A Life Lived for the Lowliest

Author: Stefano Girola

A Life Lived for the Lowliest

Stefano Girola
Australian Catholic University

Commemorating the birth of Bl. Mary MacKillop, 15 January 1842

The man who had been sentenced to death for murder sat in the corner of his dark cell awaiting execution. He was considered one of the worst criminals in the colony. The Bishop of Adelaide had been to see him with some priests, but the condemned man reacted like a lion and had to be chained up.

Soon after, two Sisters in humble habits arrived, presented themselves to the jailers and asked to enter the cell to pray with Fagan. The prison guards tried to dissuade them from visiting the "beast", but the women insisted.

They entered and they prayed. One of the Sisters was so moved that she began to cry. At that point the condemned man knelt down in prayer beside them. According to one newspaper of the time, "Fagan became as gentle as a lamb". The Sister convinced him to make his confession and to receive Communion. Before the hanging, she asked the authorities whether she might accompany him to the scaffold but the permission was not granted.

This woman who, throughout her life, never ceased to believe in the dignity of every human being, will become the first saint in the history of Catholicism in Australia.

Mary Helen MacKillop was born on 15 January 1842 in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy. She was the eldest of the eight children of Alexander MacKillop and Flora McDonald. Her parents had emigrated from Scotland, driven by the dream of prosperity, which at first seemed to be coming true. Alexander's ill-advised financial projects, however, soon brought the family to the brink of poverty and they had to move constantly from place to place.

Having barely reached adolescence and after receiving a good education from her father, a former seminarian in Rome, Mary had to work as a shop assistant and then as a governess and teacher in order to provide for the family's needs. She carried out this role with extraordinary maturity and selflessness, but it soon began to clash with the development of a profound vocation to religious life.

A period of teaching in 1860 at a Catholic elementary school in the distant village of Penola in South Australia was the catalyst that marked the turning point in Mary MacKillop's life. Here Mary met the local parish priest, J.E. Tenison-Woods, who had for some time been dreaming of founding a religious order to provide for the religious instruction of children in the outback. Indeed, his pastoral responsibility extended over an area of about 52,000 square kilometres.

These were crucial years in the history of the Church in Australia. From the 1850s, many colonial governments had ceased to fund private schools that were mainly Christian, preferring gradually to introduce an entirely public and secular school system. The Government of South Australia was the precursor of this policy, and stopped funding religious schools in 1851.

This was a hard blow indeed for the Catholic Church, composed of a majority of Irish immigrants from the poorest social classes. The new government policies threatened the survival of Catholic schools and hence, in a mainly Protestant society, also the transmission to the next generations of the Catholic faith and culture. Often discriminated against at the State schools, many Catholic children preferred not to go to school, thus further reducing their possibilities of social advancement.

When Mary arrived in Penola, the Church in South Australia was struggling to keep its few schools in the colony running. They were attended by pupils whose families were unable to pay school fees. Concern for the future of these children soon became the main topic of frequent discussions between the young, devout teacher and the local parish priest. Further deepening her religious vocation in the light of her strong sense of justice and compassion for the lowliest, Mary MacKillop accepted the invitation of the parish priest to be part of a new religious order.

With the new name of Mary of the Cross, in March 1866 she became the first member of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. It was not long before many young women imitated her, set on dedicating their lives to teaching the poorest children and to living a life of absolute poverty themselves, totally dependent on alms and on the generosity of benefactors. The first school of the Sisters of St Joseph was opened at Penola that same year, in a former stable that had fallen into disuse and was rebuilt by one of Mary's brothers.

After acquiring the approval of Bishop Laurence Sheil of Adelaide, the Order continued to grow, spreading into various parts of South Australia. However, problems arose even during the first phase of its expansion. When Tenison-Woods became responsible for all the Catholic Schools of South Australia, disputes arose between him and other members of the clergy. Tenison-Woods' "creation", in other words the Sisters of St Joseph, became the scapegoat of these conflicts.

An additional factor was that even within the Australian Church, not everyone appreciated the life choice of these Sisters. There was criticism that the Sisters' task ought to reflect European models for nuns, focussing on the education of young girls of the middle to upper class in the cities, giving high priority to the teaching of virtues and Catholic doctrine and to the study of music and literature.

The presence of the young Sisters clad in very poor habits, begging for alms along the streets of Adelaide or in the distant bush villages and teaching children in rags was a cause of scandal even to many Catholics. Forced for medical reasons to take modest doses of brandy to alleviate the chronic pain that tormented her for most of her life, Mary MacKillop was unjustly accused of alcoholism.

The result of all this was that on 22 September 1871, the Bishop of Adelaide excommunicated her. For the young Sister, the Bishop's decision "was worse than a death sentence", as her biographer Lesley O'Brien writes. Most of the schools run by the Sisters of St Joseph wereclosed down and the Order almost entirely disbanded.

Refusing to defend herself and to support, even indirectly, the public campaigns criticizing the Bishop, Mary lived her exclusion from the Church with a discretion that moved those who came into contact with her during that sorrowful period. On 21 February 1872, nine days before his death, the Bishop of Adelaide finally became aware of the injustice perpetrated against the Sisters of St Joseph and lifted the excommunication.

The Order soon flourished anew and spread to other colonies under the direction of the Mother House in Adelaide, with Mary as the Superior and Fr Tenison-Woods as spiritual director. To give greater security to her Order, in 1873 Mary went to Europe with the intention of asking Pius IX to officially approve the Sisters of St Joseph and their Rule. The Vatican authorities approved the new religious order but decided to ask for modifications of the Rule initially drafted by Fr Tenison-Woods. The parish priest believed that Mary had not worked hard enough to get his Rule approved. The profound spiritual relationship between them began to fall apart until there was a complete rupture which caused suffering to both.

In March 1875, Mary, having returned to Australia, was officially elected by her sisters Superior General of the Order of the Sisters of St Joseph. By horse or by carriage, to the most remote and inhospitable zones, Mary and her Sisters began to broaden their charitable work. In addition to Catholic elementary schools, they founded orphanages, shelters for the homeless, homes for the terminally ill and the elderly, for former prisoners and for former prostitutes who wished to turn over a new leaf. During a time when the welfare state had not yet been invented, the attention the Sisters of St Joseph devoted to these social categories was quite exceptional.

However, the spread of the Order throughout Australia caused further friction between Mary MacKillop and other representatives of the local Church. In Brisbane Bishop James Quinn could not easily tolerate a religious order entirely dependent on a mother house in distant Adelaide. His efforts to bring the Order under strict diocesan control sparked new tensions, with the result that the Sisters of St Joseph decided to abandon Queensland for the time being. Further conflicts with the new Pastor of Adelaide, Bishop Christopher Reynolds, led to the transfer of the mother house from Adelaide to Sydney in 1883.

Even after giving up her office as Superior in 1885, Mary continued her journeys to found new schools and to bring comfort and assistance to her Sisters, often engaged in challenging undertakings with great material difficulties. The Order also put down roots in neighbouring New Zealand, which Mary visited several times. In the remote locality of Matata, she visited Sisters who were able to survive thanks to the generosity of the Maoris, who provided them with fish and other wild game.

It was in New Zealand, in 1901, that the first of a series of strokes afflicted her body, worn out by years of hard work and exhausting journeys that had been undertaken to sustain and expand her Order at the service of the poor. While preserving her mental faculties, Mary gradually became an invalid and spent her last years in a wheel chair, surrounded by the affection and care of her Sisters and held up by her profound faith.

O'Brien writes that on 8 August 1909, while Fr Thomas Lee was celebrating Mass in Adelaide, the faithful noted that during the Consecration the priest hesitated and was suddenly tongue-tied, staring fixedly at a point beside the altar. At the end of the celebration he went in a very distressed state to the sacristy. The Sisters present asked him if he was feeling ill. He calmly replied, "No, but Mary is dead".

Unbelieving, they asked him how he could know it. Fr Lee answered that he had seen her beside the altar during the celebration, wearing the most beautiful smile. At that very moment, thousands of kilometres from Adelaide, Mary MacKillop was dying in Sydney at the Convent in Mount Street where she is buried today.

A few days before her death, the first Australian Cardinal, Patrick Francis Moran, had visited her to bless and encourage her. While he was about to leave he said to those present: "I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a saint". Mary MacKillop's funeral was celebrated in Sydney on 11 August, which saw an unprecedented popular participation. Among the many who expressed their condolences for her death were also Protestants and Jews, some of whom had generously supported the charitable works of the Sisters of St Joseph.

With a truly rare demonstration of piety in the Australian colony, many of the faithful tried to touch Mary MacKillop's body with rosary beads and other pious objects. In an even more unusual way, others took away with them little heaps of earth from her grave, while the coffin was being lowered into the ground. The poor of Sydney and all who were moved by her deep faith and humanity had no doubt that a saint had just died. Now Mary MacKillop, or Mary of the Cross, will be a saint for the universal Church as well.

Taken from:
L'Osservatore Romano
Weekly Edition in English
13 January 2010, page 11

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