(July 30, 1912 – June 15, 2005)


The story of Mary Dorning (nee Holian) is about life in Victoria in the early years of the Twentieth Century and of a young woman who questioned her Catholic upbringing and, on converting to Protestantism, encountered a response from the Church and her family that was not uncommon at the time. She was a young woman coming of age at the height of the Great Depression. Her parents gave her a fine Catholic name as in the title above, but she normally went under the name of Mary Josephine. Her story is about the Michael Holian/Mary Downes branch of 76 Cousins.


Mary Dorning was the authorŐs mother. Telling her story is also about learning of my motherŐs side of the family whom I never met as I grew up. A major turning point for me was when I attended the Holian Family Reunion in May 2011 when I first really understood the rich Holian history and met relatives from my motherŐs side.


Text Box:  
Patrick Holian and Rosannah Fitzpatrick. Married April 17, 1906 at St Josephs Church, Benalla.

Mary was born at St James in North East Victoria on July 30, 1912. She was the third child of Patrick Holian (1878–1919) and Rosannah Fitzpatrick (1886–1950). Rosannah was called Rose by everyone so we will too. Mary had two elder brothers: Ambrose (Sonny, 1907unknown) and Patrick (Bonny, 19091978). RoseŐs fourth child was Kath Bowkett (1916–1996).


PatrickŐs occupation is described in much the same way in official documents – machinery expert, mechanic, fitter. However, on his wedding certificate (1906) and MaryŐs birth certificate it is recorded differently as commission agent. Commission agent can have many different meanings, but in the circumstances it could mean he sold farm machinery for a commission, or bought agricultural produce for a trading company. The other descriptions of his occupation suggest he worked as a self employed tradesman maintaining, repairing and making farming equipment, but he could have taken on other roles as the opportunity arose.


It is likely the young family lived in St James township and not on a farm. In the probate documents resulting from PatrickŐs sudden death in 1919, the inventory of his assets showed Patrick had a property in Main Street, St James. It had a 61 foot frontage on the street with a depth of 218 feet. On the land were a five-roomed iron and wood house and two little shops. Patrick had a contract to purchase the property for Ł325 and had paid off Ł198.9 with a balance of Ł126.11 outstanding. In the Probate Court Rose was awarded Ł325, but presumably she would have been required to settle the balance owing and pay administration fees.


Around 1990 (give or take a few years) Mary had a weekend in Corowa. She said she walked around the old streets and could remember them well. Corowa has a complicated, but attractive street plan. I always thought Mary must have spent time in Corowa with her father when he was working, but fresh information suggests the family may have lived in Corowa at some stage. MaryŐs younger sister Kath was born in Corowa in 1916 and her daughter, Kay McLachlan, has an old Christmas card dated October 16, 1916 addressed to Mrs P.R.J Holian from a Fred Anderson in France. The address is Grey Street, Corowa. Fred addresses them as Dear Auntie and Uncle. In a document about her aging mother, MaryŐs first child Judith confirms Mary had lived a short time in Corowa.


At the beginning of 1919, when Mary was six and a half, her father came down with the Spanish Flu, the epidemic said to have killed upwards of five percent of the world's population. Patrick died in South Melbourne, aged forty, where he may have been taken for treatment and quarantine. There werenŐt single parent pensions in those days so widow Rose moved her four children to Richmond where she could find a job, earn a living and bring up her kids. She must have been a strong woman. Rose never married again. The probate documents showed Rose was living in 26 White Street, Richmond and Patricks last address was the West End Hotel, Spencer Street, Melbourne.



Little is known about MaryŐs life before she married aged 23. Nevertheless, it has been possible to build a picture from various sources including documents and oral history. These are referred to throughout this essay. My sister, Judith Ellis (October 25, 1937 – September 12, 2009), was seven years older. Being born a year after our parentŐs marriage and being a daughter, Judith knew more about our motherŐs past. She seemed to know cousins from my motherŐs side and kept in contact with them. However, while she was alive I didnŐt ask her about these matters, which I now regret, but we do have things she wrote.


When seeking to find someone who knew something about MaryŐs life in Richmond I had the good fortune of meeting my cousin Kay McLachlan (nee Bowkett) who I met for the first time in May 2014. Kay is the daughter of Kath Bowkett (nee Holian) who was MaryŐs younger sister. Kay was able to answer questions and provide documents and photos. Important information was, before getting married (August 31, 1935 – a year before her older sister), Kath lived at 113 Brighton Street, Richmond (corner of Cotter Street) over from Bryant and May and the Rosella Factory. It is likely Mary would have lived at the same address.


Text Box:  

Mick and Kath Bowkett (nee Holian) crossing Morell Bridge over the Yarra River (close to the Botanical Gardens).
After settling in Richmond, Mary and Kath attended St Ignatius Catholic School (on the Church Street hill) and went to church each Sunday at St Ignatius Church. Being a girl of her era, Mary left school on turning fourteen to get a job to help support her family. She always said she worked as a seamstress or dressmaker. Presumably in Richmond where there were many clothing firms.


There is a document about MaryŐs life that was written in conjunction with her, when she was getting on in years. While it contains many errors the following rings true of memories an older person has about their youth. It says she went to Catholic schools in which she excelled in poetry and was very good with textiles. É Having a passion for sewing, Mary took that passion into her work life. She was a local dressmaker when someone recognized her work and granted her work at Georges. É (She) participated in a great variety of sports. Those that stand out to her though are netball and skipping. É She socialized a lot and went to many dances as a teenager.


Mary was of good Irish Catholic stock and was a religious-minded adolescent. In JudithŐs eulogy at our motherŐs funeral, she says MaryŐs aim in life was to train to become a nun in the Catholic Church. However, by her mid-teens there were signs of her seeking clarification of Church teachings. There is evidence of this in the memories of the Beavis family who knew Mary because Molly Beavis (nee Holian) was RoseŐs sister-in-law and MaryŐs aunt. Although Rose moved from the North East she kept in touch with her husbandŐs relatives. In section 9.3.1 of this website, Extended Family of Mary Holian (1858 - 1942) it is told Molly had married Jack Beavis in St James/Devenish in 1920 and the couple then moved to Murndal Pastoral Station in the Western District where Jack had a job as resident-blacksmith at the homestead. At the end of 1928, when sixteen, Mary made the long train journey to her relatives for an extended visit of six to eight weeks.



We know about the Beavis familyŐs memories of Mary from MollyŐs sons Michael and Kevin, although Kevin was not born when Mary visited Murndal. Nevertheless, Kevin has a strong recollection of Mary, but in his early years it is from memory of what his mother told him. Michael said his mother Molly was a good letter writer. She and Mary corresponded often. Kevin said Molly had a high regard for Mary. Molly spoke about Mary a lot. She said Mary was very intelligent and was interested in religious questions. She said Mary often asked the priests direct questions which they didnŐt answer to her satisfaction (the priests would have been those of St Ignatius, Richmond). In the time she was with them it is likely she and Molly discussed her thoughts about religion. Therefore itŐs possible Molly learnt of MaryŐs early concerns firsthand; if not in their letters. Kevin said the priests didnŐt like being questioned. It isnŐt known what questions Mary was asking. Was it about Church regulations and rules (which were quite prescriptive and inflexible at the time), or was it about questions of dogma? It may have been both, but later information suggests it included the latter.


MaryŐs grandfather, Michael Holian, had died at St James in 1914. In 1925 a Holian foothold was established in Northcote at 155 Beavers Road where MichaelŐs widow Mary purchased a new house and moved in with her youngest children, Florrie, Billy and Freddy. In 1927 the Beavis family came from Murndal to Melbourne for the Royal Visit of the Duke and Duchess of York. They stayed at Beavers Road where their young son Michael peered over the back fence and saw some aeroplanes performing aerobatics.


Rose would have been in touch with her mother-in-law when she moved to Beavers Road, which isnŐt far from Richmond where Rose was living. Mary soon struck up a close friendship with her Auntie Florrie. Nineteen years older, Florrie was a warm and charming person who later in life became a rallying point for the extended family at her home at 1 Caroline Street, Clifton Hill.



The next known evolution in MaryŐs religious thinking occurred after Mary took a job with the department store Georges in the City. Mary wasnŐt employed in the store itself, but in a workshop in Flinders Line (famous for the rag trade at the time). How and when Mary got the job isnŐt known, but it was probably around 1931. Judith states she worked at Georges from when she left school, but that conflicts with other information. At Georges Mary met another young woman, May Smith (nee Gower), and the two became life-long friends.

Text Box:  
Mary Dorning aged 21.

MayŐs first son, Lindsay Smith, recalls his mother saying she and Mary would walk to and from work each day through the Fitzroy Gardens. May lived in Francis Street Collingwood, near the intersection of Johnston and Hoddle Streets. For May it was about 2.5 km as the crow flies. If Mary lived in Brighton Street, Richmond, she could have walked up towards Wellington Parade and met May somewhere along the way. It was early in the Depression years and wages would have been low for young women (Kevin Beavis estimates ten shillings a week) and itŐs probable they couldnŐt afford the train fare. All her life Mary was a fast walker and itŐs likely she learnt the practice at this time.


May was also religious, but she went to the South Yarra Church of Christ (corner of Cliff and Phoenix Street, now demolished after merging with the Stonnington church in 1990). At some point May invited Mary to come to church and Mary agreed. The outcome was she converted to Protestantism soon after, at the age of 20, and was baptised at the Church of Christ. It was a decision of conviction and not done for love; there wasnŐt a man involved. Reasons for her conversion are explored below.



It seems May was also attending the CFBM. The CFBM was located, at that stage, in the hall at the rear of Dr. Singleton's Collingwood Free Medical Mission Dispensary at 162 Wellington Street, Collingwood. It moved to Harmsworth Street, Collingwood, towards the end of WWII.


Text Box:  
Late 1890 photo of Singleton Free Medical Centre. The building is now heritage listed.

The CFBM was an evangelical church which offered a free breakfast each Sunday to the needy children of the surrounding area with Sunday School afterwards. It was a vibrant collection of individuals, and held a church service on the Sunday evening and, in these early days, also preached to passers-by at lively street-corner meetings in the City.


At some stage May and Mary went to the CFBM where they met their future husbands, Frank Smith and Bob Dorning respectively. Given the marriage dates it would seem May was at the CFBM before Mary. It seems May was attending both South Yarra and the CFBM at the same time.



Around 1932 Bob Dorning (August 22, 1908 – September 2, 1973) joined the CFBM, where he met Frank Smith and they too became close lifelong friends. In the early days of the Depression Bob was unemployed. In an attempt to generate a living Bob began making canvas goods at home and selling them from a stall at Victoria Market. There is a story that in the early days Bob would make one tent and after selling it had the money to purchase the materials to make another. Bob had a room in the family home at 39 Forest Street, Collingwood, where he made his products. He became the main breadwinner when his father suddenly died from pneumonia in February 1933. His stall at Victoria Market was in the open sheds a few rows south of Victoria Street. As part of the investigation of MaryŐs story, BobŐs story was researched as well. ItŐs not listed on the websiteŐs Table of Contents as itŐs not really part of the Holian story, but it is on this website and can been seen at:


Frank worked at the Victorian Tramways in the city as a draughtsman. After work on a Friday he would go to Victoria Market and help Bob sell his tents. It was around this time May brought her friend to the CFBM. The four quickly paired off and May married Frank on February 23,. Mary was 21 when she met Bob and 18 months later they married at St MarkŐs Baptist Church, Clifton Hill on April 18, 1936 (Mary aged 23, Bob 27). May would have been pregnant with Lindsay at MaryŐs wedding.



MaryŐs rejection of Catholicism and marrying a non-Catholic would have been traumatic for her family, given the period. We donŐt have any accounts from the time, but MaryŐs three children and her husbandŐs relatives knew she was ostracised by her family. Her grandchildren grew up with this belief. MaryŐs third child, Rhonda Gould, recalls her mother telling her she had been made to leave home. I have a recollection of being told priests went to MaryŐs workplace to ask the manager to dismiss her so she would come to her senses, but they were unsuccessful.


However, as I first met my Holian relations after the 2013 Holian Reunion and told them my mother had been ostracised by her family when she converted to Protestantism, the ones who knew her all expressed doubt. Vince Holian, who took the 1945 photo of Mary with babe in arms together with her mother Rose (see below), said his family thought Mary was doing well for herself, implying she had married a good provider. Kevin Beavis said his family was unaware of any schism between Mary and her mother. Bob and Mary got on well with his family and his father Jack was a good friend of Bob. Bob and Mary attended the wedding of Jack and MollyŐs daughter Nancy in 1957. Kevin said Bob and Mary attended Auntie FlorrieŐs popular family gatherings on Christmas evening which brought many members of the extended family together. Kay McLachlan didnŐt know of any family discord and couldnŐt conceive of her Nanna Rose forcing her daughter out. Her family had gone to Bob and MaryŐs East Ivanhoe home for Saturday lunch from time to time. Bob and Mary had attended the wedding of KayŐs brother Terry in Northcote in 1963.


It was the first time I had heard the other side of the story. These are good people. It was powerful, but on consideration, these happenings occurred some years after MaryŐs conversion and marriage.


On the other hand, the only evidence we have from the time is Mary and BobŐs wedding photo and Marriage Certificate. Also there is the memory of the sister of one of the flower girls in the photo.


Bob and Mary DorningŐs wedding photo. They were married on

April 18, 1936, at St MarkŐs Baptist Church, Clifton Hill.


From the point of view of our story Bob and MaryŐs wedding photo is instructive. All members of the wedding party have been identified except for the man on the right. There arenŐt any members from MaryŐs family. The lady on the right is Rita Roberts, MaryŐs friend from South Yarra Church of Christ who remained a close friend all their lives. On the left is Frank Smith. The young lady beside him is Emma Dorning (BobŐs sister) and the flower girl in front is BobŐs niece Valerie. The tall man behind Mary (who would have given her away) is Frank Kyne, a Collingwood business man and a friend of BobŐs father and also of Bob. The right flower girl is Margaret Anderson who was the daughter of a CFBM elder, Jim Anderson, whose home at 42 Cecil Street Kew appears as MaryŐs current and usual address on her Marriage Certificate. Here is evidence Mary wasnŐt living with her mother Rose when she married and had moved in with a supporting family of her new church. Jim Anderson held a senior managerŐs position at Foy and GibsonŐs Collingwood factory and warehouse complex and was a highly respected member of the CFBM.


When attempting to identify members of the wedding party, the photo was shown to a number of people including Ruth Smith (nee Marshall). Ruth attended the Mission Hall (CFBM) with her parents when she was young. When Ruth was told Margaret Anderson was the flower girl on the right, she responded saying she knew MargaretŐs sister, Elizabeth, and saw her once a month at a club both attended. Ruth passed on ElizabethŐs phone number. Elizabeth told me she was seven years younger than Margaret, Margaret was now dead and all she knew was, when growing up, it was said Mary had lived with her family before Mary married and it was probably as a result of her becoming a Protestant. When asked later, she confirmed the residential address on the Marriage Certificate was her parentŐs home.


So it seems Mary did leave home, but itŐs not known when. Was it when she broke with Catholicism, or was it when she was going to marry a non-Catholic? It must have been extremely distressing for both mother and daughter. In retrospect, itŐs unsurprising that outside of the immediate family it wasnŐt known what had happened. ItŐs the sort of thing one would want to keep within the family and avoid, at all costs, it getting out. It would seem there was a complete rift between Mary and Rose for an unknown period and then a reconciliation of one sort, or another. Apart from any bitterness between mother and daughter, it would have been natural in the circumstances for Mary to avoid contact with her broader family and seek support and assistance within her new religious community.



So how did Mary arrive at the impossible position where she would break with Catholicism and all that implied. We have learnt a lot about Mary. We know she was a religious-minded adolescent who had aspired to become a nun, but who later began questioning the teachings of the Catholic Church. At some stage, it would seem the need for a priest to mediate in the forgiveness of sins became an issue. In the Confessional Box a priest could grant absolution of a confessorŐs sins. The question arose, was there a Biblical justification for the Confessional Box and the confession of sins to a priest.


Ruth Smith (nee Marshall) is MaryŐs niece and had a close relationship with Mary and they often had quiet conversations together. In a written communication Ruth says Many years later she told me the reason she had left the RC church was after reading the verses in 1 Timothy 2:5-6 ÔFor there is one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due timeŐ. She realised there is no need for a RC priest to mediate on her behalf as there is access to God purely on the finished work of Jesus Christ.


RuthŐs assertion is the likely explanation of MaryŐs final break with Catholicism. Mary had reached the conclusion an individual can, through prayer, have direct access to God the Father and ask for forgiveness of sins, rather than requiring the mediational role of a priest between the confessor and God. It was a theme that reoccurred during my youth. Now IŐm grownup IŐm not religious. I donŐt advocate either point of view. Nevertheless they have been told in detail to understand how Mary came to be a Protestant.


Text Box:  
Cable-tram Wheelhouse, 95–105 Johnston Street Fitzroy. Bob and MaryŐs residence at No. 93 is on the left, a typical single-story, single-fronted terrace house.


Bob and Mary married in 1936. It was hard times in these Depression years. They lived in Johnston Street, Fitzroy, a few doors west of Brunswick Street on the north side. Judith was born in October 1937.


In 1939 WWII happened. Bob didnŐt go to the war, because the Manpower scheme determined who could enlist and who stayed to support the war effort. In 1938, Bob had moved his small manufacturing operation into a two-story shop at 512 Swanston Street, Carlton. During WWII Bob had a contract with the Department of Defence to supply tents and other canvas products for the war effort. Early in the war the work wasnŐt substantial. Nevertheless, it did increase and BobŐs business prospered from the war. Towards the beginning of the war Bob and Mary built a new home at 21 Wallis Avenue in the open paddocks of East Ivanhoe. Robert and Rhonda were born. Robert (the author) was born December 6, 1944 and Rhonda November 30, 1948.


Mary and Bob attended the CFBM until late in their married life and their religious activities were considerable and were a major part of their life. However, that is beyond the scope of this story and canŐt be told here.


I was born eight years after my parents married and around the age of my early memories Rose died July 27, 1950 from diabetes. A rapprochement between Rose and Mary must have happened at some stage. Examples of Bob and Mary attending family functions of MaryŐs side have been given above.


Text Box:  

Rose, Mary and son Robert at Kalkallo in 1945 visiting Margaret & Vince Holian Snr in Donnybrook Road where Vince was manager of a flax farm. Photo taken outside the managerŐs residence by Vince Jnr.

Whereas I met my fatherŐs relatives who lived a long way away at Narre Warren East, I didnŐt meet or socialise with relatives from my motherŐs side as I grew up (who lived a short distance from us). Rhonda remembers the same experience. Looking back I canŐt find any particular reason for this happening. I always thought it must be related to MaryŐs rift with her immediate family, but I have learnt my parents did meet with MaryŐs relatives. However, as a family we never attended family get-togethers on our motherŐs side when growing up. I can recall meeting Aunty Kath only once. I canŐt recall ever meeting my motherŐs brothers Uncles Sonny and Bonny. There could have been a number of reasons why I didnŐt meet my Holian relatives. Bob and MaryŐs life was busy with their religion and the business. It could be as simple as my parents not taking me to functions because I preferred to stay home and play with my mates. Nevertheless, on reflection, I still feel this experience, uncommon for someone growing up in post-war Melbourne, flowed from religious differences between my parents and my motherŐs side of the family.


To finish we will tell an anecdote about Mary which offers a window into her character. It was said above Mary liked poetry as a youngster. Judith says as an adult she enjoyed writing poetry and reciting it in front of groups of people. Later in her life Leonard Teale, a well-known Australian radio and television actor with a rich and resonant voice, had agreed to narrate Banjo PatersonŐs poem The Man From Snowy River at a church event. Leonard was well into his recital when he came to an awkward halt, having momentarily forgotten the words. From the rear of the hall MaryŐs voice carried clearly, quietly reciting the poem from where it was broken off, prompting Leonard how to proceed which he did to completion with his usual aplomb. Mary must have felt pleased with herself!