MacKillop, Saint Mary

Saint Mary MacKillop


Sister Mary Mackillop.

Mary Helen MacKillop was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne on 15 January 1842. When baptised six weeks later she received the names Maria Ellen. Her father, Alexander, was educated in Rome for the priesthood but, at the age of 29, left just before his ordination. He decided to migrate to Australia and arrived in Sydney on the Brilliant in 1838. Her mother, Flora MacDonald, left Scotland and arrived in Melbourne in 1840.

They were married in Melbourne on 14 July 1840 and eventually had seven children. Margaret (Maggie) 1843-1872, John 1845-1867, Annie 1848-1929, Lexie (Alexandrina) 1850-1882, Donald 1853-1925, Alick who died only 11 months old and Peter 1857-1878. Donald would later become a Jesuit Priest and work among the Aborigines in the Northern Territory and Lexie became a Nun.

Mary, the eldest of their children, was educated at private schools and by her father. She had her First Communion on 15 August 1850 at the unusual early age of 9. In February 1851 Alexander MacKillop left his family behind, after having mortgaged the farm and their livelihood, and made a trip to Scotland lasting some 17 months. Throughout his life he was a loving father and husband but never able to make a success of his farm. He was even worse as a politician or at any kind of job. During most of the times the family had to survive on the small wages the children were able to bring home.

Mary started work at the age of fourteen as a clerk in Melbourne and later as a teacher in Portland. To provide for her needy family Mary took up a job as governess in 1860 at her Aunt and Uncle's place at Penola in South Australia. She was to look after their children and teach them. Already set on helping the poor whenever possible, she included the other farm children on the Cameron estate as well. This brought her into contact with Father Julian Edmund Tenison Woods, who had been the parish priest in the South East since his ordination to the priesthood, after having completed his studies at Sevenhill, in 1857.

Woods had been very concerned about the lack of education and particularly Catholic education in South Australia. When he started his school he was soon appointed Director of Education and became the founder, with Mary, of the Sisters of St Joseph who would teach in his schools.


New school opened 1867.

Mary stayed for two years with the Camerons of Penola before accepting a job teaching the Cameron children of Portland, Victoria. Later she taught at the Portland school and after opening her own boarding school, Bayview House, was joined by the rest of her family. While teaching at Portland, Father Woods invited Mary and her sisters Annie and Lexie to come to Penola and open a Catholic school there. In 1866 a school was opened in a stable and after renovations by their brother, the MacKillops started teaching more than fifty children.

In 1867 Mary became the first Sister, and Mother Superior, of the newly formed Order of the Sisters of St Joseph and moved to the new convent in Grote Street Adelaide. Dedicated to the education of the children of the poor, it was the first religious order to be founded by an Australian. The rules written up by Father Woods and Mary for the Sisters to live by were; An emphasis on poverty, a dependence on Divine Providence, no ownership of personal belongings as God would provide and the Sisters would go wherever they were needed. The rules were approved by Bishop Sheil. By the end of 1867 ten other Sisters had joined the Josephites.

In an attempt to provide education to all the poor, particularly in country areas, a school was opened at Yankalilla in October 1867. By the end of 1869 more than seventy Sisters were educating children at twenty-one schools in Adelaide and the country. Mary and her Josephites were also involved with an orphanage, neglected children, girls in danger, the aged poor, in Johnstown near Kapunda a reformatory, a home for the aged and incurably ill. Generally, the Sisters were prepared to follow farmers, railway workers and miners into the isolated outback and live as they lived. They shared the same hardships whilst educating their children.

In December 1869 Mary and several other Sisters travelled to Brisbane to establish the Order in Queensland. Two years later she was in Port Augusta for the same purpose. In 1871 they also established a school in Burra. During this eventful year, Mary was wrongly excommunicated by Bishop Sheil, who was against most of the things she had fought for, on the grounds that 'she had incited the sisters to disobedience and defiance'. Shortly before his death, Sheil instructed Fr Hughes on 23 February 1872 to lift the censure on Sister Mary. He met her on her way to Willunga and absolved her in the Morphett Vale Church. Later, an Episcopal Commission completely exonerated her. After the acquisition of the Mother House at Kensington in 1872, Mary made preparations to leave for Rome to have the Rules of the Sisters of St Joseph officially approved. While in Europe, Mary visited as many schools as possible to observe the latest teaching methods.

When she returned in January 1875, after an absence of nearly two years, she brought approval from Rome for her Sisters and the work they did, materials for her school, books for the convent library, several priests and most of all fifteen new Josephites from Ireland. Regardless of her success, she still had to content with the opposition of priests and several bishops. This did not change after her unanimous election as Mother General of the Josephites. Life was still hard and held many disappointments for her.

Notwithstanding all the trouble the Order did expand. By 1877 it operated more than forty schools in and around Adelaide, with many others in Queensland and New South Wales. With the help from Dr Benson, Barr Smith, the Baker family, Emmanuel Solomon and other non-Catholics the Josephites, with Mother Mary as their leader and Superior-General, were able to continue the Religious and other good works, including visiting prisoners in gaol.

After the appointment of Archbishop Vaughan of Sydney in 1877 life became a little easier for Mary and her Sisters. Until his death in 1882 Father Joseph Tappeiner had given Mary his solid support and until 1883 she also had support of Bishop Reynolds of Adelaide. However, after the death of Vaughan, Adelaide Bishop Reynolds had only one aim and that was to destroy Mary and the Josephites. If that could not be done he would at least try to bring them under his control. Reynolds was successful in exiling Mary and her removal as Superior-General but in no way did he succeed in crushing her, her Sisters or the Josephites and bring them under his control.

Although still living by begging, the Sisters had been very successful. In South Australia they had schools in many country towns including, Willunga, Willochra, Yarcowie, Mintaro, Auburn, Jamestown, Laura, Sevenhill, Quorn, Spalding, Georgetown, Robe, Pekina Appila and several others. Mary MacKillop continued her work for the Josephites in Sydney and tried to provide as much support as possible for those in South Australia. In 1883 the Order was successfully established in New Zealand, where Mary stayed for three years, and in 1889 in Victoria.

During all these years Mary assisted Mother Bernard with the management of the Sisters of St Joseph. She wrote letters of support, advice and encouragement or just to keep in touch. By 1896 Mary was back in South Australia visiting Sisters in Port Augusta, Burra, Pekina, Kapunda, Jamestown and Gladstone. That same year she travelled again to New Zealand to establish the Sisters, and a school, on the South Island. In 1897 Bishop Maher of Port Augusta arranged for the Sisters of St Joseph to take charge of the St Anacletus Catholic Day School at Petersburg.

After the death of Mother Bernard, Mary was once more elected unopposed as Mother Superior-General, a position she held until her own death. During the later years of her life she had many problems with her health which continued to deteriorate. She suffered from rheumatism and after a stroke in New Zealand in 1902, became paralysed on her right side. For seven, years she had to rely on a wheelchair to move around but her speech and mind were as good as ever. Even after suffering the stroke the Sisters had enough confidence in her to re-elect her in 1905.

Mother Mary MacKillop died on 8 August 1909 and was laid to rest at the Gore Hill Cemetery, a few kilometres up the Pacific Highway from North Sydney. After her burial people continuously took earth from around her grave and as a result her remains were exhumed and transferred, on 27 January 1914, to a vault before the altar of the Mother of God in the newly build Memorial Chapel in Mount Street Sydney. The vault was a gift of Joanna Barr Smith a lifelong friend and admiring Presbyterian. After her death, the Sisters of St Joseph continued with the education program and in 1911 opened a new school at Terowie.

Nearly a hundred years after the death of Mary MacKillop, the Sisters are still working in many towns in South Australia, including Aldgate in the Adelaide Hills. They bought Pirralilla in 1950, which was originally build in 1902 by Michael Hawker. The property has been used as a convent and spiritual retreat centre. It includes a 30 room dormitory and chapel.

Mary was Beatified by Pope John Paul II on 19 January 1995.

On 17 October 2010 Mary MacKillop was declared a Saint
by Pope Benedict XVI and is now known as
Saint Mary of the Cross.

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