|A life of trial, misunderstanding and
In 1866, 140 years ago, the meeting of the
young Australian, Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), and a priest, Fr. Julian
Tenison Woods, gave rise to the inspiring experience of the Order of
Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart in Oceania.
The purpose of the new Institute was to serve the "Catholic education
of poor children" and to perform "urgent works of charity" in areas that
other religious congregations had not yet reached.
Mary MacKillop, who was just 24 at the time, was destined to be
Australia's first woman to found a Religious Order. She was also her
Nation's first woman to be raised to the honours of the altar — as Mother
Mary of the Cross. It was John Paul II who desired her beatification,
which he celebrated on 19 January 1995 during his Pilgrimage to Sydney.
"In Blessed Mary MacKillop", the Holy Father said, "all Australians
have a sign of the flowering of holiness in their midst" (Prayer
Service in St. Mary's Cathedral, L'Osservatore Romano English edition,
1 February 1995, p. 9).
This leaven of holiness was nourished by the witness of her spiritual
daughters in the Australian States, New South Wales, Queensland, Victoria,
Western Australia and South Australia, as well as New Zealand.
We recently visited the "Mary MacKillop Centre" in Kensington, 10
minutes by car from Adelaide, in the South of the Country. The Foundress
of the Order lived here from 1872 to 1883. We were accompanied on the
journey to the small but important "shrine of memory", which was the
Order's first Mother House, by Sr. Marie Therese Foale, archivist of the
Archdiocese of Adelaide and the author of many publications on the life of
the Blessed and on the history of the Institute, of which she herself is a
As we entered the premises of the convent named after St. Joseph and
the chapel where the Foundress prayed, Sr. Marie Therese related the story
of the birth of Mary MacKillop in Melbourne on 15 January 1842, half a
century after the arrival of the European pioneers.
"She was the first of eight children of a family of Scottish
immigrants. Of those years she wrote: 'My childhood was a distressing
period. My home, whenever I had one, was a dreadfully unhappy place'. One
of the reasons for this was the precarious financial conditions of the
family, who had to depend on the generosity of relatives"
Free education for poor children
At the age of 16 and as head of the family, Mary had to take charge.
She found work as a governess, then as a salesgirl, and finally, as a
teacher in Portland, in the State of Victoria.
In 1860, when she was 18 years old, Mary moved to Penola, a townstead
in the southeastern part of South Australia, where she worked as a
It was here that she met the local parish priest, Fr. Julian Tenison
Woods. Indeed, at the request of the Bishop of Adelaide he was
endeavouring to find a solution to the problem of educating the children
of families in the parish, the majority of whom were poor.
In 1866, with the establishment of the parish school entrusted to young
Mary's direction, the experience of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the
Sacred Heart began. Its innovation consisted in providing education for
all needy children free of charge.
"It was an instant success", our guide explained. "A great number of
women joined Mary, and the Religious Order, inspired by the model of
Franciscan poverty, came into being. It was the first Order to be founded
by an Australian woman".
The following year, Fr. Julian's appointment as Director of the
Education Ministry in Adelaide paved the way for the Sisters' arrival in
the capital of South Australia. Another school was immediately opened,
this one within the precincts of the Cathedral of St. Francis Xavier.
With the scope of offering free instruction to all who needed it, the
institutions of the Sisters of St. Joseph soon spread throughout the
Island Continent. The Sisters themselves lived among people who needed
their work, usually in tents, huts or temporary lodgings, all the time
organizing schools, orphanages, residences for girls and homes for the
Sr. Foale pointed out that "in the space of only five years, 45
establishments, including schools and charitable institutions, were opened
in South Australia".
Unfortunately, however, among the more conservative Catholics, doubts
about this energetic Order were growing.
The Foundress excommunicated
Its fresh approach and practical interpretation gave rise to so much
uneasiness that a radical measure was taken: in 1871, Bishop Sheil of
Adelaide excommunicated the Foundress and decreed that the Order be
Throughout this crisis, friendly people from all social classes joined
forces to give the Sisters the support they needed, including the Jesuit
Frs. Tappeiner and Reynolds, and even some non-Catholics, such as a Jew
named Emmanuel Solomon and an Anglican, Joanna Barr Smith.
This experience taught Mary MacKillop that acceptance by the Catholic
Church was essential.
A first sign of such an acceptance was the withdrawal of the
excommunication five months later, in February 1872, by the same Bishop
Shell, just a week before he died. The Order was reestablished and work
resumed as vigorously as before.
In these new circumstances Mary arrived at the Convent in Kensington,
which is today the Centre named after her. In the Sisters' Convent, the
chapel built in 1876, everything speaks of the earthly doings of this
The displays in the museum that reconstruct the typical daily life of
the early Religious are significant. A collection of dolls shows how the
religious habit has changed: from the original austere Franciscan model to
that of today, which, because of the climate in this land scorched by the
sun, does not even require a veil.
Blessing and more persecution
"It was from here", Sr. Marie Therese said proudly, "that in 1873
Mother Mary of the Cross set out for Rome to see Pope Pius IX, Who assured
her of his Blessing and granted the Sisters the right to choose their own
field of activity. On the return journey, she was joined 'by some Irish
women who were eager to follow her.
"She founded homes for the elderly homeless and schools in rural
districts, in the small farming communities, in places where work on the
railways was under way and in the miners' settlements".
Unfortunately, in 1883, Bl. MacKillop was the victim of another local
persecution. Bishop Reynolds of Adelaide, the new Pastor and one of the
Jesuits who had defended her during her excommunication, appointed a
commission to control the community at Kensington, thereby forcing the
Foundress to leave South Australia.
When the Order was finally recognized in 1888, a new vocational
springtime enabled it to spread to New Zealand, where it opened schools
It was precisely during a visit to the new buildings in 1902 that Mary
fell ill: years of hardship, travels and anxiety had taken their toll on
her health. She died at the Convent in North Sydney on 8 August 1909. Her
body rests in the monumental Chapel that has been built in the Convent.
Today, the spiritual heirs of Bl. Mary MacKillop are committed to
continuing their charitable work at the service of the young. Their goal
remains ever timely: to "meet the conditions of misery and unhappiness of
street children, the poor and the afflicted".