Mary Jo Shaw grew up in a busy, creative San Antonio, Texas, family in the 1940s – the oldest of six daughters – tall and slim. Her dad ran the family business whose main mode of advertising was a motor boat strapped to the top of their family car with “Barbera Sports” painted on it.

“Our car always had all this stuff on it to advertise the store,” laughs Mary Jo. “We’d sit in the car at a light and see people staring at us; then we’d realize they were reading the advertising.”

Mary Jo Shaw
Mary Jo (Sister Mary Janet Barbera) wearing her religious garb. Photo courtesy: Mary Jo Shaw

Mary Jo’s Catholic family attended church regularly, and the kids said the rosary in the car on the way to Catholic school taught by nuns on a beautiful, large campus that included a high school, college and church.

“My Aunt Clair was a nun there,” Mary Jo says. Mary Jo was also close to her aunt Tantan, who taught Mary Jo to play piano at a young age – a skill she would use throughout her life and even major in during college.

“My parents were very artistic and trained as commercial artists,” offers Mary Jo. “Every November they staged photos of Christmas scenes, filling our house with cotton balls and huge sheets of cotton. We kids dreaded it because this started at Thanksgiving and involved multiple photo shoots until my parents were happy with the result. They would do it seven days a week after school. We would try to do our schoolwork between shoots and amazingly survived this every year until we were adults.”

Mary Jo’s years of family photo training helped her develop patience, cooperation and obedience, preparing her for eventual careers as both a nun and model.

“We were used to putting on costumes, taking pictures and being perfect,” laughs Mary Jo.

Mary Jo vows
Mary Jo (renamed Sister Mary Janet) gave her final vows of faith to Archbishop Lucey on August 2, 1965. Photo courtesy: Mary Jo Shaw

The Convent

It was not unusual for teen girls raised in Catholic homes and taught by nuns in Catholic schools to see the positive aspects of becoming a nun who dedicated her life to Jesus and in service of others.

“The nuns always impressed me,” explains Mary Jo. “I would practice piano in the convent before school next to the chapel. I would see the nuns come in with their books, say a prayer and go to school. They were so dedicated, kind and sweet to each other and to us…so peaceful and respectful.”

“I thought, ‘This is what I’d like to do,’” says Mary Jo. “And I loved to pray. I always did. I could always tell God my problems.”

At age 16, Mary Jo decided to become a nun and started her five-year training program, completing high school and college on an accelerated schedule. Mary Jo majored in music education, taught kids in school and went on mission trips, among other activities. She loved her time with her fellow sisters in service, but after 13 years the pace wore her out, so she took a sabbatical.

Mary Jo Vogue Model
Mary Jo modeling Vogue winter pants and a head-gear look. Frost Brothers Department Store opened in 1917 and rivaled Saks Fifth Avenue for more than 70 years. Photo courtesy: Mary Jo Shaw

The Catwalk

During this time, Mary Jo healed from health challenges, re-evaluated her life, started modeling clothes for Frost Bros department store and met future husband Chris.

Funny things happened while modeling. Once, Mary Jo was completely blinded by the runway lights.

“I walked right off the end of the ramp,” laughs Mary Jo. “I had on this hat with a big peacock feather. My agent saw that feather go down and bounce right back up.”

“The diligence, stick-to-it-ness, discipline, sacrifice, obedience and lack of money were common aspects of being a nun and a model,” says Mary Jo. “I thanked God for all of this.”

Mary Jo made her way into the upper echelons of the Texas modeling world, showcasing clothes for Geoffrey Beene, Valentino, Oscar de la Renta, Bill Blass and others. She eventually made the short list, and New York was calling. Her memoir “Convent to Catwalk” unravels that mystery.

Mary Jo Shaw Pianist at Panorama
Mary Jo is always delighting her friends and neighbors at Panorama by playing the piano beautifully.
Photo courtesy: Panorama

Home at Panorama

After raising two children and delighting in three granddaughters, Mary Jo and Chris moved to Panorama to be nearer to family. A Panorama class led her to write “Convent to Catwalk,” which she recently read aloud at the Washington Center.

“There are so many activities and volunteer options here that we enjoy,” says Mary Jo. “Panorama fit our financial needs and the people are so friendly. We are a family – not just the residents but the staff, too. We are so blessed here.”

“Assisted living and convalescent rehab are right here in case we need it,” says Mary Jo. “We wouldn’t have to leave our friends, and our family’s in Lacey.”

Mary Jo plays piano throughout Panorama at benefits, events, monthly birthday parties and even on their PCTV channel. She also writes a monthly blog and more.

“I thank God every day for the opportunities He has given me – in the convent, then the modeling and my family,” says Mary Jo. “I have a lot of people to thank.”

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