The first Australian candidate for sainthood in the Roman Catholic Church, Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), known in the convent as Mother Mary of the Cross, was the foundress of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
Mary MacKillop, the eldest of eight children of Scottish immigrants Alexander and Flora MacKillop, was born in Melbourne, Australia, on January 15, 1842. She had an unsettled childhood. Her father dabbled in politics and business and experienced mixed fortune. The family often moved, and formal schooling was disrupted. When aged 14 she worked as a nursery governess and later with the stationers Sands and Kenny.
In 1860 Mary left Melbourne for the small isolated town of Penola in South Australia to act as governess for the two daughters of her father's sister, Margaret Cameron. In Penola she met the local priest, Julian Tenison Woods. This was to change her life.
Australia had been settled originally as a penal colony in 1788, but by the middle of the 19th century immigrants from the British Isles were settling new farming areas. There were few schools, and children were deprived of an education. Father Woods wanted to do something to help these children.
Father Woods thought about an order of Australian nuns, unhampered by formal convent structures, who could move to remote areas and provide schooling. He saw in Mary MacKillop someone who could help him achieve his dream. On March 19, 1866, the feast of St. Joseph, she discarded her secular clothing and put on a simple religious habit. She was the first of the Sisters of St. Joseph.
The first school was established in Penola in an old stable. Soon other young women joined her. Father Woods composed a Rule to direct their lives, emphasizing poverty and simplicity. By the end of 1869 there were 72 sisters teaching in 21 schools as well as an orphanage and a refuge for women in distress.
Word spread to other parts of Australia, and Mary was asked to send sisters to begin schools. However, not everyone accepted this new type of religious community with its emphasis on helping the most needy in society. The sisters were denounced to Bishop Sheil in Adelaide, who responded by changing the Rule and putting himself in charge. Mary protested his interference. On September 22, 1871, the bishop imposed on Mary a sentence of excommunication—excluding her from the sacraments of the Catholic Church. Mary's response to this was one of calm acceptance and firm trust in God. Five months later, on February 23, 1872, only six days before he died, Bishop Sheil removed the excommunication and admitted his mistake in listening to bad advice.
The dispute about central government or control by each diocesan bishop continued for many years. The sisters were frequently the target of suspicion and opposition and were sometimes accused of incompetence as teachers. Some accused Mother Mary of drinking to excess. Bishop Reynolds, who succeeded Bishop Sheil in Adelaide, established a commission of inquiry in 1883. This prompted Mother Mary to move her motherhouse (headquarters) to Sydney, where Cardinal Moran was more supportive.
In 1888 Cardinal Moran returned from Rome with a decree from the Vatican settling the dispute. Central government was accepted as well as separate diocesan congregations. The two groups were to have different religious dress. Those who remained affiliated with the Sydney motherhouse wore brown habits, and those under the jurisdiction of the bishops wore black. From that time on the two groups have generally been known as "Brown Josephites" or Black Josephites."
The work of the sisters continued to expand, and there were new foundations throughout Australia and New Zealand. At a time when state education was becoming secular, the work of the Sisters of St. Joseph helped lay the foundations for the extensive system of Catholic schools that still exists in Australia.
Mother Mary suffered a stroke in 1902. Over the next few years her health gradually deteriorated. On August 4, 1909, Cardinal Moran visited her sick room at the motherhouse in Mount St., North Sydney. He left with the comment, "I consider this day I have assisted at the death bed of a saint." Mother Mary of the Cross died on Sunday, August 8, 1909. At her funeral, before an enormous crowd, Cardinal Moran quoted from the Bible, from the Book of Daniel: "They that instruct many unto justice shall shine as stars for all eternity." Soon after her death people commented about her sanctity. Such was the devotion that, on January 27, 1914, her remains were reburied in the motherhouse of the Sisters of St. Joseph, where a special shrine and place of pilgrimage were constructed.
The official Vatican Decree for her canonization sums up the meaning of Mother Mary's life:
Mary's public achievement is a historical fact in Australia, but for those who knew her personally the most striking thing about her was her kindness. She was a great believer in encouragement, urging people to be kind and united. In everything she said or did, she showed respect and love for those around her, making no distinction between the rich, the high-born, and the influential on the one hand, and the lowly, the jailbirds, and the outcasts of society on the other.
The Vatican accepted the biographical details of Mother Mary as evidence of exceptional virtue. It accepted a miraculous cure in Sydney in 1961 of a young woman who was dying of leukemia and prayed to Mother Mary. Mother Mary MacKillop is now called "Blessed," the second-to-last step before formal recognition as a saint. Someone who has been "blessed" can be canonized by the pope as a saint only after evidence of one additional miracle.
The most authoritative biography of Mother Mary MacKillop is that of Paul Gardiner, S.J., the promoter of her cause for canonization: An Extraordinary Australian Mary MacKillop (Sydney, 1993). Other worthwhile biographies include William Modystack, Mary MacKillop A Woman Before Her Time (Dee Why, NSW, 1982); and Felicity O'Brien, Called to Love: Mary MacKillop (Sydney, 1992). A set of two audio tapes, Mary MacKillop No Plaster Saint, were produced by the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. A video, Long Have I Loved You The Story of Mary MacKillop, was produced by Catholic Communications, Greenwich, NSW, Australia. Further information can be obtained from the Mary MacKillop Secretariat, Mount St., North Sydney, NSW, 2060, Australia.