Vale: thea Gaia née Dorothy Ivy Wacker

On 15th May, 2016 thea Gaia left this earth which was her home for 85 years.

thea (her preferred spelling) was an extraordinary woman and a woman before her time, often breaking new ground in her spheres of life.  thea was born Dorothy Ivy Wacker in Gatton on 9th February, 1931 to Anne and George Wacker. Dorothy was the first of their four children and elder sister to Mavis, Kevin and Barry.  The Wacker family were descendants of German immigrants who came to Australia via assisted passage to start new lives. They were mainly farmers and settled in the Lockyer Valley from the 1860’s onwards. Dorothy grew up on the family farm to the age of five when the family moved into town and initially rented a house, till her father had a house built in the same street. There was a strong sense of community among the hard working people of Gatton and this shaped her life and influenced the choices she was to make later.

Dorothy began school in Gatton from Prep at five years of age. Schooling was only compulsory till age twelve but Dorothy was a bright student who loved school and always did well, usually coming top or second in her class. Newspaper accounts mention her winning prizes in mapmaking and in music. She continued her success in music in adolescence, gaining 100% in the Trinity College examination. In 1944 as top eligible student in the state she gained a bursary from the Rechabites Order to enable her to continue her studies. The following year she received a bursary from the Gatton School of Arts. Dorothy was good at sport, playing basketball (now netball) and hockey. She continued with her education, completing Senior in 1947 at age sixteen. Her parents were not religious. Her mother was not a church goer and her father began attending the Congregational church later in life. Dorothy went to Sunday School of her own accord and later taught there. She was a good pianist and occasionally filled in as the organist. She joined the Youth Fellowship and became a leader. After secondary school, Dorothy began teacher training and in 1948-1949 studied primary teaching at Queensland Teachers’ College (now QUT Kelvin Grove Campus).

From 1950 -1952 she specialised as a teacher at the School for the Deaf at Dutton Park in Brisbane. She joined the Congregational Church in South Brisbane and became President of the Queensland Congregational Youth Fellowship. This gave her the opportunity to extend her horizons within Australia and overseas. She met a very young Bob Hawke who was President of the Perth Congregational Youth Fellowship. It was at South Brisbane that she decided at the age of twenty-two to apply for theological training to become a Congregational minister. She was nominated by Rev B.H. Parker, the minister at South Brisbane church.

From 1953 – 1958, Dorothy undertook studies in Bachelor of Arts at the University of Queensland (1958) and worked towards a Bachelor of Divinity, a course where she was the only woman enrolled. She also studied at the Congregational Theological Hall, Cromwell College. She completed her Bachelor of Divinity at Melbourne College of Divinity. In 1959, she was awarded a Theological Hall Certificate and a Certificate of Ordination by the Queensland Congregational Union. Dorothy was ordained on 17th April, 1959 at Broadway, Woolloongabba, Brisbane. It is noteworthy that Dorothy was the first woman ordained as a Minister of Religion in Queensland. At the time, the Congregational Church was the only denomination to ordain women, with Winifred Kiek being the first woman ordained in Australia in Adelaide in 1927.

In 1958, prior to her ordination, she worked in ministry at Mt Gravatt Congregational Church. From 1959 -1964 she was minister for Belmont and Broadway churches then moved to Chermside Congregational Church 1964 - 1969.

Dorothy was Director of Christian Education for the Queensland Congregational Union 1965-1968 and at the same time (1966-67) was Acting Secretary of Queensland Congregational Union. In this role she was involved with individuals and groups active in community life and in appointments with wide community responsibilities, some of which focused on the status and needs of women. e.g. as a Member of the Constitutional Council preparing for the Uniting Church in Australia which ruled that the church begin with at least one third of all committees, councils etc. to be women.

In 1970 she was called to the Applecross Church in Perth for an outstanding eight years ministry, first at Mt Pleasant (1970-1975) then at St Stephen’s (1975-1977). While living in Perth, Dorothy was President of the Congregational Union of Western Australia (1973-1974), the Vice President of the Congregational Union of Australia (1973-75), President Elect of the Congregational Union of Australia (1975-77) and Member of the World Council of Churches, Nairobi (1975). She was Resource Person for Asian Church Women, attending a training course in the Philippines (1976) and a conference in Japan in 1978.

During her years in Perth, there was a growing mood for ecumenical activity. The Uniting Church was about to be birthed, bringing together Congregational, Methodist and Presbyterian denominations, which occurred in 1977. It also wasn’t long after Vatican 2 and many Catholics were beginning to take steps towards ecumenism. Dorothy was President of Australian Church Women in 1975 – 1977 and worked very successfully with Carmel Downey who was her Vice President. Carmel had been a State and National Leader of Catholic Women’s League and quite a traditional Catholic so this was quite a ground breaking partnership for women of different Christian denominations.

In 1977, the year of Church Union, she was called to the Pilgrim City Church in Adelaide where she worked until 1979. There, Dorothy was Co-organiser and Chairperson of the Australian Consultation of Theologically Trained Women in 1978. In the same year, she was the Australian Representative at the Consultation of Christian Conference of Asia in Hong Kong, re the role of women in the church and society.

In 1979 after 20 years in the ministry and much soul searching, Dorothy resigned as a minister and as a member of the Uniting Church. Her spiritual journey had brought her to the point of seriously questioning the validity of religious systems on a person’s spiritual quest, with all their hierarchical structures, authority, tradition and patriarchal emphasis, and the general place of women in church and society.

Dorothy is remembered as an inspiring preacher and leader, able to connect with people from a variety of backgrounds through her strong Christian faith and sensitive and caring nature. She was also noted for her strong commitment to ecumenism at both national and international level.

Post 1979

Dorothy planned to take time out after the very busy life she had led with her multiple roles in the church. Her decision was courageous and largely unsupported and led her to a place of solitude, meditation and reflection. She lived for a year in a small cottage by the sea, exploring the possibilities given by solitude and rediscovering nature. It was time to renew herself, paying particular attention to her experience and needs as a woman. She emerged a very different woman with a new way of focussing and thinking. She went back to SACAE (South Australia College of Advanced Education) at Sturt, City/Underdale and Salisbury campuses, (now incorporated into the University of South Australia) and studied Religious Education, and Women’s Studies. Her assignments and projects focused on the position and perspectives of women. Dorothy began establishing women’s spirituality groups, holding workshops, rituals and encouraging women to become empowered by exploring their own spirituality. An early group in Adelaide was The Rainbow Circle (1981).

In 1982 she changed her name from “Dorothy” (gift of God) to “thea Rainbow” to reflect her understanding that the Divine did not always have to be imaged and described as male. She was a gift of Goddess.

In 1983-1984 she inaugurated and co-taught a semester course at SACAE – “Women and Religion”. At the same time, she worked part time for six months as Activities Therapist at Hyde Park Nursing Home. She developed and ran courses on issues of interest to women e.g. Ancient Images of Women, Women of Spirit throughout the Ages, Women and Personal Power. With two other women, she established a quarterly magazine, “The Rippling Web: a Womanspirit Linkup”.

In 1984, thea travelled to the United States and lived in California for four months as well as visiting other cities in the United States, arranging her visit as a personal study time to research Women and Religion. Her major concerns were issues relating to women and to the elderly. thea worked towards a society where all human beings are valued and where the emphasis is upon creativity and life.

In 1985, she and another woman created "Womandala" Spirituality Centre. Then in 1987, thea and her friend, Rosanne Debats created a series of posters and cards using images of ancient Goddesses from around the world. These posters were some of the first to be produced in Australia and provided thea with a resource for facilitating women’s groups, study circles and workshops around the country.

thea moved to Canberra in the early 1990s, and began building connections and running supportive workshops for women at the O’Connor Family Centre. She tutored in the Health Education Degree course at the University of Canberra, focusing on women’s mental health and spirituality. thea loved to study and she was a natural scholar and teacher, so this work suited her very well and she was greatly respected in these roles.

thea returned to Adelaide where she renewed friendships and worked at a women’s spirituality bookshop in North Adelaide. When she returned to Canberra it was with a renewed desire and commitment to set up a women’s spirituality centre – which became Gaia Womanspace at Manuka. thea facilitated at naming ceremonies and weddings and with other women, created and ran a series of spirituality workshops and seasonal rituals.

As her own spiritual journey continued, thea gained more personal insights and understandings. In 1994, she again changed her name, reflecting an understanding of the sacredness of Earth as Mother…thea Gaia. The small “t” beginning her first name rather than a capital letter, reflected her knowing that all beings are important and interconnected in the web of life. The first Women’s Spirituality Conference in Australia was held this same year. thea initiated Woman’s Spirit Rising in Canberra and in 1997 founded Sisters of Gaia, a network bringing together women in Eastern and Central Australia committed to living a feminine spirituality and being with the earth in a new way.

Like thea almost twenty years earlier, many women had left the mainstream churches, feeling disillusioned and alienated from institutions where symbolism, imagery and language about God were exclusively male. This overt superiority of “male” flowed down to the practices, worship, government and culture of the church itself which created religious institutions where women were diminished. Through women’s spirituality, many were introduced to the Goddess for the first time and felt a resonance in relating to the Divine as feminine.

From Canberra, thea moved to the Blue Mountains to study and work with community groups there. She held empowering workshops, discussions and rituals at her home in Perry Ave, Springwood, which was very much a “sacred space” where women were always welcome.

The final years of thea’s life were spent in Canberra where again, she continued to extend her network. She made new friends, initiated new study groups, started social circles, meditation groups, seasonal rituals and in other ways was a catalyst for change.

As one of Canberra friends says of these groups, “There was always fun, laughter, love, joy, passion, gratitude for the wonder of life, and the opportunity to plumb the depths of one’s being or to soar to new heights.” For all of this groundbreaking work, thea is deeply respected as a teacher, researcher and mentor. She is regarded as a pioneer and midwife of women’s spirituality in Australia.

thea became involved with the Centre for Progressive Thought in Christianity, run through St James’ Uniting Church in Curtin. Here, she brought her woman’s perspective and understanding of feminine divinity to further nudge away at the edges of patriarchy within the Christian tradition. thea was well educated at a time when education was difficult for women to obtain. She was clever, articulate, funny, forthright, stoic and loyal. She was a great “ponderer” as she would say, of the universe and the meaning of life’s mysteries.

thea was an insightful and independent thinker, never worrying about winning approval or looking for compliments. Something of a non-conformist and rebel at heart, she often challenged the status quo, not simply for the sake of it, but based on thoughtful and intelligent examination. She was a great communicator, who inspired others and changed the lives of many, many women. She challenged their thinking, helped them to grow spiritually and supported them. She was a teacher, philosopher, a gifted wordsmith, a prolific writer, a friend to all who passed her way. Often women would tell of how thea came into their lives when they were at a crossroads or in a time of challenge and they speak of their gratitude for her support and inspiration. One woman commented, “She had such a formative influence on the way my life transpired, and I always “borrowed” from her courage and fortitude – it could never have been matched!”

This wonderful, inspiring woman with tremendous leadership skills and with great presence was one of a kind. Above all, she was compassionate, she was never judgmental and she had a deep, unconditional love for people. thea marched to her own drum despite some challenging difficulties in her life but she emerged a woman of true worth and of great significance. She leaves her mark on the world with her legacy to Women’s Spirituality.

thea’s last months were difficult but she had many devoted and grateful friends who lovingly cared for her. She was a dear, wise friend and a life changing mentor. Many, many women have deep gratitude and love for her presence in their lives.

thea's funeral was held in Gatton on 31st May, 2016. She was buried in Gatton Cemetery where her parents and many of her ancestors lie. A wonderful and inspirational celebration of thea’s life was held in Canberra on 5th June, 2016. Women and men attended from cities around Australia, all wanting to express their thanks and gratitude for the experiences, knowledge and wisdom thea Gaia had brought to their lives.

Glenys Peacock

22nd June, 2016