She reflects what Australians flatter ourselves are our national virtues: practical and compassionate, patient, yet active in adversity, defiant against injustice, champion of the fair go. – Barney Zwartz
Mary MacKillop, the first Australian Saint was canonised on the 17th October 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.
She is formally known as St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
It is an intriguing name, yet not unheard of. St Mary MacKillop had a life full of hardships, major achievements and steps forward, not just for her order, but for the Australian communities around her.
She was born on the 15th January 1842 in Fitzroy, Victoria of parents from Scotland.
She endured hardships at a very young age. Her father was unsuccessful in any job that he had, including the MacKillop farm. The family lived on the wages of what the children brought in most of the time. Mary’s childhood was one of financial ruin, too many responsibilities on her young shoulders, death and the break up of her family.
Mary was the eldest of 8 children so she was naturally one to take charge. One time, at the age of 4, she was climbing a steep hill with her mother on a hot summers day. She noticed her mother tiring and asked her to ‘take her arm’.
At the age of 11, her mother found her dressing her baby brother and her mum asked where the nurse was. Mary prompted replied ‘I sacked her, she was drunk’. At such a young age, she was wise and caring, compassionate and a leader.
Mary recounted on her younger years ‘My life as a child was one of sorrow, my home when I had it, a most unhappy one’.
At times, the family could not afford to send her to school. Luckily for Mary, her Father had dropped out of training to become a priest right before he was ordained. He taught his children all about Christ. She acquired a life long love for God, a great skill in letter writing and a sensitive awareness of social issues. Mary felt that God had passed the responsibility to pursue a religious life from her Father to herself. She believed that it was something of a disgrace, to abandon God’s call.
At 14, Mary started work as a clerk in a stationery store in Melbourne. She also then worked as a Governess at various places, looking after children and teaching them. She came into contact with Fr Woods who had been the parish priest in the area where she was working. He shared concerns with Mary on the lack of education for children in South Australia, particularly Catholic Education.
Later, he opened a school in Penola where Mary and her sister Annie taught. This school started from an old rickety stable. Mary’s brother fixed the stable up till it looked like a school room. Several more women joined Mary in her pursuit to teach as many underprivileged kids as possible.
On the 19th March 1866, when Mary was 24 years old, she publicly declared her commitment to becoming a nun, to live a life of sacrifice and to dedicate all to God. She emptied her wardrobe and only wore a simple black dress and hat. She began to sign her letters ‘Mary, Sister of St Joseph’
The constitution of the Sisters of St Joseph was drawn up by Fr Woods and later refined by the authorities in Rome. 2 main rules were:
- The Sisters should live in poverty and have no possessions.
- They were to be governed by a head sister, accountable to Authorities in Rome.
Fr Woods encouraged Mary to take up the name of ‘Mary of the Cross’, which referred to any trials or issues that the person had experienced. Mary had definitely experienced several crosses by this time. Mary wrote ‘The Cross is my portion – it is also my sweet rest and support. I could not be happy without my cross – I would not lay it down for all the world could give. With the Cross I am happy, but without it would be lost.’
An order was formed – the Josephites. Their main vision was to educate the poor of Australia and to give them a chance at life, particularly in rural areas. Mary became a fully fledged sister on 15th August 1867. She made her promises of obedience, chastity, poverty and to educate children of the love of Christ.
The sisters were involved with an orphanage, neglected children, sick-rooms, hospitals, jails, sheltering the homeless and a home for women ‘in moral danger’ known as The Refuge.
They expanded to Queensland and established an order there too. It grew rapidly and by 1871, the order had 130 sisters working in over 40 schools and institutions across South Australia and Queensland.
Although things seemed to be running smoothly, Mary’s crosses were still rolling in. While she was in Brisbane, she heard reports of the recruitment of 2 ‘mystics’ in the order. They were pulling tricks and had convinced Fr Woods of their ‘powers’. Their tricks consisted of the devil visiting them and torturing them, and the sisters surviving the attack. These sisters later admitted that it was all an act. This did nothing to help the order and ultimately drove people away.
The local bishop had been away for nearly 2 years in Rome at this time and had come back to a community and clergy that was divided due to lack of leadership. Clergy began to campaign against Fr Woods and attempted to discredit the order. Rumours circulated that Mary was alcoholic but she had alcohol on doctors orders due to her Dysmenorrhea, which left her bed ridden for many days.
There was also a case of sexual abuse by clergy where the bishop instantly sent the accused back to Ireland. The Josephites warned Fr Woods who in turn told the local Bishop, Bishop Sheil. This angered Fr Charles Horan who later greatly influenced the Bishop. Once Fr Horan became Vicar General to the Bishop, he convinced the Bishop that the constitution should be changed. His changes could have made the sisters homeless. In September 1871, Mary argued with this and was effectively excommunicated because she was disobedient and rebellious to the orders of the Bishop.
Mary lived with a Jewish family for the time being and considered this to be the darkest time of her life. She thought this time worse than a death sentence. Mary never spoke out of line about the Bishop, in fact these were the years where her character truly shone. The bishop, on his deathbed, lifted the excommunication.
Mary decided to go to Rome to have the constitution officially approved from the top.
Pope Pius IX encouraged her work and the authorities in Rome made small changes to the way the sisters lived. The cleared the way for the second rule of central government by a head sister. Unfortunately, Fr Woods did not like the new revised version and went on his own way towards another order.
Even though the constitution was approved by Rome it was still on trial. Mary and the sisters still faced opposition from the clergy in Australia because they didn’t live in a convent, rather in the community and that the election of a leader in the order was done by the sisters, not the bishop. The sisters also refused government funding, refused to teach music and only focused on education to poor children rather than the privileged ones. Luckily, they had solid support from a small number of priests who helped push the sisters through the storm.
The order rapidly expanded the New South Wales and New Zealand. In this time, Pope Pius XVI gave final approval to the sisters in 1888.
Mary’s health was slowly deteriorating due to the endless travelling and stresses of managing several properties, issues and expansion of the quickly growing order.
She suffered a stroke in Auckland and battled rheumatism.
On the 8th of August 1909 at North Sydney, Mary MacKillop died. The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Moran said that ‘I consider I have this day assisted at the death-bed of a saint’. At the time of her death, Fr Lee had been celebrating mass in Adelaide. He had paused at the consecration and saw out of the corner of his eye a figure at the right hand side of the altar. He turned his head and saw Mary smiling at him in her habit. He instantly knew, after mass, that she had passed away. All the sisters and congregation had seen him hesitate.
Saint Mary MacKillop of the Cross went through many storms in her life, including the most unlikely of storms. She went head first into all of them and conquered them all, just to be Christ-like. To be compassionate, to be caring, to love at all costs. To be accepting and humble and to be a great example of a strong leader in our journey towards Christ.
Adapted from: Mary MacKillop Unveiled – Australia’s First Saint by Lesley O’Brien
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