St. Mary MacKillop. Flickr

The “Pioneer:” Saint of Australia

She was even excommunicated once, but nothing kept her from the call to holiness. This is the story of Saint Mary MacKillop, canonized by the Pope on October 17th, who was devoted to educating children, sheltering the poor, and caring for the ill.
John Kinder

On October 17th, Pope Benedict XVI declared the first Australian saint, Saint Mary MacKillop, or Saint Mary of the Cross, to use her religious name. The ceremony reminded us of the universal call to holiness, as five other saints were also declared, from Canada, Poland, Spain, and Italy. At an official dinner held in Sydney last August, to raise funds for the celebration of this momentous event in the history of Australia, Prime Minister Julia Gillard acknowledged the significance of this event for all Australians, the five million of Catholic faith and the other sixteen million who do not share that faith. Gillard, a self-professed atheist, recognized the inspirational quality of the life of a woman she called “a great Australian pioneer,” now “a great Australian saint.”

Mary was born in Melbourne in January of 1842, the eldest of eight children. Her parents were both Scottish immigrants. Her childhood was not a happy one, she said, because her father’s business and other failures caused uncertainty and tension between him and Mary’s mother. Mary was required to bear heavy financial responsibilities from a young age. Australia was a predominantly Protestant country, settled from Britain. The 19th century was a time of sectarian hostility between Catholics and Protestants and of anti-religious sentiment in the name of modernism and liberalism.

The Minister for Education in the State of Victoria (whose capital is Melbourne) wrote in defense of the Education Act of 1872: “In a couple of generations, through the missionary influence of the State schools, a new body of State doctrine and theology will grow up, and the cultured and intellectual Victorians of the future will directly worship in common at the shrines of one neutral-tinted deity, sanctioned by the State Department.” The Catholic bishops responded, “The Church knows that instruction is not education, and that a system of national training from which Christianity is banished is a system of practical paganism.”

A Practical Pedagogy.
The Catholic Church worked to develop a Catholic school system, but did not have resources to educate all Catholic children, especially the poor. While not yet 20 years of age, Mary MacKillop developed the desire to provide education to children who were neglected by State and Church schools. In Adelaide, she met Father Julian Woods, a priest-scientist who shared a similar dream, and together they founded the Institute of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. In 1866, Mary adopted the religious name of Sister Mary of the Cross and donned the simple brown habit that would be the distinctive mark of the order.

Many young women were attracted to Mary’s proposal of poverty and service. They founded schools for poor children often in isolated rural areas. She accepted students of all religious backgrounds, but the education she offered was explicitly and unabashedly Catholic. All children were welcome, but on equal terms. When the son of the State governor was brought to her school, she would not agree to seat him apart from the other children, and so the boy was taken home.

Mary designed a practical pedagogy, to enable children to read the newspaper, write a letter, and add up a grocery list. She prepared children for the sacraments. With her Sisters, she established orphanages and other institutions in response to the needs they saw around them. The “Refuge” was a home for women who lived on the streets, or who had been in prison, or who were young unmarried mothers. The “Providence” was for neglected children, and the “Solitude” cared for the aged and the incurably ill. Mary was clear-sighted in sticking to her original principles. The schools should accept no State funding, in order to maintain total independence of administration and curriculum. Children were welcomed at the schools whether they could pay fees or not. The Sisters should own no property but should live on alms and, if necessary, should beg for their food. The Sisters formed one Institute, under the authority of a Superior, in whatever part of Australia they found themselves.

These were controversial and inconvenient principles. Misunderstanding, jealousy, and human failings led to conflict with authorities in the Church. The disagreements reached a head in 1871, when the Bishop of Adelaide, acting on bad advice, excommunicated her, but he rescinded the sentence only a few months later. Ten years later, his successor, also on bad advice, expelled her from the diocese. Mary was accused of drunkenness, although the brandy she regularly drank had been prescribed by a doctor for bad menstrual pain.

In the way she responded to all these difficulties, we see evidence of the depth of Mary’s humanity. She did not shy away from disagreement and conflict, but spoke the truth with humility, strength, and charity. After the excommunication, she wrote to her Sisters: “I must at least try not to abuse God’s love by speaking ill of–or making known the faults of–His servants.” Much later, she wrote, “We have had much sorrow and are still suffering its effects, but sorrow or trial lovingly submitted to do not prevent our being happy–it rather purifies our happiness, and in so doing draws our hearts nearer to God.”

Her clear awareness of who she was and what she was doing allowed her to reach out to all. She received much support in the difficult early years from Protestants and Jews. Her response to the sectarianism which beset Australian society at the time, and would for some time to come, was not to attempt compromise or dialogue. Her focus was on the situations of need she saw around her. She got to work and happily worked alongside all who wished to share in meeting the needs of others. She valued unity in all aspects of her work. Her experience of the Church was a unity of diverse forms of life. She was determined that her Sisters should form a single, united body, in order to live out their charism in all its fullness.

A Father’s Heart
Mary is sometimes portrayed in Australia as a rebel who resisted Church authority. This view, which sits well with the Australian character, does not match the facts of Mary’s life. Every step of her life was taken within the living tradition of the Church, since that alone guaranteed that her charism would bear its fruit. As she told the Secretary of Propaganda Fide in Rome, “I am as anxious for the rights of the bishops as for our own–ours would be nothing and should be nothing without them.” Mary traveled to Europe in 1873 (shortly after the excommunication episode) and spent two years there, gaining approval for her Rule and seeking resources for her work. Like modern-day Australians, Mary was passionately attached to the land of her birth and deeply aware that God was seeking to become present, incarnate, in this land. At the same time, her roots, of family and of faith, lay on the other side of the globe. So when she visited St. Peter’s in Rome, she wrote to her mother, “I could not see much that day, but I felt a great deal.” She was received by Pius IX, who referred to her as “the excommunicated one” and, Mary wrote, “He let me see that the Pope had a father’s heart.” Years later, she was overjoyed when Leo XIII formally recognized her Order as a Congregation under the authority of a Mother Superior.

And yet these profound experiences reminded her even more sharply of who she was and where God was calling her to be. From London, she wrote an account of her Order for the Vatican, and began thus: “It is an Australian who writes this, one brought up in the midst of many of the evils she tries to describe.”

During Mary’s lifetime, the Sisters of St. Joseph established communities in all the eastern states of Australia. Mary herself traveled across distances that are difficult to believe today: several times she traveled between Melbourne, Sydney, and Brisbane (1,000 kilometers, more than 600 miles, from city to city) and, on horseback, would visit her Sisters in the most remote and inhospitable country. In the 1890s, when she was already over 60 years of age, Mary undertook the 2,000-kilometer journey across the Tasman Sea, to visit the Sisters in New Zealand. She spent three years there, working with the Sisters, often in isolated areas with the indigenous Maori people. All her life, she tirelessly wrote letters, to high-ranking Church officials, to her family, and especially to her Sisters. Many of these have now been published and allow us to get to know this remarkable Australian saint in a very personal way. Her letters are filled with simple and deep humanity, courage, and faith. During lonely days on her European trip, she wrote: “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 heart’s trials to my God with the wish that He would do His will and make of me what He pleased.”

Letters of Faith
Her last letters were written on a typewriter, since a stroke made it impossible for her to use a pen. One of the last letters to her Sisters ends, “Whatever troubles may be before you, accept them cheerfully, remembering Whom you are trying to follow. Do not be afraid. Love one another, bear with one another, and let charity guide you in all your life.”

By the time of her death in 1909, she had established 109 houses, staffed by 650 Josephite Sisters teaching 12,400 pupils in 117 schools across Australia and New Zealand, along with orphanages and refuges for the needy. She died in Sydney on August 8th, the date later fixed as her feast day by Pope John Paul II when he declared her Blessed in Sydney in 1995. Mary’s remains now lie in the Mother House of her Congregation, in North Sydney, a popular site for pilgrimages. Benedict XVI prayed at her tomb while he was in Sydney for World Youth Day 2008.

At the fundraising dinner this past August, seated next to the Prime Minister was George Pell, Cardinal of Australia. He said, “Every community needs its home-grown heroes, local models to encourage us in the right direction. Saint Mary MacKillop is a very worthy saint for Australia, an important first for all of us.”