Blessed Mary MacKillop, cofounder of the Sisters of St Joseph in Australia, was declared the patron of Brisbane archdiocese in May. August 8 is her feast day and the centenary of he death, and parishes in Brisbane archdiocese are celebrating the feast at Sunday Masses this weekend. Assistant congregational leader of the Josephites SR EILEEN LENIHAN reflects on the life of Mary MacKillop and her impact
BLESSED Mary MacKillop is one of Australia’s most remarkable and inspiring women.
The power of her inspiration is clearly visible today as demonstrated by the sheer number of people who still flock to visit her tomb at Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney.
They come for various reasons, for needs, great and small. Most come because they seek Mary’s intercession as they believe she will ask for God’s assistance on their behalf.
People come to the chapel and find the peace and spiritual strength to deal with life’s difficulties. They recognise in Mary MacKillop an ordinary woman who lived her life in an extraordinary way.
With their worries they come seeking Mary MacKillop’s intervention as they see in her a woman who battled many difficulties of her own life including family and health issues.
Many are drawn by Mary’s compassion for anyone in need, regardless of race, colour or faith, and are inspired by the woman’s goodness and reverence for the dignity of others especially those most neglected in society.
Some long for the kind of love that led Mary to forgive so readily people whom she had trusted but who treated her so unjustly. Many are moved by her trust in God and her profound sense of gratitude.
For thousands Mary MacKillop is an outstanding example for ways people can live in society today.
Mary Helen MacKillop was born on January 15 1842 to Scottish Highlander immigrant parents and grew up with seven brothers and sisters.
While her youth was spent gaining a comprehensive education, mainly from her father, the family was frequently in financial difficulties and often without a home of their own. They found themselves reliant on friends or relatives for support.
The generosity extended to the family and the difficulties they experienced, helped shape the young Mary’s ideals and expectation.
At the age of 18, Mary started work as a governess to her cousins, the Cameron children in Penola, South Australia, and later became a teacher in the denominational school in Portland.
During this time Mary found in Fr Julian Tenison Woods, who was Penola parish priest, a pastor grappling with a profound concern for the well-being of his people and particularly the education of children.
Mary was driven by her desire to show God’s love to others especially those who were most in need.
She yearned to ensure that poor children and women were offered the opportunity to gain an education and thus the ability to create a better life.
In 1866, inspired by Fr Julian Tenison Woods, Mary opened the first St Joseph’s school in a refurbished stable in Penola. Then, drawn by the good work Mary was doing, her own sisters came to her assistance at the school.
Mary wanted to devote herself even more to God and soon other women joined her so the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart were founded; Mary MacKillop was only 24 years old.
Mary MacKillop longed to help “the poorest of the poor” and to “never see a need without trying to do something about it”. She worked tirelessly to make a difference, to uphold the dignity of the most marginalised, dejected and deprived.
Word of Mary’s work spread rapidly and priests from city and country areas asked Mary to send sisters to open schools for them.
In 1868, she and the sisters opened a refuge for young women recently released from prison, an orphanage, and a house of providence as a home for older women, especially the frail aged.
Within four years there were 130 sisters working in more than 40 schools and charitable institutions in South Australia and Queensland.
Her journey, however, was not without struggle and she often met with fierce opposition, from outside the Church and even from within it.
At one of the most difficult points of her life, she found herself and her sisters in conflict with Bishop Lawrence Sheil of Adelaide due to her alleged non-compliance with his directives. This drama resulted in her being excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1871.
Later Bishop Sheil acknowledged his error and reinstated Mary. The Congregation for the Sisters of St Joseph continued.
Mary fought hard for her beliefs and even visited Rome in order to procure the pope’s approval for the Rule of Life of the Sisters of St Joseph and the central government of the congregation.
In another test of her courage, the Archbishop of Sydney in 1885 declared that Mary could no longer be superior general of the order and instead appointed another sister to that position. For 14 years the order that Mary founded was led by another sister, until Mary was re-elected in 1899.
Mary suffered a stroke in 1902, but continued as the congregational leader until the time of her death.
On August 4 1909, Cardinal Moran visited Mary as she was preparing for death and gave her his blessing and words of encouragement. As he left he said, “I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a saint”.
Mary, known as Mary of the Cross, died a few days later on Sunday, August 8, 1909, aged 67 years.
Her funeral Mass was celebrated on August 10 and it was reported that people vied with each other to touch her body with rosaries and other pious objects, a practice very unusual in Australia.
Even more unusual was the souveniring of samples of earth from her grave when she was laid to rest.
It was evident that people had recognised she was a holy person and from that time onwards, the faithful have never ceased to regard her as a saint.
Her tomb can be found today in the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel, Mount Street, North Sydney.
Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart serve not only in Australia and New Zealand but also in Peru, Brazil, East Timor and in Scotland and Ireland, although the name and inspiration of Mary MacKillop extend well beyond these places and across the globe.
Mary’s inspirational work in education, with refugees, indigenous communities and all those who struggle in our world continues.
The sisters’ work includes the provision of family services such as home care, disability services, respite care and aged care.
They work in remote communities where there is no minister or priest at the local church. They minister in indigenous communities in Western Australia, Northern Territory, outback Queensland and New South Wales. They are inspired by the devotion and pure love that Mary demonstrated in her commitment to improving the lives of those less fortunate.
Many ministries are carried out in partnership with others.
The Mary MacKillop Foundation for the support of small life-changing projects works tirelessly to make a difference especially for indigenous communities in Australia while other Josephite groups and committees strive to support the sisters’ ministries in Peru, Brazil and East Timor.
Mary MacKillop was a woman truly ahead of her time, always pragmatic and down to earth. She wasn’t afraid to question authority when justice and charity required it.
Throughout all her trials and tribulations she never stopped giving and helping those in need, regardless of their circumstances or their religion.
Australia needs practical, down-to-earth models of goodness; examples of inclusivity and openness, generosity and gratefulness – dare we say, models of holiness?
Mary is truly a remarkable woman. A true Australian hero.