Accomplished businesswoman Helena Carr had a deep fondness for the Catholic church and the religious sisters who educated her, said her husband of 50 years and former New South Wales Premier Bob Carr following her Requiem Mass at St Mary’s Cathedral on 14 November.
Helena Carr died on 26 October aged 77 after a brain aneurysm in Vienna where she was travelling with her husband.
She was the youngest of six children from a Catholic family and emigrated from Malaysia to Sydney as a teenager at her own request to attend Our Lady of Mercy College, Parramatta.
Later she lived at Sancta Sophia College at the University of Sydney while she studied economics.
Described by those who knew her as brilliant and joyful, yet shy, Mrs Carr was highly accomplished in her own right while faithfully supporting her husband’s long political career, which included a decade as the state’s longest-serving Labor premier between 1995 to 2005.
The couple was married in Sydney in 1973 and as Mr Carr rose to prominence in the Labor Party, Ms Carr rose to senior management at Leigh-Mardon, a subsidiary of Coca-Cola Amatil, and later successfully ran her own commercial printing business.
Mr Carr described being deeply moved by the funeral and told The Catholic Weekly that his departed wife “had a genuine fondness for the church.”
“She loved the nuns who took care of her in Taiping, in Parramatta and in Sancta Sophia college,” Mr Carr said.
“She owed her education to them. It was a deep fondness for them and the institutions.
“When I walked into the cathedral, I saw the apse, the four priests, and the packed congregation—my knees wobbled and I wondered whether I was going to be able to do this.
“I just thought that nothing had prepared me for the scale and the beauty of it.
“But I knew her better than anyone, it was my duty to tell the story of her life.”
Former prime ministers Paul Keating and Malcolm Turnbull, NSW Premier Chris Minns and a host of former premiers attended the funeral, along with Mrs Carr’s family and the couple’s many friends.
Fr Frank Brennan SJ was principal celebrant, assisted by former cathedral dean Monsignor Tony Doherty, historian Fr Edmund Campion who officiated the Carrs’ wedding, and Sydney priest Fr James McCarthy.
Large photos of Mrs Carr, including one of her smiling radiantly on her wedding day, flanked a floral display surrounding an urn containing her ashes.
In his eulogy Mr Carr told his wife’s life story beginning with her happy childhood in Taiping and childhood relationship with her grandmother, who gave Mrs Carr a “serenity and a spiritual” presence for life.
He said Helena enjoyed the “humour, play and personality” of politics and had been his “lucky star.”
“Meeting her was a stellar explosion of good fortune,” he said.
“We farewell a Chinese-Indian girl from this idyllic tropical town, educated by wonderful Irish nuns, drawn to Australia in a convent school, recruited so improbably to Australian public life all while she ran a tough, competitive business in Australian manufacturing and her spirit is with us today, urging us to be joyful in a happy cosmos,” he said.
In his introduction to the Mass Fr Brennan noted the presence of leaders from across the political divide, which he attributed to her qualities as a “wonderful peacemaker.”
“She must have had some sway there in those interminable COAG [Council of Australian Governments] meetings,” he said.
He outlined ways Helena exemplified the beatitudes in his homily and said she was shaped by her family and marriage, the Labor Party and the Catholic Church, particularly its educational institutions.
Prime Minister Anthony Albanese was represented by Education Minister Jason Clare who described Mrs Carr as “modest, funny and whip-smart.”
“She was a brilliant businesswoman and the steel in Bob’s back.”
But Mr Albanese gave his own speech in Federal Parliament the same day paying tribute to Ms Carr’s modesty, talent, and “great inner strength” which he attributed partly to her Catholic education.
“As a product of Catholic schooling myself, I can only imagine that some of Helena’s strength came from the nuns who taught her,” Mr Albanese said.
Our Lady of Mercy College principal Lucie Farrugia attended the Mass with a small delegation of staff and student leaders.
She told The Catholic Weekly it was “an absolute honour” to hear of Mrs Carr’s love for her time there and that she is still remembered by her former economics teacher Sr Germaine (Patrica Donovan) as an excellent student.
“Amid the ceremonial aspects was a true and long love story between Bob and Helena based firmly in Helena’s faith journey—an inspiration to all couples,” she said.