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Rosemary Opala (nee Fielding) was born in Bundaberg, Queensland in 1923. She began to study a commercial art course at the George Street Technical College (now QUT) but took up nursing at the onset of World War II because as she said: “I wanted to do something more meaningful than playing with paints, seeing as though everybody was rushing off to the war.”

After finishing her nursing training at Brisbane General Hospital, she stayed on the staff at Wattlebrae, the city’s infectious disease section.  It was here that she met a small and engaging group of Peel Island (Hansen’s Disease) patients, temporarily housed in one of the pavilion-type wards while waiting specialist consultation about eye problems. They convinced her to go to Peel as a nurse and she spent two stints there in the late 1940s and early 50s. While there and ever since, Rosemary worked tirelessly to “de-mythify” Peel Island folklore.

“It was a particularly interesting time, a time when a cure was on its way,” she said.

A young nurse Rosemary Fielding

After leaving Peel Island Lazaret, Rosemary eventually became a nursing supervisor at Prince Charles Hospital in Brisbane. In the late 1950s and early 1960s, she wrote popular magazine fiction – gaining some notoriety with the publication of various short stories in women’s magazines.  The University of Queensland Fryer Library recently accepted these and a collection of what she describes as “disrespectful cartoons”.

A stint at St Anne’s Hospital at Cleveland revealed another love – that of Coochiemudlo, which she visited by rowboat, returning that same day.  She was later to live there, exchanging nursing for “a stress-free life as farm hand cum beachcomber”.  Later she and her husband Marian built their own home on the island, at a time when the ferry only ran on weekends and public holidays.

“Building was an experience considering my husband’s previous carpentry experience was to build a bookcase,” she said. 

Rosemary had a way with words.

Rosemary and Marian moved to Caloundra, in the late 1960s and despite every intention, Rosemary’s husband was never to return to Coochiemudlo. While at Caloundra, she was very involved with the Sunshine Coast Environment Council and used to send articles and drawings for the quarterly magazine Eco Echo – her pages were a regular feature. After Marian’s death, Rosemary moved down to Victoria Point where she was to continue contributing sketches and articles to local environmental groups

“These days I leave such work to the more accomplished but still like to do a bit of illustrating if the subject appeals.  Hopefully the time is coming when I can vege out without feeling guilty and do nothing but re-read old favourite books and new best sellers,” she said. “There is more to life than just existing – more than being upright and breathing.”

As well as sketching, Rosemary also wrote non-fiction articles, with an emphasis on Queensland’s environment, botany and its history. She contributed to many groups.

From her time in Caloundra, Rosie and Kathleen MacArthur were members of the Wildlife Preservation Society of Queensland (WPSQ). Later, when she moved back to Victoria Point about 1995, Rosie continued writing articles for the WPSQ Bayside Branch newsletter. She was also involved with the Botanical Artists Society of Queensland with her friend Louise Saunders.

Rosemary loved sketching Nature, such as these mangroves on Peel Island

From her time as an early resident of Coochiemudlo Island, she had many reminiscences of her family’s early struggles to get established there. As such, she was a member of the Coochiemudlo Historical Society. However, her art was always close to her heart and she was an active member of the Coochiemudlo Art Group. Even after her admission to the Redland Hospital just prior to her death, Rosemary’s one concern was that she would not be well enough to attend an upcoming exhibition at the Redland Council’s Art Gallery, in which she was to exhibit.

Rosemary was involved in the Friends of Peel Island Association as a foundation member, was a member of U3A, a Friend of Eprapah and was an ecological writer with Eco Echo, a tri-annual Sunshine Coast publication.  

Regarding her foundation membership of the Friends of Peel Island Association (FOPI), Rosemary once said’ “It’s just an excuse to get into the place (Peel).  I don’t really contribute.  I’m sort of the elder statesman.”

Fellow FOPI committee member Debra Henry said her involvement was far more than this. “She is a very active member.  She just plays it down.” 

But this was Rosie all over.

FOPI President Simon Baltais once said, “Rosemary Opala is a kind and generous soul, a willing listener, a provider of much humour and strength through words and art, a much-admired person, a truly living treasure,” 

Peel Island’s mangroves were a constant source of inspiration for Rosemary