A Calvinist and a Catholic walked into a bar…….

October 17, 2010

Sister Maria Casey, from the Sisters of St Joseph, was in Rome when the announcement came from the Vatican and says Australians need a holy icon in the face of today’s hardships.

“We have the economic downturn, we have high unemployment, we have racial problems, we have the whole problem of reconciliation,” she said.

“I think Australians need an icon or a model of goodness and holiness at this time.”

~ Extract ABC News, December 2009

Old Church, Wooroolin, Australia

As Blessed Mary MacKillop is being given her gong as Saint in Rome, I would like to bring out of the footnotes of the MacKillop biographies, the fortysomething year friendship she enjoyed with Joanna Barr Smith (nee Elder): a Presbyterian and prominent hostess in Adelaide’s social circles who, bless her cotton socks, was never swayed to covert to Catholicism – despite Mary’s gentle proselytizing and private prayers that she could shepherdess Joanna back into the folds of the True Flock.

A true daughter of the Church, Mary was possessed with that ego-evangelical flaw of Catholic certainty that only Catholics get to go to Heaven.  (As a true daughter of irreverent Australia, I wonder how long it took Mary to look over the brick wall…………..)

Joanna did her bit to safeguard Mary’s work than anyone would give her credit for. If Mary had been successful in converting Joanna, it would have been an Ego victory, a Shadow jewel in her crown, and also quite a coup to have ‘snagged’ the wife of such a wealthy and prominent man: a bustled silken bum warming the front row pew!  I applaud Joanna’s resilience and certainty in her own role in Mary’s life: that of unconditional acceptance,  friendship and support.

I do believe that Mary and Joanna were true anam cara to each other: two sides of the same coin. They had a beautiful Sacred Contract with each other and with the developing social and cultural landscape of Australia. Mary had the faith, the vision, the determination and one heck of a lot of clout from the cosmos (more about that later); and Joanna was perfectly positioned as the daughter of a wealthy man, the wife of a wealthy man, to provide the wealth, the networks –  and as a member of early Australian merchant aristocracy – to pull some strings to get Mary and her Order the needful things for their work. Including a convent.

SLSA: B 59767

Joanna Barr Smith, 1908

Born Joanna Lang Elder on 11 October 1835 in Fife, Scotland (where my great-great grandmother was born), Joanna was the seventh child and youngest daughter of George Elder and Joanna Haddow Lang.  The Elder Family, on arrival in Australia, would become wealthy pastoralists and public benefactors. Read more 

Joanna would marry the son of another Scot-emigrant wealthy pastoralist in South Yarra, Melbourne on 15 April 1856, Robert Barr Smith, and her story would be buried under the achievements and career of her husband. However, if you know anything of the strength of 19th Century women and how influential the wife of wealthy man is, you will not dismiss Joanna as a ‘trophy wife’.  Joanna would give birth to 13 children, six of whom died in infancy.

Joanna and Robert first met Mary in the 1860’s, when Sister Mary (as she was then called) first arrived in Adelaide. The Barr Smiths would be among Mary’s most liberal and consistent supporters of her work; her friendship with Joanna lasting until Mary’s passing in 1909.

Indeed, it was Joanna, at the age of 78 herself and a widow, who paid for Mary’s resting place when her remains were transferred from the Gore Hill Cemetary on 29 January 1914, to the Chapel of the Mount Street Convent, to be reinterred in front of the altar of the Blessed Virgin.

In a letter she wrote to Sister Mary when Mary was in Rome in 1873, Joanna says:

If this is your first visit to Rome, dear Sister Mary, what a rare enjoyment it will be to you. There you have so many means of enjoying it that other people have not. Your habit will be an open sesame to you where my flounces and furbelows would be a bar to my entrance – for I have not abandoned yet the world, the flesh, and the devil – and still prefer a dress of silk to a gown of cotton”.

Don’t you just love a friend like that!!

Joanna passed to her well-earned rest on 23 October 1919, in Adelaide, twelve days after celebrating her 84th birthday. Let us light a candle for Joanna on the 23rd of October – I know Mary would like her dearest and dauntless daughter of desires to be remembered, because no Saint is an island.

The Devil Wears Prada



  1. The information is useful. Thanks for sharing the article and knowledge.

  2. Sounds like a very interesting woman — and an interesting friendship!

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