Mary MacKillop

October 16, 2010

Mary Helen MacKillop (15 January 1842 – 8 August 1909) was an Australian Roman Catholic nun who, together with Father Julian Tenison Woods, founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Since her death she has attracted much veneration in Australia and internationally.

MacKillop is the only Australian to have been beatified (in 1995 by Pope John Paul II). On 17 July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI prayed at her tomb during his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day 2008. On 19 December 2009, Pope Benedict XVI approved the Roman Catholic Church's recognition of a second miracle attributed to her intercession. It was announced on 19 February 2010 that her canonisation would be formally declared on 17 October 2010, making her the first Australian saint. It has been announced that when she is canonised she will be known as Saint Mary of the Cross.

Early life and ministry

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, had been educated in Rome for the Catholic priesthood but, at the age of 29, left just before his ordination. He decided to migrate to Australia and arrived in Sydney in 1838. Her mother, Flora MacDonald, had left Scotland and arrived in Melbourne in 1840. Alexander and Flora married in Melbourne on 14 July 1840 and had eight children: Mary (the eldest), Margaret ("Maggie") (1843–1872), John (1845–1867), Annie (1848–1929), Alexandrina ("Lexie") (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 would become a nun.

Mary Mackillop museum on Mount Street, North Sydney
Mary Mackillop museum on Mount Street, North Sydney

Mary, the eldest of the children, was educated at private schools and by her father. She received her First Holy Communion  on 15 August 1850 at the age of eight. 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.

MacKillop started work at the age of 14 as a clerk in Melbourne and later as a teacher in Portland. To provide for her needy family she took a job as governess in 1860 at her aunt and uncle's place at Penola, 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 Tenison Woods, who had been the parish priest in the south east since his ordination to the priesthood in 1857 after completing his studies at Sevenhill.

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.

Founding of school and religious order

MacKillop 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, Bay View House Seminary for Young Ladies, now Bayview College, in 1864, was joined by the rest of her family. While teaching at Portland, Father Woods invited MacKillop 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 the same year, at age 25, she adopted the religious name Sister Mary of the Cross.

In 1867, MacKillop became the first sister and mother superior of the newly formed order of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and moved to the new convent in Grote Street, Adelaide. There, they founded a new school at the request of Bishop Laurence Sheil. 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 MacKillop for the sisters to live by were: an emphasis on poverty, a dependence on divine providence, no ownership of personal belongings and faith that 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.

Josephites expansion

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 70 Sisters were educating children at 21 schools in Adelaide and the country. MacKillop and her Josephites were also involved with an orphanage; neglected children; girls in danger; the aged poor; a reformatory (in Johnstown near Kapunda); 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, MacKillop and several other sisters travelled to Brisbane to establish the order in Queensland. They were based at Kangaroo Point and took the ferry or rowed across the Brisbane River to attend Mass at old St Stephen's Cathedral. Two years later, she was in Port Augusta  for the same purpose. Josephite Congregation expanded rapidly and, by 1871, 130 sisters were working in more than 40 schools and charitable institutions across South Australia and Queensland.


Tensions between the independent minded new religious order and members of the existing church hierarchy culminated in 1871 with the ailing Bishop Sheil of Adelaide declaring MacKillop to be "excommunicated" for alleged "insubordination", in a decision later revoked by Sheil and confirmed as uncanonical.

Bishop Sheil spent less than two years of his episcopate in Adelaide and absences and poor health left the diocese effectively without clear leadership for much of his tenure, resulting in bitter factionalism within the clergy and disunity among the lay community. After the founding of the Josephites, Sheil appointed Julian Tenison Woods as director general of Catholic education. Father Woods came into conflict with other clergy over educational matters.

In early 1870, members of the Josephites heard of allegations that Father Keating, of Kapunda parish to Adelaide's north, had been sexually abusing children. The Josephites informed Father Woods, who in turn informed the vicar general Father John Smyth, who ultimately sent Keating back to Ireland. The reason for Keating's dismissal was publicly thought to be alcohol abuse. Keating's former Kapunda colleague Father Charles Horan  was angered by Keating's removal, and there is evidence to suggest he sought vengeance against Woods by attacking the Josephites. Horan became acting vicar general after the death of Smyth in June 1870, and from this position sought to influence Bishop Sheil. Horan met with Sheil on 21 September 1871 and convinced him that the Josephites' rules should be changed; the following day, when MacKillop apparently did not accede to the request, Sheil excommunicated her, publicly citing insubordination as the reason. Whilst the Josephites were not disbanded, most of their schools were closed in the wake of this action. The ABC  claimed in September 2010 that MacKillop had been "banished after uncovering sex abuse", and cited Father Paul Gardiner, chaplain of the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre in evidence of this. Gardiner described this suggestion as false, saying "Early in 1870, the scandal occurred and the Sisters of Saint Joseph reported it to Father Tenison Woods, but Mary was in Queensland and no one was worried about her".

Shortly before his death, Sheil instructed Fr Hughes, on 23 February 1872, to lift the censure on MacKillop. He met her on his 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, MacKillop made preparations to leave for Rome to have the rules of the Sisters of St Joseph officially approved.

MacKillop travelled to Rome in 1873 to seek papal approval for the religious congregation and was encouraged in her work by Pope Pius IX. The authorities in Rome made changes to the way sisters lived in poverty, declared that the Superior General and her council were the authorities in charge of the order, and assured MacKillop that the congregation and their rule of life would receive final approval after a trial period. The resulting alterations to the rule of life caused a breach between MacKillop and Father Woods, who felt that the revised rule compromised the ideal of vowed poverty, and blamed MacKillop for not getting the rule accepted in its original form. Before Woods' death on 7 October 1889, he and MacKillop were personally reconciled, but he did not renew his involvement with her order.

While in Europe, MacKillop travelled widely to observe educational methods.

During this period, the Josephites expanded their operations into New South Wales and New Zealand. MacKillop relocated to Sydney in 1883 on the instruction of Bishop Reynolds of Adelaide.