Genealogy: Saint Mary MacKillop

By Brooke Lehmann

"We must teach more by example than by word"
- Mary MacKillop

A colour portrait of Mother Mary MacKillop
at the Mary MacKillop Chapel in Sydney
Reading Saint Mary MacKillop (or Saint Mary of the Cross) and her story, it is difficult to see past the hardship and injustice that life seemed to throw at her. However, by the same token, her strength and courage is just as remarkable. With a heart and a passion solidified in her faith and love for people, Saint Mary's story is truly inspiring.

Born on the 15th January 1842 in Fitzroy, Victoria, Mary MacKillop was the oldest of eight children – with one brother not making it past eleven months old, she became the oldest of seven. She was raised a Roman Catholic and at the age of eight she received her first communion.

Completely oblivious to the difference she would make in the lives of so many across Australia, MacKillop initially started out as a clerk at 14 years of age. She then continued on to become a teacher, and finally a governess in 1860 for her aunt and uncle in Penola to provide extra income for her struggling family. This is said to be where her passion ignited. Working in rural Australia, she opened her arms and welcomed the other farm children onto the Cameron estate and into her classes to teach.

It wasn’t until 1867, after having already taught in Penola and Portland, when she became the co-founder of a school in Penola alongside her well-known acquaintance Father Julian Edmund Tenison Woods. Not long after the establishment of the school, MacKillop became the first sister, and consequently Mother Superior, of their newly co-founded Order of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

In her later years she would reflect on this and share the pivotal juncture with her fellow sisters by letter. She wrote, “Twenty-five years ago we kept up St Joseph’s day as the special feast of our proposed institute and little did either of us then dream of what was to spring from so small a beginning…Our poor Father Woods was happy that day, and so was I, but we said little beyond wondering whom God would call to assist us - and how he would make his way clear.”

By the end of 1869, the Sisters of St Joseph boasted more than 70 Josephite nuns and 21 schools around the country. The main goal of the Sisters was to educate and care for the poor, a conviction they shared so strongly that they dedicated their lives to living in the same fashion as the farmers, miners and their families. This caused some controversy for the Sisters, as they were seen begging in the streets in order to support themselves. As Sister Mechtilde remembered, “[the Order] was supported by the Sisters begging. Sometimes, on these begging expeditions, the Sisters had to suffer severe insults, but generally speaking, they were well received by the people.”

In 1871 more controversy abounded as Bishop Laurence Bonaventure Sheil (who had previously requested Fr Woods and MacKillop to establish a school in Adelaide) ordered a Commission to examine the life of the Sisters. As recommendations of changes were made, MacKillop wrote to Bishop Sheil expressing her concerns of the proposed amendments. This ultimately led to her excommunication on the 22nd September on the grounds of insubordination. 

Although shaken by the ordeal, MacKillop held her head high and continued to be the gracious, humble, servant of God she had always been. She confided in Father Woods, writing about her experience, and recalled having to kneel before her superior and countless others, “I knew they were there but saw no one and I think I was trying to pray...” she writes, “I shall never forget the sensation of the calm, beautiful presence of God.”
It was five months later in February 1872, as Sheil’s health deteriorated beyond repair, that he instructed Father Hughes to lift the excommunication. Eventually, an Episcopal Commission exonerated her completely.

Two years later, it was decided that the rules of the Sisters of St Joseph were to be sent to Rome to be officially approved. MacKillop conceded to making the journey on her own, and in March of 1873, she set sail for Europe. During her stay, MacKillop felt taxed physically and emotionally, writing in her diary of her loneliness and exhaustion. “Cried myself to sleep. Was so weary of the struggle and felt so utterly alone. Could not pray or say my ordinary rosaries, only offered my weary hearts trials to my God, with the wish that He would do His will and make of me what He pleased,” she wrote.

The alterations made by the church in Rome to the rule of life regarding the Sisters and ownership of property were not met with esteem by Fr Woods. This ultimately caused a rift between MacKillop and himself, as he believed she had not done enough to have the rule kept in its original form. Their vow of poverty had previously been one of the key rules by which the Sisters lived.

Upon her return from Europe in January 1875, after having been abroad for an unexpected two-year duration, MacKillop brought back materials for her school, books for the convent library, several priests and fifteen new Josephites from Ireland. 

A letter from Rome was received by the Sisters of St Joseph, approving the Central Government structure for the Institute; a decision that would cause much pain for the Institute for many years to come. MacKillop was elected the first Superior General of the Institute, a position which would require much wisdom and courage.

For the next five years, MacKillop faced much oppression throughout her establishments in Queensland. Bishop James Quinn expressed his desire to have the Sisters in the vast diocese (a district of pastoral care) in Queensland placed under his authority or returned to Adelaide to be part of the Central Government structure. As a unanimous agreement could not be made, Bishop Quinn started filling teaching positions at the Sisters of St Joseph schools with other teachers. It was a notion which left MacKillop no other choice but to remove all of her Sisters, and by the end of 1880 this had been fulfilled.

Among many other things, MacKillop endured much heartache in June 1883 when concern was raised at a canonical visitation by Bishop Reynolds as to her use of alcohol for an ongoing medical condition. The result of the inquest was found in her favour, although she was still served with a letter from Bishop Reynolds stating, “With this notification all your jurisdiction with the Sisterhood in this Province (SA) ceases”. MacKillop then travelled to Sydney, much to the despair of the Sisters in Adelaide, where she established many more schools.

In 1886 MacKillop suffered the loss of her beloved mother in a tragic shipwreck. Mary wrote to her brother Donald at the time, “You must have heard of our sad terrible loss. Everything was too bewildering at first, then the efforts to recover her dear remains, the funeral, and then came the reaction. It was sad, very sad that she must go as she did, but we must hope that her reward is great in proportion. I cannot now attempt to describe the dismay with which I heard the sad news”. 

Sadly, she also endured the loss of her dear friend and support, Father Julian Edmund Tenison Woods, in October 1889. It is said that peace was made between the two; however, he declared he would not make amends with the Institute.

Saint Mary MacKillop’s influence was not simply limited to Australia, but extended to New Zealand as well. By the end of 1890, there were 300 Sisters working in nine dioceses throughout Australia and New Zealand.

In her later years, MacKillop suffered from rheumatism and in 1902 she had a stroke whilst in New Zealand, which left her paralysed on her right side. For seven years she relied on a wheelchair to move around, however her mind and passion for people was as strong as ever and her peers, even in this state, again elected her as Mother Superior-General.

On 8 August 1909, Mary MacKillop passed away and was laid to rest at Gore Hill cemetery, although her body was exhumed and transferred to the Memorial Chapel in Sydney on 27 January 1914 due to people constantly taking earth from her grave.

Mary of the Cross was beatified by Pope John Paul II on 19 January 1995 and was canonized on 17 October 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI, making her Australia’s first saint. Living by the saying "Never see a need without doing something about it", her heart for God and love and passion for the poor never went unnoticed by all who knew her or her work.



Prometheus said...

Inspiring. Simply moving