The Cross Down Under

Author: Ann Ball


Ann Ball

Finding ignorance even in the Church leadership, Mother Mary MacKillop persevered, all the way to beatification

The life of Blessed Mary of the Cross MacKillop (1842-1909), Australia's first native to be beatified, was as rugged as the terrain where she proclaimed the Good News.

She co-founded a group of women Religious who worked in the isolated areas of the frontier, sharing the hardships of the poor. She also endured misunderstanding, chronic poor health, excommunication, the disbanding of her order and even charges of alcoholism.

Mary MacKillop was born Jan. 15, 1842, in Fitzroy, Melbourne, in Australia, barely 50 years after the first Europeans had settled in the country.

As a child, MacKillop read about the sad predicament of many families caused by the 1851 gold rush in Victoria, South Australia, and their misery pricked her social conscience. She became committed to helping them.

In 1860, MacKillop, a schoolteacher, met Father Julian Tenison Woods. Both wanted to improve the lot of ordinary Australians, and they decided that the best way to accomplish this was to provide a free Catholic education for children.

There were no religious orders in South Australia because of harsh living conditions and a small proportion of Catholics. Sisters were needed who would be flexible and willing to live in the same poverty as those they served. Father Woods and MacKillop began to plan such an order.

Clergy troubles

The first Josephite school opened in January 1866 in a converted stable. Two months later, MacKillop publicly declared her commitment to become a Religious. She took the prophetic name Mary of the Cross.

Her acceptance of her life's crosses in silence and charity, resisting her natural urge to retreat, is the -hallmark of her sanctity.

Though not the first Australian order, the Sisters of St. Joseph were the first group founded specifically for Australia's poor. The order exemplified those qualities at the very heart of the colonial spirit: justice, equality and a fair go for all.

Mother MacKillop's egalitarian approach to religious life upset many of the clergy accustomed to European models, where "choir" sisters from upper-class families lived a genteel life of prayer and "lay" sisters from the lower classes did the menial work. The Josephites had no class distinctions, and they lived where they worked, in whatever housing was available.

Moreover, since the Australian Church was completely male-dominated, the idea that a group of women Religious could be governed by a woman was unheard of. The constitution of the Josephites called for the sisters to be governed by a superior elected from their number, instead of being under the control of the local bishop.

After many long battles, Mother MacKillop won approval for this from Rome. Many of the Josephite's trials came from the clergy. Time and again, the strength of will, extreme charity and silent suffering of Blessed Mary of the Cross led to eventual victory.

She directed the Josephites to a multitude of social-service works. They visited hospitals and jails; they sheltered the homeless, orphans and women in "moral danger"—that is, former prisoners, prostitutes and unwed mothers.

Government-welfare programs were practically nonexistent, so despite a drastic shortage of money, the Josephites started additional crises centers to serve neglected children, the elderly and alcoholics. To support their works, the sisters begged and did plain sewing.

Mother MacKillop suffered chronic bad health. Stress and her rigorous travel schedule as the order's superior contributed greatly to this. A stroke in 1902 left her in a wheelchair for the last seven years of her life. Yet, she continued her exhausting schedule.

In her younger years, she suffered headaches that were so severe that, under her doctor's direction, she took medicinal doses of brandy. In 1884, there were allegations that she was an alcoholic and an embezzler, among other charges.

Sydney's Archbishop Francis Patrick Moran was in charge of the investigation, which absolved her of all charges. His report was submitted to Rome and, although the report cleared Mother MacKillop, the archbishop felt it reflected badly on the clergy who had brought the charges and advised that his report be kept confidential.

This led to a hitch in Mother MacKillop's beatification process in 1931, when no official documentation of her clearance could be located. It was 20 years before the report was located and her cause could proceed.

One September morning in 1871, Bishop Lawrence Bonaventure Sheil of Adelaide arrived at the convent and demanded to see Mother MacKillop. Upon her arrival, he turned to the assembled sisters and announced that, because of her "disobedience and rebelliousness," Mother MacKillop was to be excommunicated.

Instructing her to kneel, Bishop Sheil read out the sentence. He then informed the sisters that anyone who had further dealings with her would suffer the same penalty.

Stunned, Mother MacKillop left the convent immediately, and for the next six months lived quietly with friends. Within weeks, most of the sisters in Adelaide had been either expelled or dispensed from the order, and the convent was turned over to a different group.

The true grit and goodness of the character of Mother MacKillop was brought out during this time. In spite of the fact that priest friends advised her that the excommunication was invalid, she did not protest. She refused to speak in her own defense. Instead, she accepted the excommunication as a cross given by God.

After a report in the local Catholic newspaper, a storm of gossip and rumors broke. The human Mother MacKillop wanted to flee, but the saintly Mother MacKillop stayed, silent and prayerful.

Six months later, shortly before his death, Bishop Sheil recanted and instructed a trustworthy priest to find Mother MacKillop and remove the sentence.

Though the excommunication devastated her, there is a clear written record showing that she continuously defended the bishop, asked others not to blame him and said only that she felt he had made a mistake or was misguided by his advisers.

With not a whimper

During the last 18 months of her life, Mother MacKillop was in constant pain, virtually bedridden. Her nurses testified that she suffered without complaining until her quiet death on Aug. 8, 1909.

In January 1995, Pope John Paul II raised Mary MacKillop to the honors of the altar at a solemn Beatification Mass in Sydney.

"In the vastness of the Australian continent, Blessed Mary MacKillop was not daunted by the great desert, the immense expanses of the outback, nor by the spiritual wilderness which affected so many of her fellow citizens," the Pope said. "Rather, she boldly prepared the way of the Lord in the most trying situations....

"Mother Mary of the Cross knew that behind the ignorance, misery and suffering which she encountered there were people . . . yearning for God and His righteousness.... Her story reminds us of the need to welcome people, to reach out to the lonely, the bereft, the disadvantaged."

Ball writes from Houston, Texas

This article was taken from the September 15, 1995 issue of Our Sunday Visitor. To subscribe write Our Sunday Visitor, Inc, 200 Noll Plaza, Huntington, In 46750.