THE BLACK DRESS: MARY MacKILLOP’S EARLY YEARS
By Pamela Freeman, Black Dog Books, $17.95
Reviewed by Delroy Oberg
THIS excellent book is quite hard to place.
Pamela Freeman writes children’s books, and it would sit well in lower secondary bookshelves.
Nevertheless the style is simple enough for younger readers, and the less than subtle references to problem parents will edify, challenge and possibly shame adult readers.
In addition, I felt a ready background of knowledge about all of Mother Mary’s life was certainly essential for me as I filled in gaps from her references to many of the specific problems she encountered in her adult life.
The book is definitely about more than the early years.
It is set on Mary MacKillop’s death bed (she died on August 8, 1909, aged 67).
As weeping, prayerful and awestruck sisters and novices come in and out to pay their respects, she reflects on her life.
It was a hard life from the start – mainly because of an egotistical and bombastic father, who regularly ran the family into bankruptcy, and, as Mary herself reflects, gave her an excellent grounding for the work she would later embrace as the founder of a poor order where begging was at times a necessity, and the need to identify with the “real” poor was essential to the vocation.
Both Mary’s parents emerge badly.
Her mother strongly opposed her vocation, dreading being left without the family’s sole financial support.
Ironically, it was her father, a failed candidate for the priesthood, who encouraged her; but then, he was never bothered by practicalities.
In fact, Mary did not have much luck with any of the men in her life.
Fr Julian Tenison Woods, co-founder of the Josephites, made many bad decisions and also needed to be watched with money.
Her bishop excommunicated her, other priests told lies about her. At one stage she was unfairly labelled an alcoholic.
We know that ultimately she was vindicated on all charges and that the order flourished, yet Freeman portrays Mary on her deathbed querying whether her work is really done.
What is missing? What is still present?
In effect, she was still carrying the psychological and emotional scars of her childhood and adolescent years.
In other words, she had not forgiven her family, especially her father.
The realisation of the need to forgive finally becomes the reality of forgiveness.
It is only then that, finally, Mother Mary MacKillop can die, and rest in peace.
Buy this book for your children, but read it yourself first!