot-plants for sale at a certain address. When I went there Maia answered the door and said she wasn’t selling plants: the notice belonged to a previous owner. Before I turned away, I asked, “Are you Maria von Trapp?” At first we hadn’t recognised each other as it was so unexpected but there were many joyful occasions after that.
Her house in Boroko was a House of Prayer with weekly prayer meetings. Maria also continued her missionary work with the Port Moresby youth. She had quite a large garden with big open water tanks containing fish. Her garden beds needed attention and she employed some of the local young rascals to do the work as there was no dole for the unemployed. Some of them came to work in our garden as well. Maria also bought four ducks and our children used to collect snails for them. She was very proud of her ducks and the eggs they produced.
One day, Maria generously lent her car to a missionary priest. It was only when he was driving off down the road that she realised he had her house key on the key-ring and she was locked out. At this point, I arrived with my two youngest children; Gregory aged 9 and Joanna 5. “Oh dear, what am I going to do?” she mused. To add to her dilemma there was a group of youths working in her garden and she definitely did not want them to see us breaking into her house.
Maria had a bright idea: “Gregory, I’ll take them around the back while you pull out the louvres on the verandah and get in.”
Quickly, we moved some furniture and it was easy enough to dislodge the louvres. In crawled Greg and opened the door. We pushed the furniture back hurriedly as the group of youths suddenly appeared at the bottom of the steps, very interested in what was happening. Maria was just happy to have access to her house again. However, young Joanna suddenly decided to crawl into the house the same way Greg had done even though the door was now open. She pulled the furniture to the side pulled out the louvres and began crawling in. Maria was aghast. She stood there in front of the young rascals and tugged her skirt sideways trying to block their view. Joanna meanwhile came out the door smiling broadly, “I did it! I did it just like Gregory,” she said happily.
After this Maria got a small dog as protection and took it along to my brother, John Eccles, who was the vet in Port Moresby. He vaccinated the dog and refused to charge Maria. “Just say a prayer for me” he told her and any of the missionaries who came to the clinic.
Once when we were going on leave, Maria was there to wave us off at the airport. She gave us a slab of chocolate which began to melt in the heat and got all over Joanna’s dress. That was something else to laugh over afterwards.
There were times we visited the slum areas of Port Moresby. Once, we called on the people living beside the six-mile dump. They had small houses made out of cardboard, sheets of iron and anything else they could find in the dump. They greeted Maria as Sister Maria and I was Sister Mary. As we were sitting chatting to them, a large truck from Steamships Supermarket arrived with discarded food. The people rushed out with their plastic bags to fossick in the rubbish for their next meal. It was so sad to see this and see their living conditions. Maria tried to interest some builders in making mud brick houses, but I don’t know if anything came of it. The Port Moresby climate might have suited this.
We did other trips also going out to visit Mother Genevieve of the Handmaids of the Lord out near Bomana. These sisters dressed in grey habits and white veils and even sat with people at the markets selling food and the clothes they had made. We also took Maria down to Bereina for the consecration of our friend, Father Benedict ToVarpin, as Bishop. The Bereina people were dressed in their finery and it was a memorable occasion.
In Port Moresby, rascals were getting quite dangerous, even in those days. A string of them held hands in front of my car at Koki and then smashed rocks though my rear window where they landed on the seat Joanna usually occupied. Fortunately she was not with me at the time. Maria too had a rock hurled through her back window and she said if it happened again she would leave the country.
We “went finish” in 1982 and Maria left in 1987. We saw her again in Brisbane in 1995 and entertained her with a dinner party. She also visited St Dympna’s School where I was teaching. The choir happened to be practicing songs from The Sound of Music for an Eisteddfod Competition. Maria accompanied them with her accordion and the children were very excited.
In 2012, Maria is still living in Stowe Vermont. At 98, she is the last surviving member of the original family of seven children of Captain Von Trapp and his wife Agatha. Although she had been very ill in her childhood, she is a survivor and still manages to smile through her sorrows.