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St Mary of the Cross, who was banished and excommunicated for a time, can teach us courage

Sr Monica Cavanagh: “I think one of the great qualities was her (Mary MacKillop ) capacity to persevere in the face of adversity.”

THERE was the time she was forced to leave Queensland, then banished from Adelaide, not to mention the unbearable five-months of excommunication by her own bishop – if anyone knows about isolation, it’s St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

And now, in the middle of a possible second wave of coronavirus, Australia’s first saint is facing isolation once more.

Hundreds of pilgrims would normally flock to Mary MacKillop’s tomb in North Sydney this time of year to mark her feast day on August 8.

Instead, the doors to her chapel will be closed, as Sydney works to suppress the virus, which is largely affecting Victoria, New South Wales and Queensland.

Public events and Masses, including Saturday’s MacKillop Mass in Brisbane, will be limited to online streaming.

It’s unfortunate timing as this year marks the tenth anniversary of St Mary MacKillop’s canonisation in Rome.

But Sr Monica Cavanagh, who is congregational leader of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, the order co-founded by St Mary MacKillop, said there was possibly no better time to remember the outstanding nun, who like many Australians impacted by COVID-19, experienced loneliness, isolation, and even restriction of movement.

“I think throughout her life she had many experiences of feeling perhaps isolated, as in her excommunication, when she couldn’t actually have contact with the Sisters,” Sr Cavanagh said.

“I think there’s a couple of times in her life when she said the struggle had been so great that she felt like giving it all up.”

Sr Cavanagh said a letter Mary MacKillop wrote in 1874 could sum up what some Australians were feeling now.

The saint wrote the letter while in Scotland awaiting a decision from Rome regarding her order’s constitutions.

“Cried myself to sleep,” Sr Cavanagh read.

“Was so weary of the struggle and felt so utterly alone. Could not pray or say my ordinary Rosaries – only offered my weary heart’s trials to my God”.

Another trial came through the clash between Bishop James Quinn, the former Bishop of Brisbane.

“In the Queensland story, when the Sisters were leaving in 1879, the paper recorded the people thanked the sisters and Mary got up to answer and she couldn’t speak and burst into tears at the thought of leaving these people behind,” Sr Cavanagh said.

More than 100 years later, and St Mary of the Cross is now the patron saint of Brisbane.

Sr Cavanagh said St Mary MacKillop, who suffered ill-health for much of her life, would also be close to those whose health have been impacted by COVID-19.

Her courage in the face of adversity, Sr Cavanagh said, was what Australia needed to get through the pandemic.

“I think one of the great qualities was her capacity to persevere in the face of adversity,” Sr Cavanagh said.

“That quality I would then name as courage – she was a courageous woman.

“One of the lovely things in the midst of all of this is Mary shows her humanity.

“She never lost sight of the God who loved her, but she didn’t deny that she felt those things.

“I think she’d say to us, don’t deny what you’re feeling, because those feelings are real, but they can be a pathway to hope and faith.”

For St Mary MacKillop, that pathway was often paired with an act of charity and compassion, to quote her famous phrase: ‘Never see a need without trying to do something about it’.

Sr Cavanagh said she hoped on St Mary MacKillop’s feast day that Australians would find their own way to do “the MacKillop thing”.

“What I’d be saying to people is what’s the MacKillop thing that you can do on this feast day?” she said.

“We’re not going to be able to gather to celebrate in the ways that we would normally, so is there a MacKillop thing I could do through someone living near me, through making a connection.

“She’d be encouraging us to use all those means of connections, and really just to be that little word of hope or word of kindness for people.”

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