As Australia prepares for the October canonisation of its first saint Blessed Mary MacKillop, PAUL DOBBYN writes about her special links with early Queensland
“I AM glad to think the sisters will be back in dear old Queensland once more,” Blessed Mary MacKillop wrote in a letter dated September 15, 1890.
The quote appears in a book on the Australian saint by Brisbane author and Josephite Sister Margaret McKenna in her recently launched With Grateful Hearts! Mary MacKillop and the Sisters of St Joseph in Queensland, 1870-1970.
As Sr McKenna explains, Blessed Mary’s words illustrate the special bond she felt with Queensland, a bond that saw this strong woman break down in tears when circumstances forced her and the order she had co-founded to depart the state in 1879.
Now Sr McKenna is helping to organise a pilgrimage on August 1 which will visit significant localities linked to the order’s early days here including Kangaroo Point, Petrie Terrace and South Brisbane.
Sr McKenna’s book describes many places of significance to the order’s formation where foundations were laid that would eventually see more than 60 schools staffed by Josephites throughout Queensland.
“For example, the Josephites ran a school for the area’s poorer families at One Mile Swamp, now known as Woolloongabba,” Sr McKenna said.
“This school was moved to Kangaroo Point in 1871 when St Joseph’s Church opened and where St Joseph’s School now stands.
“In March that year a group of Sisters moved into what had been an old hotel in Montague Road, South Brisbane.
“It was owned by Mr Toppin, a local baker whose daughter would eventually become Josephite Sister James Toppin.
“The order also opened St John the Baptist’s School in Caxton Street, Petrie Terrace, catering to 52 students in what had been a worker’s cottage.
“These are among the localities which we will visit in honour of Mary MacKillop’s work in our city, and beyond, in this her year of canonisation.”
Other locations will include St Stephen’s Chapel where the holy woman once worshipped and where the extraordinary camphor laurel wood sculpture in her likeness now resides.
There is the site of the order’s first Queensland convent in Tribune Street, South Brisbane.
Also there will be a visit to where St Mary’s School once stood on the corner of Merivale and Peel streets in South Brisbane.
So why exactly did “dear old Queensland” hold such a place in Blessed Mary’s heart?
Sr McKenna believes that it was in this state that Mary MacKillop “first stood on her own feet” separate from co-founder Fr Julian Tennison Woods with whom she came to have an increasingly difficult relationship.
Some idea of these difficulties is held in a letter from Blessed Mary to Fr Woods dated September 12, 1879, which appears in one of the appendices to Sr McKenna’s book.
In the letter she accuses Fr Woods of making claims of various shortcomings against her.
Mary MacKillop goes on to say: “Some day all will be known of what we have each said and whether that day comes to us in this world or when we are standing before the Searcher of our inmost thoughts, I shall not be afraid to meet you, dear Father.
“But why, if you had such charges to make against me, why did you remain over a week in Brisbane and not come to see me about them, and why did you rather speak to the Sisters things so calculated to destroy their peace and to make them think ill of their superiors?”
Up until this point, Blessed Mary and the order had experienced mainly fruitful years since their arrival in Brisbane at the invitation of Bishop James Quinn.
Sr McKenna’s prologue to Grateful Hearts! Mary MacKillop and the Sisters of St Joseph in Queensland, 1870-1970 describes Mary’s arrival on The City of Brisbane steamship on December 31, 1869, with six members of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
“During the next 10 years, 1870-1880, young women joined the institute in Queensland and 14 schools and an orphanage were opened,” the prologue continues, “but by mid-July 1880 all members of the institute, at the request of the bishop, had left the diocese.”
As Sr McKenna’s carefully researched story unfolds, the reader learns of the Josephite co-founder’s and the Sisters’ triumphs and tribulations in establishing the order in Queensland.
For example we learn that some of the Sisters had a very hard time indeed in Townsville.
Mention is made of parish priest Fr Connolly providing very basic accommodation, unlined and thus unable to protect its occupants from tropical downpours.
Water tanks were attached to the presbytery and church but none were attached to the Sisters’ dwelling and they were forced to carry water in buckets.
However, help came from a very unexpected quarter, as Sr McKenna explains.
“It was the offer of a kindly Jewish man to supply the Sisters with water from his well that provided for the needs of the children in the school, the Sisters and the orphaned or destitute children under their care.”
On the day she spoke with The Catholic Leader about the forthcoming pilgrimage, Sr McKenna also told a story to illustrate Mary MacKillop’s practical approach to the faith.
“Many of the children attending Josephite schools were barefooted, coming from poor families who could not afford to buy them shoes.
“Mary MacKillop found a way to ensure these children had clean feet for their First Communion.
“On the previous evening, she would conduct an enactment of the biblical ceremony of the washing of the feet for these children.”
No doubt those attending the pilgrimage will hear Sr McKenna relate these and many other stories uncovered during her research.
Whatever the case, it’s guaranteed that this inner city pilgrimage will provide an authentic experience and testimony to the love, sweat and tears that made Australia’s first saint.
To book a place on the pilgrimage contact the Josephite Province Centre on (07) 3266 1300.