The feast day of Mary MacKillop is celebrated on 8 August. She was born in Melbourne, Australia, in January 1842, the first of eight children of Scottish Catholics who had migrated to Australia within fifty years of European settlement there. The strong Faith of these Scots was handed on to their children, and at an early age their daughter, Mary, decided to devote her life to God in the service of the poor.
Her family was not rich in material possessions. Mary, from a young age was the breadwinner for her family. Her formal education was therefore limited, but she became a well educated woman through the influence of her father, who had studied in Rome hoping to become a priest.
At the age of eighteen Mary went as a private teacher to a little country town called Penola, in South Australia. Conditions were generally appallingly primitive. Poverty was rife especially in country areas, religious discrimination was widespread, the plight of the aboriginal people was deplorable, unemployment was commonplace and communication was difficult in the extreme. There she met the priest, Father Woods, who decried the paucity of education for his flock scattered over a large rural area. He eventually directed the religious vocation Mary had long nurtured forming a new congregation of Sisters, the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, “Josephites”. Mary was now twenty four.
The first school of the Sisters was in a stable in Penola opened in 1866. The following year, with some of her companions, she moved to the capital city, Adelaide, where, with the bishop’s approval, many more joined them in what was the most remarkable initiative undertaken in the Catholic Church in Australia in the nineteenth century. They lived in truly evangelical poverty providing elementary education, often in remote areas and never demanding any payment, to children who would not otherwise have been educated. In addition, they assisted the destitute, the abandoned, the friendless, orphans, and prostitutes opening facilities for their care.
The new congregation spread to other isolated parts of the continent and to New Zealand, but life was not without its troubles. Disputes over internal governance led to a bishop excommunicating Mary, an act totally unjustified and invalid but causing great religious and civil disturbance. Mary herself bore it with remarkable charity and patience, insisting that God would draw good out of evil.
When excommunication was lifted Sister Mary was advised to go to Rome the Pope’s approval for her Congregation. While in Europe, she sought advice about religious life and visited schools and other institutions to learn how best to conduct her work in Australia. She did not obtain definitive approval for her Congregation – this came in 1888 - but she was given every encouragement, especially in several conversations with Pope Pius IX. She returned to Australia with clear instructions about management of the affairs of the Josephites.
An important element of the constitutions was central government which gave the Superior General control over the placement and working lives of the sisters, a concept that caused unfortunate tensions with some bishops. Confronting these problems as Mother General, Mary displayed outstanding intelligence, courage, obedience, charity and forgiveness.
She travelled tirelessly within Australia and New Zealand, organising and directing the work, but especially encouraging her Sisters to faith, perseverance and charity. Hundreds of her letters survive showing her personal concern for each Sister and for other people whose interests she had at heart.
She signed herself “Mary of the Cross”, a significant title in her life because her many trials, including troublesome ill-health, brought her into close union with her crucified Lord. A woman of prayer she described herself as a natural contemplative whom God had called to constant action. Her love for the Eucharist was well known. She constantly sought to do the will of God and once wrote, “To me the will of God is a dear book which I am never tired of reading, which has always some new charm for me”.
After a stroke in New Zealand in 1902 she spent seven years in declining health, but her spirit never faltered. She was a constant source of inspiration so that when she died in Sydney in August 1909 there was unprecedented evidence of the conviction, remarkable for Australians, that there had been a saint in the land.
Her holiness was officially recognised when Pope Saint John Paul II beatified her in Sydney in 1995. Speaking of Mary he said, “Because the love of God inflamed her heart, she tenaciously defended the weak, the poor, the suffering.” Pope Benedict XIV in 2008 echoed those words quoting Mary, “Believe in the whisperings of God to your heart…Believe in the power of the Spirit of love”. Two years later, in 2010, he declared Mary a saint for the universal Church at a canonisation ceremony in Rome.
Mary perfectly obeyed the last commandment of Jesus, ‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart, and love one another as I have loved you.” She is a sign of hope inviting people into the heart of a compassionate God.
The tomb of Saint Mary of the Cross in North Sydney has long been a place of pilgrimage and continues to be visited by thousands of pilgrims seeking her intercession. Three popes have knelt there in prayer, Paul VI, John Paul II, and Benedict XVI.
Born in Ireland, Maria Casey is a Sister of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart who lives in Sydney, Australia. She holds degrees in the Arts and Sciences, a JCD and a PhD in Canon Law from Saint Paul University and the University of Ottawa respectively. She was involved in Secondary School education as teacher and principal for many years. For six years she was Provincial of her congregation in Western Australia. She is currently President of the Canon Law Society of Australia and New Zealand, Vicar for Consecrated Life in the Archdiocese of Sydney and Canonical Consultant for Institutes of Consecrated life. In 2001 she was appointed vice-Postulator and, in 2008, Postulator of the Cause of Canonization of Mary of the Cross MacKillop, the first Australian saint.
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