The lesson? Everyone has a story
As the principal of St Edmund’s College in Canberra, Joe Zavone counsels his staff against making assumptions about students without knowing their story.
“Everybody has a story,” he says, “and even when the boys do tell you their story, it’s only part of it.”
This is a lesson Joe, who comes from a dysfunctional family with a violent father who left when Joe was nine, learnt early. It’s also a lesson reinforced in his relationship with wife Louise, a long-term teacher and now an Executive Secretary with the Australian Catholic Bishops Conference.
The main assumption they have faced in 25 years of marriage, especially given their roles in Catholic education and within the Church, is that they must have children of their own. When the question inevitably arises – usually in the form of “how many?” – Louise simply replies that they have never been blessed with children and the couple is generously open about the pain this has caused them.
Their openness extends to participation in Catholic marriage forums and Louise’s roles with marriage and family advisory bodies to the bishops. These are opportunities to highlight the different kinds of families to be found in the Catholic Church.
Louise points out “this is not everybody’s story but it’s our story”. They might not have the quintessential Catholic brood, but they are best friends, come from similar backgrounds (single-parent Catholic families in the less affluent southern regions of Sydney) and have shared interests.
They are godparents to many of their nieces and nephews, and have had ageing parents to care for, students to think about and pets to look after. At present, an old labrador named Ninja is part of their family (the result of a pet-minding arrangement that became permanent), as is a friend’s 18-year-old son, who is living with them while he attends university in Canberra.
These arrangements are all proof that “families are messy”, as Joe says. “The older we become, the more conscious we are of the problem for people who don’t have their vocation necessarily recognised by the Church,” he says of what he sees as a focus on the traditional family make-up, often to the exclusion of others. “We need more of a balance.”
Despite this, the couple has found strength in their shared faith and in their struggle with infertility. Having researched the issue of childlessness, Joe was surprised to find it drove people apart. He and Louise feel it has brought them closer together.
Louise believes it has helped that they have never blamed each other for their unexplained infertility and have always found ways to connect. They met as teachers at what is now Mt Carmel Catholic College in Campbelltown in 1995 and bonded over their faith and other interests.
Louise tapped into Joe’s love of theatre and they enjoyed dance and travel. Indeed, overseas travel helped them deal with the realisation, eight years into their marriage, that children may not be part of their story.
Now, despite not being sports buffs, they are learning to enjoy schoolboy rugby and share a love of good food. One of five children, Louise, whose father died when she was 16, has always delighted in bringing her family together over a meal (the limits of COVID-19 and living in Canberra, away from the bulk of her family, since 2018 notwithstanding).
The pain of their childlessness will always be there, especially as their friends become grandparents, but Louise is philosophical about it. “I just celebrate that with them, knowing it won’t be our joy,” she says.