Leap of faith
Mary O’Regan and Jan Kehoe have been best friends since the 1960s, when they were boarders at Wellington’s Sacré-Coeur. “The school was so small you made lasting friendships,” says Mary.
Thanks to their Irish colouring, they are often taken for sisters and recently a connection with their convent girlhoods has re-emerged as a fledgling business.
Their careers had taken different directions: Mary became the first chief executive of the Ministry of Women’s Affairs in 1985 and continued with community and policy work; meanwhile Jan (now a Macdonald) was, until recently, co-owner of Wellington’s Avid Gallery, dealers in art and jewellery.
But there were also similarities; both married men named Alistair (different nicknames keep that sorted), had one-child families and talked on the phone a lot. It was while the two couples were on holiday in Rome in 2000 that the women hatched an idea for a business they could run together.
“We had planned to buy rosary beads as gifts to take home to our mothers,” Jan explains. “We’d imagined beautiful jewels and lovely crosses but everything we found was pedestrian, tacky or made in Taiwan – it was very disappointing.”
Back home in Wellington, Jan rang Mary and floated the idea of making rosary beads, somewhat anxious that her old friend might think she’d “lost the plot”. But the idea appealed to Mary.
“A lot of ritual and ceremony has gone out of our lives,” she says. “We thought contemporary rosaries would resonate with many people and we’ve had a very positive reaction, not just from Catholics – lapsed or otherwise – but from anyone who appreciates beautiful things.”
It’s a sentiment that is wrapped up nicely in the little booklet the women package with the beads: “Rosary beads create a mystical bridge between our modern lives and those of women and men in centuries past – a connection with everyone who has ever said, ‘Be still, my soul’.”
The friends point out that Roman Catholics aren’t alone in using beads for prayer. Beads have been linked with meditation and tranquillity across the ages and across religions, from ancient Hindu and Buddhist sages to today’s Muslim businessmen with their worry beads. The name rosary originally referred to a garland of roses and was adopted when the very first rosary beads were made in the Middle Ages from rolled rose petals.
Jan and Mary took their first business trip to Jaipur, India, where a contact supplied them with sapphires, emeralds, coral, tourmaline, rubies, carnelian, tiger-eyes and amethysts. Back home, the women link the stones together in the time-honoured pattern of the rosary: five groups of 10 beads and a cross.
Though the design is an inherited one, Jan uses her experienced eye to achieve the best composition, plus some newly acquired skills with bent silver wire to join the beads together.
Mary’s role is as creative consultant, investor and administrator of the business side of the operation. Travel these days always includes a buying trip and the pair have added beads from Samoa, Bali, Fiji, China, Japan and Europe to their collection. Treasures are found closer to home too, as Jan and Mary hunt down crosses and beads online and in op shops.
Story: Jacquetta Bell
Photographs: Paul McCredie