Life, work and love in the Eternal City

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It’s a long journey from Gold Coast beach babe with no religion to converting to Catholicism, marrying a Swiss Guard and living in the Vatican – but Joanne Bergamin has always taken a leap of faith.

The Australian, who is in the process of returning with her husband to take up life back in Queensland, has a tale that surely must be unique.

Her faith has been richly rewarded with a life most people could only dream.

Her faith has been richly rewarded with a life most people could only dream.

Joanne is the only lay Australian to obtain a Vatican passport and one of about 800 residents of the holy headquarters of the Catholic Church.

Joanne is the only lay Australian to obtain a Vatican passport and one of about 800 residents of the holy headquarters of the Catholic Church.

From fashion and glamour, to wine and religion – looking back on the 13 years she has spent in Italy, Joanne still finds it difficult to comprehend the incredible graces she has been given she has no doubt by God.

After a private audience with Pope Francis in his modest residence last week, Joanne and husband Dominic are now preparing to return to a life in Australia and as she has before, is entrusting her future to the Lord.

“I am truly most thankful for the gift of faith, even at a later age,” she beams.

“I am truly most thankful for the gift of faith”

“I embraced the Catholic faith and it gave me a job, a husband and a home so I feel like I have a lot to give back.

“It still brings a big smile to my face when I think of our love story and how God brought us together.

“During my time here I’ve learnt that God has a plan for me, an amazing one and if the past few years are anything to go by I will just have to keep listening and see what’s next.”

“It still brings a big smile to my face when I think of our love story and how God brought us together,” said Joanne.

Joanne started her career in Brisbane, working in public relations for the mining and energy sector.

However, her life took a twist when she decided to book a one-way ticket to Rome to learn Italian – a city she had remembered fondly from childhood family holidays.

“At the age of 30 my parents thought I was crazy to leave a great job in Australia and fly half way around the world for the unknown but I really thought ‘it’s now or never,’” she says.

“A greater force had a hand in it, gently encouraging me.”

“A greater force had a hand in it, gently encouraging me.

“I booked a bed in a convent guesthouse down the street from the Pantheon for my first two months which looking back now is quite ironic as I wasn’t even Catholic then.

“I’d saved enough to take a year off studying Italian but of course, I was bored within two months and landed a dream job with Prada on the island of Capri!

“It was a fantastic way to build up my shoe and handbag collection although I’d only allowed myself five pairs of shoes when I moved, and that would never do if I wanted to lose my tourist look.

“A greater force had a hand in it, gently encouraging me.”

“I then worked for a large winery based in Piedmont, at the foot of the Alps, as their Export Manager, which involved me travelling all over Europe, the States and Canada with the Italian winery owner and all I had to do was translate for him so another dream job.

“Then by chance I met someone who worked at the Pope’s newspaper, L’Osservatore Romano, who needed someone with my writing background and the rest is history.”

Her conversion to Catholicism wasn’t something she set out to do but, given her environment, she said it was almost impossible not to at least give some thought.

“I found myself drawn to St Peter’s and all that beauty just grabbed hold of me,” she recalls.

“I began studying theology to keep up my student visa and remain in Italy and joined a Christian art class trip to Florence led by a Maltese friar and professor, Father Marius Zerafa.

“He took us to the Museo di San Marco which is filled with frescoes by Fra Angelico and showed us the famed fresco of the Annunciation and spoke of Mary’s big ‘yes’ to God and at that moment I realised it was also my time.

“I came back to Rome and completed the RCIA course as well as my theology studies.
“Cardinal George Pell received me into the Church in St Peter’s Basilica, it was just beautiful.”

It was while she was working on L’Osservatore Romano, that she found her husband – or rather he found her. A match made in heaven – or about as close to it as you can get.

Traditionally aloof and rather publicity shy, she noticed one of the soldiers in the Renaissance-inspired red, gold and blue gala uniforms smile each time she walked by to work.

Life inside the Vatican is certainly unique.

Responsible for the safety of the Pope and armed only with Rosaries – what they call their “most powerful weapon,” – Dominic left a marked impression on her, which blossomed into a real Rome-mance.

As all Swiss Guards come from religious Catholic families, they tend to consider their service to the Holy Father a great honour rather than a for-profit profession, which Joanne knows first-hand.

“When I would come through the gate to work every day, I would see Dom and of course he was very charming and very sweet.”

“When I would come through the gate to work every day, I would see Dom and of course he was very charming and very sweet,” she said.

Joanne with her husband Dominic.

“He used to do lots of nice little things for me and I just thought, ‘Oh, he’s so nice’ not to mention tickets for papal events.”

However, it wasn’t until Joanne began working as the first female non-Swiss secretary for the commander of the Swiss Guard that they actually got to know each other and enjoyed their first date.

“And just like that, we came closer,” she said.

“We had an old-style, textbook Catholic romance, like it should be and I absolutely know why it takes place because I’ve lived with it and it works.”

He popped the question on St Joseph’s feast day, picking it because the chaste saint is his role model. Swiss Guards are called to celibacy and can only marry if they become a corporal, of which there are only 10 in Vatican City.

“We had an old-style, textbook Catholic romance, like it should be and I absolutely know why it takes place because I’ve lived with it and it works.”

Fortunately, Dominic had attained that rank and the couple were married by Cardinal Pell at St Stephen’s of Abyssinians Church, the oldest church in Vatican City, surrounded by family, friends and 40 Swiss Guards.

“I remember that Dominic had a tear in his eye when I walked into the Church and that we locked eyes and hands throughout the entire ceremony,” she said. “I think back often to that morning, a few hours before the ceremony when we met at the Swiss Guard Chapel and without looking at each other, we held hands around the great iron door and prayed together.

“Being married to a Swiss Guard isn’t always easy, it’s a very demanding job with long, irregular hours and never having weekends off together, not even Sundays.

Joanne reading during Mass with the Holy Father.

“Although I think that’s also the best part about being married to the type of man who would undertake this kind of sacrifice for 15 years, because it speaks to the qualities I love and admire in him – his faith, discipline and loyalty.

“I pay my cleaner more than Dominic gets paid, it’s not a job you do for the money, but for the incredible honour of the job.”

Life inside the Vatican is certainly unique. It’s a tiny community of a few hundred residents in a gated residence.

She likens it to living in a Church as she can’t leave her apartment without having her shoulders and knees covered.

Joanne receives a blessing from Pope Benedict XVI

However, from a security aspect, living in the Vatican and married to a Swiss Guard makes her feel like “the safest woman in Rome”.

Prior to COVID, Joanne has spent the past few years working at a university while documenting her blessed life in her adopted country through words and pictures while spreading her faith to the thousands of people around the world who follow her on social media @swissguardwife.

However, since the pandemic and her impending departure, her routine has looked very different, using the past few months to reflect on her incredible life.

“My entrepreneurship coordinator role at the local American university was made redundant and so, much to my husband’s delight, I’ve been cooking and cleaning a whole lot more, my pasta with mushroom sauce must be one of the best in Rome by now,” she laughs.

Newly married Joanne and Dominic with His Holiness, Pope Francis.

“Knowing this was my last few months I’ve taken the time to take stock of this part of my life, and each morning after Mass take a giant mug of cappuccino up to the Galea Fountain which overlooks Rome’s Piazza Risorgimento and enjoy the morning sunshine for an hour or two.

“I walk, run, read and write in the Vatican Gardens for the best part of every day. I document every inch of the gardens and their cute inhabitants – 22 turtles, butterflies, lizards and thousands of bright green, noisy parrots. I can’t say I’ve been bored for a minute.

I can’t say I’ve been bored for a minute.

“There are so many moments I will never forget … watching as Roma play at the Olympic Stadium, listening to Andrea Bocelli in Piazza del Popolo.

“Just a few weeks ago when our lockdown conditions were eased, I sat on the edge of the Trevi Fountain for half an hour sipping a cappuccino on my own, at 9:30am. My skin is still tingling just thinking about it. I never thought I’d see bella Roma deserted and spotless.”

Flying the flag as the first lay Australian living in the Vatican has made Joanne’s adventure so much more special and she would now like to get a mosaic of Our Lady of the Southern Cross placed in the Vatican gardens to mark her time there.

Many countries have colourful artworks displayed throughout the gardens and Joanne believes it would be lovely for all Australians to be represented.

Many countries have colourful artworks displayed throughout the gardens and Joanne believes it would be lovely for all Australians to be represented.

“It’s been such an honour to be the first [lay] Aussie to live in the Vatican, first working here and then to create a bit of history by marrying a Swiss Guard and bringing him back to Australia,” she says.

“My Vatican passport is number 153 so there are very few of us let alone from our part of the world. I get a lot of confused looks when I produce it at the airport.

“My Vatican passport is number 153 so there are very few of us let alone from our part of the world. I get a lot of confused looks when I produce it at the airport.

“Coming from a country with such a short national history gives me an even greater appreciation for the Swiss Guard who have been guarding the pope and the Vatican since 1506.

“It’s incredible to be part of that long tradition.”

Their last official duty was their private audience last week with Pope Francis, which was held in his residence in Casa Santa Marta.

Their last official duty was their private audience last week with Pope Francis, which was held in his residence in Casa Santa Marta.

During their 15-minute meeting, she said he did most of the talking, asking questions about their plans for Australia including where they will live and what they will do.

“He was very interested in what we were going to do, and again we said we will leave that up to God,” she said.

“One of the kindest things he said to me during our chat was that Dominic “sempre porta un bel sorriso” (is always smiling) and so is a pleasure to be around.

“At the end of the meeting he gave us special boxed his and hers Papal Rosaries and a silver Papal Medallion to thank Dominic for his 15 years of service.

“However, in the end it should have been me, thanking him for this blessed life I have had.”