Commemorating the birth of Bl. Mary
MacKillop, 15 January 1842
The man who had been sentenced to death for murder sat
in the corner of his dark cell awaiting execution. He was considered one
of the worst criminals in the colony. The Bishop of Adelaide had been to
see him with some priests, but the condemned man reacted like a lion and
had to be chained up.
Soon after, two Sisters in humble habits arrived,
presented themselves to the jailers and asked to enter the cell to pray
with Fagan. The prison guards tried to dissuade them from visiting the
"beast", but the women insisted.
They entered and they prayed. One of the Sisters was so
moved that she began to cry. At that point the condemned man knelt down
in prayer beside them. According to one newspaper of the time, "Fagan
became as gentle as a lamb". The Sister convinced him to make his
confession and to receive Communion. Before the hanging, she asked the
authorities whether she might accompany him to the scaffold but the
permission was not granted.
This woman who, throughout her life, never ceased to
believe in the dignity of every human being, will become the first saint
in the history of Catholicism in Australia.
Mary Helen MacKillop was born on 15 January 1842 in the
Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. She was the eldest of the eight children of
Alexander MacKillop and Flora McDonald. Her parents had emigrated from
Scotland, driven by the dream of prosperity, which at first seemed to be
coming true. Alexander's ill-advised financial projects, however, soon
brought the family to the brink of poverty and they had to move
constantly from place to place.
Having barely reached adolescence and after receiving a
good education from her father, a former seminarian in Rome, Mary had to
work as a shop assistant and then as a governess and teacher in order to
provide for the family's needs. She carried out this role with
extraordinary maturity and selflessness, but it soon began to clash with
the development of a profound vocation to religious life.
A period of teaching in 1860 at a Catholic elementary
school in the distant village of Penola in South Australia was the
catalyst that marked the turning point in Mary MacKillop's life. Here
Mary met the local parish priest, J.E. Tenison-Woods, who had for some
time been dreaming of founding a religious order to provide for the
religious instruction of children in the outback. Indeed, his pastoral
responsibility extended over an area of about 52,000 square kilometres.
These were crucial years in the history of the Church in
Australia. From the 1850s, many colonial governments had ceased to fund
private schools that were mainly Christian, preferring gradually to
introduce an entirely public and secular school system. The Government
of South Australia was the precursor of this policy, and stopped funding
religious schools in 1851.
This was a hard blow indeed for the Catholic Church,
composed of a majority of Irish immigrants from the poorest social
classes. The new government policies threatened the survival of Catholic
schools and hence, in a mainly Protestant society, also the transmission
to the next generations of the Catholic faith and culture. Often
discriminated against at the State schools, many Catholic children
preferred not to go to school, thus further reducing their possibilities
of social advancement.
When Mary arrived in Penola, the Church in South
Australia was struggling to keep its few schools in the colony running.
They were attended by pupils whose families were unable to pay school
fees. Concern for the future of these children soon became the main
topic of frequent discussions between the young, devout teacher and the
local parish priest. Further deepening her religious vocation in the
light of her strong sense of justice and compassion for the lowliest,
Mary MacKillop accepted the invitation of the parish priest to be part
of a new religious order.
With the new name of Mary of the Cross, in March 1866
she became the first member of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred
Heart. It was not long before many young women imitated her, set on
dedicating their lives to teaching the poorest children and to living a
life of absolute poverty themselves, totally dependent on alms and on
the generosity of benefactors. The first school of the Sisters of St
Joseph was opened at Penola that same year, in a former stable that had
fallen into disuse and was rebuilt by one of Mary's brothers.
After acquiring the approval of Bishop Laurence Sheil of
Adelaide, the Order continued to grow, spreading into various parts of
South Australia. However, problems arose even during the first phase of
its expansion. When Tenison-Woods became responsible for all the
Catholic Schools of South Australia, disputes arose between him and
other members of the clergy. Tenison-Woods' "creation", in other words
the Sisters of St Joseph, became the scapegoat of these conflicts.
An additional factor was that even within the Australian
Church, not everyone appreciated the life choice of these Sisters. There
was criticism that the Sisters' task ought to reflect European models
for nuns, focussing on the education of young girls of the middle to
upper class in the cities, giving high priority to the teaching of
virtues and Catholic doctrine and to the study of music and literature.
The presence of the young Sisters clad in very poor
habits, begging for alms along the streets of Adelaide or in the distant
bush villages and teaching children in rags was a cause of scandal even
to many Catholics. Forced for medical reasons to take modest doses of
brandy to alleviate the chronic pain that tormented her for most of her
life, Mary MacKillop was unjustly accused of alcoholism.
The result of all this was that on 22 September 1871,
the Bishop of Adelaide excommunicated her. For the young Sister, the
Bishop's decision "was worse than a death sentence", as her biographer
Lesley O'Brien writes. Most of the schools run by the Sisters of St
Joseph were closed down and the Order almost entirely disbanded.
Refusing to defend herself and to support, even
indirectly, the public campaigns criticizing the Bishop, Mary lived her
exclusion from the Church with a discretion that moved those who came
into contact with her during that sorrowful period. On 21 February 1872,
nine days before his death, the Bishop of Adelaide finally became aware
of the injustice perpetrated against the Sisters of St Joseph and lifted
The Order soon flourished
anew and spread to other colonies under the direction of the Mother
House in Adelaide, with Mary as the Superior and Fr Tenison-Woods as
spiritual director. To give greater security to her Order, in 1873 Mary
went to Europe with the intention of asking Pius IX to officially
approve the Sisters of St Joseph and their Rule. The Vatican authorities
approved the new religious order but decided to ask for modifications of
the Rule initially drafted by Fr Tenison-Woods. The parish priest
believed that Mary had not worked hard enough to get his Rule
approved. The profound spiritual relationship between them began to fall
apart until there was a complete rupture which caused suffering to both.
In March 1875, Mary, having returned to Australia, was
officially elected by her sisters Superior General of the Order of the
Sisters of St Joseph. By horse or by carriage, to the most remote and
inhospitable zones, Mary and her Sisters began to broaden their
charitable work. In addition to Catholic elementary schools, they
founded orphanages, shelters for the homeless, homes for the terminally
ill and the elderly, for former prisoners and for former prostitutes who
wished to turn over a new leaf. During a time when the welfare state had
not yet been invented, the attention the Sisters of St Joseph devoted to
these social categories was quite exceptional.
However, the spread of the Order throughout Australia
caused further friction between Mary MacKillop and other representatives
of the local Church. In Brisbane Bishop James Quinn could not easily
tolerate a religious order entirely dependent on a mother house in
distant Adelaide. His efforts to bring the Order under strict diocesan
control sparked new tensions, with the result that the Sisters of St
Joseph decided to abandon Queensland for the time being. Further conflicts
with the new Pastor of Adelaide, Bishop Christopher Reynolds, led to the
transfer of the mother house from Adelaide to Sydney in 1883.
Even after giving up her
office as Superior in 1885, Mary continued her journeys to found new
schools and to bring comfort and assistance to her Sisters, often
engaged in challenging undertakings with great material difficulties.
The Order also put down roots in neighbouring New Zealand, which Mary
visited several times. In the remote locality of Matata, she visited
Sisters who were able to survive thanks to the generosity of the Maoris,
who provided them with fish and other wild game.
It was in New Zealand, in
1901, that the first of a series of strokes afflicted her body, worn out
by years of hard work and exhausting journeys that had been undertaken
to sustain and expand her Order at the service of the poor. While
preserving her mental faculties, Mary gradually became an invalid and
spent her last years in a wheel chair, surrounded by the affection and
care of her Sisters and held up by her profound faith.
O'Brien writes that on 8
August 1909, while Fr Thomas Lee was celebrating Mass in Adelaide, the
faithful noted that during the Consecration the priest hesitated and was
suddenly tongue-tied, staring fixedly at a point beside the altar. At
the end of the celebration he went in a very distressed state to the
sacristy. The Sisters present asked him if he was feeling ill. He calmly
replied, "No, but Mary is dead".
Unbelieving, they asked him
how he could know it. Fr Lee answered that he had seen her beside the
altar during the celebration, wearing the most beautiful smile. At that
very moment, thousands of kilometres from Adelaide, Mary MacKillop was
dying in Sydney at the Convent in Mount Street where she is buried
A few days before her
death, the first Australian Cardinal, Patrick Francis Moran, had visited
her to bless and encourage her. While he was about to leave he said to
those present: "I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a
saint". Mary MacKillop's funeral was celebrated in Sydney on 11 August,
which saw an unprecedented popular participation. Among the many who
expressed their condolences for her death were also Protestants and
Jews, some of whom had generously supported the charitable works of the
Sisters of St Joseph.
With a truly rare
demonstration of piety in the Australian colony, many of the faithful
tried to touch Mary MacKillop's body with rosary beads and other pious
objects. In an even more unusual way, others took away with them little
heaps of earth from her grave, while the coffin was being lowered into
the ground. The poor of Sydney and all who were moved by her deep faith
and humanity had no doubt that a saint had just died. Now Mary MacKillop,
or Mary of the Cross, will be a saint for the universal Church as well.