St. Mary MacKillop

(1842-1909)

Australia, like the United States, is a nation of immigrants. There the Church, like the Church in this country, has often been faced with problems unknown to Europe, and has had to adapt church practices to local needs.

Mary Helen MacKillop furnishes a good illustration of such accommodation in the regulation of a religious order.

She was born in Melbourne, Australia, on January 15, 1852, the daughter of Catholic immigrants from the Scottish highlands. The oldest of the MacKillop’s eight children, Mary, at 16, became the main breadwinner for the family when her father’s business dealings failed. She worked as a governess, a shop assistant, and finally as a school teacher.

In 1866 she met Father Julian Tenison Woods (1832-1889). Woods, an Englishman who had come to the Sixth Continent in 1854, was an educator, scientist and missionary. After ordination to the priesthood at Adelaide in 1857, he was assigned the pastorate of a parish of 22,000 square miles in South Australia.

This huge “bush” parish was sparsely inhabited by farmers, miners and railroad workers. Nevertheless, Father Woods was determined to start a Catholic school among them, free and without government support. When he met Mary MacKillop, he felt that she would be the ideal person to pioneer the effort, and his hunch proved true. In 1865, Mary and two of her younger sisters took over a school at Penola, beginning their work in an abandoned stable. A year later Father Woods and Mary established the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Miss MacKillop was named the first superior, taking her vows as Mother Mary of the Cross.

The little community achieved a rapid success.

The school was popular, but the Sisters also engaged in many other programs to keep the Faith flourishing among the isolated immigrants. No inconvenience was too great for them to brave. They lived in the same tents, shanties and sheds as the other settlers in the Outback. Priests were few, but the Sisters kept Catholicism strong at their outposts between the monthly or even more infrequent visits of missionary priests. Thanks to the good schooling they gave them, Mother Mary’s nuns were able to see many of the second generation of their pupils rise into parliamentary office.

Of course, the growth of the sisterhood was not without its problems. A number of clergy as well as laity frowned on some of the nontraditional methods and measures taken by this first “home-grown” Australian religious order. Indeed, in 1871 the Bishop of Adelaide excommunicated Mother MacKillop and declared her congregation disbanded!

A kindly Jewish gentleman gave them a house rent-free until their status could be clarified. Fortunately, they did not have to wait long. The order was restored in 1872, and in 1874, Mother Mary traveled to Rome and presented her rule to Pope Pius IX. While some of her positions were disallowed, she won her main point: that there should be a central government for her community throughout the Australian colonies.

By the time Mother Mary died in 1909, the number of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart had risen to 1000. By 1964 there were 2100 members.

The MacKillop Sisters have always remained typically Australian. They are familiarly known as the “Brown Joeys”, because of their brown habits. This affectionate term also had an Australian twist. In Australian slang “Joey” also means a young kangaroo.

When Pope John Paul II visited Sydney on January 19, 1995, to beatify Mary Helen MacKillop, he stressed this point of her “Australianness.” “Mary MacKillop,” he told his audience, “embodied all that is best in your nation and its people.” He listed the qualities of openness, generosity, justice, perseverance, kindness and compassion. The world needs more people like her, he said, “people who place the spiritual and material well-being of others ahead of any personal convenience.”

–Father Robert F. McNamara

Update: Mary of the Cross MacKillop was canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on October 17, 2010.

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