The Story of Bl. Mary MacKillop, Australian Foundress
Gianluca Biccini
A life of trial, misunderstanding and glorification

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 consecrated member.

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 teacher.

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 elderly.

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 dissolved.

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 extraordinary woman.

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 and missions.

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".


Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
10 May 2006, page 10

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