Wednesday, 8 August 2012


 “Be gentle to all and stern with yourself.” - Saint Teresa of Ávila

Today is the Feast Day of St Mary McKillop, Australia’s first Roman Catholic saint. Mary MacKillop was born in Melbourne in 1842. Her parents, Flora and Alexander MacKillop, were Catholic immigrants from Scotland. Mary, the eldest of eight children, was raised in the working-class Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. At 16, Mary went out to work, to support her younger brothers and sisters. Two years later she took a job as a governess on her uncle’s farm in the small country town of Penola in South Australia. Here Mary met the man who would change her life forever, Father Julian Tenison Woods.

Father Woods was a charming and eccentric priest who shared Mary’s dream of educating the poor. He became her mentor and spiritual guide. Father Woods was such a charismatic character that when he moved to Adelaide, according to Mary, many of the mothers of the town locked their doors when they saw Father Woods coming past, because they didn’t want their daughters to be running off and joining the Josephites!

Mary and Father Woods opened the first free Catholic school in Penola in 1866, at first in a converted stable and later in this more substantial stone building. A year later they founded a new religious order of nuns, called the Sisters of St Joseph. These nuns were devoted to teaching poor. Mary was just 25 years old when she took her vows, becoming the order’s first sister and its leader. Within four years of Mary becoming a sister there were 130 Sisters of Saint Joseph, and this was the first Catholic order founded by an Australian. They vowed to live in poverty, own no property and were committed to equality. These were central to the order’s rule.

As well as schools, Mary MacKillop and the sisters founded hospitals and orphanages, as well as providing shelters for the homeless, former prostitutes and unmarried mothers. And they raised all of the money themselves, mostly by begging. Other religious orders were controlled by their local bishops but the Sisters of St Joseph insisted on governing themselves, something that caused considerable friction with the church. This conflict, along with allegations of sexual abuse the sisters raised against a priest at Kapunda, north of Adelaide, led Adelaide Bishop Laurence Sheil to excommunicate Mary MacKillop for alleged insubordination in 1871. Five months later Bishop Sheil was gravely ill and dying; from his deathbed he instructed that Mary be absolved and restored to her order, allowing her to continue her work.

In 1873, Mary travelled to Rome for a personal audience with Pope Pius IX and obtained papal approval for the sisterhood. She also sought sign-off on their “Rule of Life”, as set down by Father Woods. However, that document was discarded and another was drawn up. That caused a divide between Sister Mary and Father Woods, and their relationship never recovered. Mary and the sisters continued to come into conflict with a number of bishops, including in Bathurst and Brisbane, over the issue of their central control. Mary was also accused of being an alcoholic (she drank brandy to relieve severe menstrual pain) and those claims drove her from Adelaide to Sydney, where she lived for the last 25 years of her life. Mary suffered a stroke in 1902 and was an invalid until her death on August 8, 1909.

The Archbishop of Sydney, Cardinal Moran, visited Mary just before she died to give her the last rites of the church. As he was leaving he told two of the sisters that he felt as if he had been administering at the deathbed of a saint. Mary was buried in Sydney’s historic Gore Hill Cemetery. Today a memorial marks the spot where she once lay. Five years after her death, her body was transferred to the newly built Mary MacKillop Chapel in the grounds of the North Sydney convent where she last lived.

In 1925, the Mother Superior of the Sisters of St Joseph, Mother Laurence, began the process to have MacKillop declared a saint and Michael Kelly, Archbishop of Sydney, established a tribunal to carry the process forward. The process for Mary MacKillop’s beatification began in 1926, was interrupted in 1931, but began again in April 1951 and was closed in September of that year. After several years of hearings, close examination of MacKillop’s writings and a 23-year delay, the initial phase of investigations was completed in 1973. Her canonisation was announced on 19 February 2010 and subsequently took place on 17 October 2010. This made her the first Australian to be recognised as a saint by the Roman Catholic Church.

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