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Herman Pech (1921–2006)

by John Pech

Herman Pech was born on 25th May 1921 in the Laura Hospital, South Australia, the ninth of eleven children to John and Bertha Pech and baptised in the Appila Lutheran Church. He grew up on the family farm – cereal cropping supplemented by some sheep, pigs and cows – near Appila. His childhood on the farm was like his other siblings; farm chores, collecting the eggs, cleaning out the pigsties and helping with the shearing and harvesting. Clothing was basic and as with most other children of school age Herman went barefoot through the week. Shoes were for Sundays.

Herman attended the local primary school just minutes walk from the farm house, and later won a scholarship which enabled him at the age of twelve and a half to go to the Big Smoke, to Immanuel College in Adelaide as a boarding student. He was confirmed in the Tynte St Lutheran Church, North Adelaide.

He was 13 when he first met Elizabeth Rohde who also attended Immanuel College. She, with the other College girls once a fortnight would watch the boys play football and took some classes in common with him. Herman played football and tennis, with reasonable success and played the violin in the College orchestra. He joined an Arts Club – it had mixed gender membership – providing further opportunity to build his interest in Elizabeth.

It was in his Intermediate Year (Yr 10) that Herman’s thinking to be a missionary crystalised.

Herman completed his theological training at the beginning of 1943, was ordained and then had the opportunity to further his studies in an arts degree at Adelaide University where he studied Greek, English and German and then at Sydney University where he took anthropology and geology. After graduating from the seminary Herman supported himself through teaching at Immanuel College and being house master. He enjoyed the vicissitudes of owning a BSA motorbike, a relatively reliable and economical form of transport (there was petrol rationing at the time) and found a number of different ways to travel the Adelaide to Sydney route.

Herman and Elizabeth Rohde were married 16th January 1947 in Freeling, Elizabeth’s father officiated. Elizabeth’s sense of adventure – she had gone to Hermannsburg as a sixteen year old to be a governess to the Albrecht children for three years, then returned to Adelaide to train as a nurse – and like-mindedness, meant that in her, Herman had a true soul mate. Herman and Elizabeth were commissioned for service to the Finke River Mission in March the same year, specifically to work at Haasts Bluff.

It was in May 1947 that Herman and Elizabeth in their loaded truck and with two Aboriginal passengers crossed the McDonnell Range and drove into Haasts Bluff. Initially home was swag on the ground, then a tin shed made of two 10 x 20 ft sections of Sydney Williams army huts with galvanised iron walls and corrugated fibrolite iron roof, no lining and no windows. Their few items of furniture included a sitz bath. Later, volunteers from down south erected several other buildings, one of them to be Herman and Elizabeth’s first residence. By November that year they had the luxury of water on tap, rather than transport it in 4 gallon drums on camels. Another building was the church, also galvanised iron and no windows but sheets of iron that were moveable so an opening could be made to allow the wind through. One part of the floor had cement and the other had gravel. Communication with Alice Springs and Hermannsburg was with a battery powered transceiver, call sign GD (George Dog).

As well as assisting in these developments Herman was instrumental in the construction of the airstrip that would allow access to medical support via the Flying Doctor. He constructed an underground water tank which provided water for domestic purposes. He worked long hours and Elizabeth feared for his health. Indeed her own health was affected by the rigors of living at Haasts Bluff and perhaps it was not surprising that their first baby, Pauline, was still born.

Herman had a gift for languages and soon realised that powerful communication with the Aboriginals at Haasts Bluff was through speaking with them in their own language rather than through an interpreter. There were several different languages spoken in the area across the Pintupi, Wailburi, Pitjentjentjara and Aranda tribal groups, with Aranda being the written language. Herman would work on construction and other manual activity during the day and study Aranda at night and after seven months at Haasts Bluff gave his first address in the Aranda language. A small but enormously significant milestone. In 1949 the church was dedicated.

In the years to 1955 Herman with Elizabeth beside him, ministered to the Aboriginal people in and around Haasts Bluff. Three children were born during this time, Margaret, John and Roger. A third son Mark, would be born in 1956, in Melbourne.

It was largely due to Margaret’s condition, she was born with cerebal palsy, that Herman and Elizabeth made the difficult decision to leave Haasts Bluff and Herman accepted the call to the Lutheran congregation in Doncaster, taking up this post from May 1955. As pastor in Doncaster, Herman also had responsibility for three small groups of parishioners in Gippsland and he would make visits monthly to Trafalgar or Maffra, sometimes with the family, sometimes by train.

The care and education of Margaret was something for which Herman and Elizabeth worked tirelessly together – they saw that it was a privilege to have such a daughter. It was the realisation that Elizabeth could not manage on the weekends and other times that he was away from home that led Herman to take leave from the ministry, and return to teaching. The more regular hours of a teacher would help with Margaret. Herman completed a Diploma of Education and went on to teach mainly as a teacher of German at Box Hill HS, Koonung HS, and Donvale HS. At this point, illness forced retirement from teaching and the next three and a half years was a period of slow healing from mental exhaustion and depression.

In 1978 Herman was offered and gladly accepted the caretaker role for the congregations of Doncaster and Greensborough and later became pastor to the Nunawading congregation. At the age of 67 Herman officially retired but was later approached by Dr David Stolz to assist his congregation at Box Hill with visiting Lutheran patients in the Box Hill hospital and with ministering to the aged who were in the care of the congregation. He took on a pastoral ministry at Box Hill in the eleven months prior to the new Pastor Alan Heppner’s installation, and continued as a visiting minister for a further ten years at Box Hill.

On Palm Sunday 1990 their daughter Margaret died and as a memorial to her, Herman and Elizabeth established a scholarship for women students of theology at the Australian Lutheran College in Adelaide. This is an annual scholarship and will continue in perpetuity. For years Herman had been a strong advocate for the full participation of woman within the ministry.

In their later years Herman and Elizabeth continued to enjoy travelling, around Australia and twice overseas. Ill health had resulted in Herman being in and out of hospital at various times over the last few years. Latterly he acknowledged the skill and expertise of medical staff and the Outer Team of Eastern Palliative Care, one of whom assisted him in the writing of his story which he concluded in this way…
“As I become older and less able, the support of my immediate family and also of my church family at Box Hill is a great encouragement to me. My favourite patron saint is Barnabas, the companion of St Paul. Barnabas means “son of encouragement.” As a person and as a pastor, I have tried to be an encourager for those who needed spiritual help and I know that, because God is faithful, that the same kind of help will be there for me. In this regard, I am enormously thankful for every day that Elizabeth and I are still together, to share our lives as we have done for fifty-nine years.”

A gentle man, Herman was respected and loved by those who knew him. He died in the early hours of the morning of 26th March 2006, at Caritas Christi Hospice, Kew.