LEAP OF FAITH
An Australian living in the Vatican reveals her #blessedlife inside the Papal city. By Jane Albert.
An Australian living in the Vatican reveals her #blessedlife inside the Papal city.
Joanne Bergamin is the first to admit she was always the naughty kid when it came to studying religion at school, so it surprised her as much as anyone that religion would lead her to marrying a Swiss Guard and becoming the first Australian to live inside Vatican City in Rome.
Four years ago, the Gold Coast-born PR and media professional had begun working for the English version of L’Osservatore Romano, the Pope’s newspaper, which is compiled and printed inside the Vatican. Walking through the Papal city gates each morning, Bergamin would be saluted by the colourfully dressed Swiss Guards, whose primary job is to protect the Pope, the papal palace and the city-state’s entrances and exits.
“I remember my manager saying to me: ‘The only way you can live in the Vatican is to marry a Swiss Guard’ and I laughed, because they’re so aloof, they don’t talk to anyone, and they don’t smile,” she recalls of when she first noticed her now husband, Corporal Dominic Bergamin. “But there was a sweet one who did smile at me when I was walking through the gate every morning and I ended up marrying him and moving into the Vatican.” That was in 2014 and Bergamin is now Australia’s first Vatican passport holder, and the only Australian living inside the holy headquarters of the Catholic Church.
It is almost 12 years but feels like a lifetime since Joanne Ford, as she was then known, packed up her life on the Gold Coast and booked herself a one-way ticket to Rome. She had no certainty about her future beyond the Italian language course that awaited her, but ever since she’d first visited the Eternal city as a young child she had been determined to return.
It has been a steep learning curve for the Queenslander: “My parents have a jewellery business that was started by my great-grandfather and Mum and Dad dragged us all around the world when we were little and Rome left a lasting impression. I always wanted to live here. So I finally picked up and came over here. My parents said I was crazy – I didn’t know anyone, didn’t have a job and didn’t know how long I’d stay.”
Bergamin is speaking to Vogue Australia from her office at John Cabot University in Rome, where she is the coordinator of the Institute for Entrepreneurship. Back in 2006, however, her student visa only permitted her to work 20 hours each week, so she promptly applied for a part-time job with Prada.
“I really applied as a joke, I could barely speak Italian, but I got an interview the next day – in Italian – and they asked me to go and work on Capri. So my first summer in Italy I was working for Prada on the Isle of Capri. Insane. I spent way more than I ever earned,” Bergamin says, laughing.
Obliged to continue studying to remain in Italy, Bergamin turned to theology, a subject taught by Dominican friars that unexpectedly engrossed her, ultimately leading to her conversion to Catholicism. “It was never something I thought would be on the cards; I was always the naughty kid in religious education classes,” she says. “But the friars taught me all the joy and beauty in the church, and it wasn’t at all restrictive.”
The week before she converted to Catholicism Bergamin landed a job with L’Osservatore Romano, and with it her introduction to the Swiss Guard.
The oldest and smallest military unit in the world, the Swiss Guard typically take a vow of celibacy and are only permitted to marry if they attain the rank of corporal (there are only 10 in Vatican City). With their memorable gold, blue and red
Renaissance dress uniforms and beret they are a must-have on any visitor’s Instagram feed. Far from being a ceremonial role, the 120 Swiss Guards are highly trained, elite soldiers who work six days a week for the period of the guards’ service. As a corporal, however, Dominic is a career guard and one of Pope Francis’s top security men who can work at Vatican City for up to 25 years before retiring.
Despite the serious nature of his job, Dominic managed a daily smile to the pretty Australian woman as she entered Vatican City, and after years of smiling shyly at each other the couple finally had their first date.
“We met up one night for dinner, laughed all night, ended up closing the restaurant and have been together ever since,” Bergamin says. “We were married in 2014 inside the Vatican in a little church, Saint Stephens, the oldest church in Vatican City. We had 30 guests from Australia and 60 from the rest of the world; it was like organising a wedding every day for a week.” Bergamin was married in a Jenny Packham gown and the couple honeymooned in a Sicilian town before spending a month in Australia.
Today the Bergamins live in the military barracks of the Vatican alongside 14 other Swiss Guard families. Bergamin says there aren’t as many regulations around life inside the Papal city as you might imagine. The smallest city-state in the world, there are around 800 people living in the Vatican, the headquarters of the Roman Catholic Church. Bergamin says she is obliged to dress modestly but never finds it an imposition. “Because I’ve been living and working there for 10 years, I don’t really give it a second thought. I save all my strappy dresses for Australia, but I think you can still be covered up and really elegant,” she says. The apartments themselves are tiny by Australian standards, and Bergamin ruefully points out she has run out of room for her shoes and handbags.
Another rule she happily follows is respecting the privacy of the former Pope, Benedict XVI, who lives within the Vatican and prays the rosary in the gardens each evening. Bergamin has a special affection for Pope Benedict, who was in office when she worked at L’Osservatore Romano. Knowing of Joanne’s fondness for him, Dominic organised a private meeting between the pair in the gardens for her birthday last year. “The media never showed how sweet he is – he’s like your dream grandfather,” she says.
Beyond the Vatican gates is, of course, a city that brims with fashion, art, parties and romance, a glamorous backdrop that is regularly portrayed on Bergamin’s Instagram feed @swissguardwife and travel blog Travel Angel, giving a glimpse into her life in the Vatican and love of travel.
With her Instagram tagline #blessedlife, Bergamin certainly seems to be living la dolce vita, although she concedes there are a couple of trade-offs. “Dom works nearly every day, often 12-hour days and nights, so we’re like ships in the night,” she says, adding that his job is undeniably dangerous, particularly when travelling with the Pope. She also keenly misses her family and friends in Australia and looks forward to her annual visits home (often on her own) where she relishes being ‘Auntie JoJo’ to her sister’s two daughters. “It’s hard to be away all the time. I miss the beach a lot, and as much as I have a really nice set of girlfriends here there’s nothing like your school friends.”
She says the plan is to relocate to Australia where they are dreaming of a relaxed life on Tugun beach, near Byron Bay. But for now she’ll happily continue to enjoy her backyard in Rome and all the adventures that holds.
“Nothing works here; you have to fight every day over the price of a coffee, because they think you’re a tourist, so you have a love/hate relationship with this city,” she says. “But Rome is a fairytale; I know the back entrance into Saint Peter’s Basilica and can sneak in any time I want; or walk outside the Vatican gate and get a salute from the Swiss Guard, all day, every day. My Australian friends just laugh and say: ‘You won’t get this on the Gold Coast!’”
“I was always the naughty kid in religious education classes, but the friars taught me all the joy and beauty in the church”
Clockwise, from top left: Joanne overlooking Rome; Joanne and her husband, Corporal Dominic Bergamin; an Easter celebration in the square; sisters in Saint Peter’s Square; inside Saint Peter’s Basilica; meeting Pope Francis during a Swiss Guard ceremony; Michelangelo paintings in the Sistine Chapel.