Josephite Sister Margaret McKenna recently published her book With Grateful Hearts! Mary MacKillop and the Sisters of St Joseph in Queensland, 1870 to 1970. Now, on the feast of Blessed Mary MacKillop (August 8), Sr McKenna looks at the bigger picture, discussing the pioneering Josephite’s claim to be “an Australian” in an 1873 document to the Vatican, at least a decade before such a view would become fashionable
IN August 1873 when Mary MacKillop was in London, she prepared a document to be presented to the pope explaining her reasons for co-founding with Fr Julian Tenison-Woods the Sisters of St Joseph in Australia.
Mary MacKillop commenced her presentation with a prayer: “May Thy Holy Spirit, my God, direct me in what I am about to write. I ask this for the glory of Thy name, and for the sake of the cause of the Sacred Heart of Thy Divine Son.
“It is Thy will, my God, I seek, and I humbly beseech Thee to enlighten as Thou see’st best my weak mind that it may faithfully express to those concerned the true state of our Australian wants in as far as it comes within the scope of our rule to meet them.
“O! Dear Immaculate Mother, and thou my glorious Father and Patron, I commit my intention to this your joint protection, where, without amity to the result, I now humbly leave it.
“And you, my highly exalted and venerated Superiors in Holy Church, before whom I presume to lay these opinions for your charitable consideration, may I humbly crave your forbearance for my presumption, and entreat you to think only of the greatness of the cause, and the dangers to which it may be exposed, unless it please our dear Lord to inspire you to see its necessities, and once seeing these, to aid it in its weakness by your wisdom, piety, and influence.
“With this hope, confiding in your charity and zeal, to please God, I will proceed, leaving the result to the all-wise dispositions of His infinite mercy and goodness.”
Mother Mary MacKillop explains in the 4000-word document that follows, the features of the Sisters of St Joseph which make the congregation different from those in Europe, Ireland and England and how her experiences as an Australian have given her an informed insight into the most effective ways to offer Catholic education in the rural settlements of her homeland.
In the document Mary MacKillop also wrote: “It is an Australian who writes this”.
This claim to Australian identity in 1873 was radical at the time because:
– What was to become the Federation of Australia consisted of separate British colonies
– She could have stated that she was South Australian or Victorian or even a Highland Scot because it was not fashionable to be a “colonial” and many members of this predominantly migrant society were keen to claim an overseas country as their home rather than a particular British colony
– Mary’s claim to be Australian showed an understanding of the common strands that linked the colonies and expressed a viewpoint that only began to be discussed in the late 1880s once “Federation” became a hot topic of debate over the next 10 years
– She understood and cherished her homeland and was accepting of the fact that Australian society was distinctive
– At the time of writing this document she had lived in three colonies – Victoria, South Australia and Queensland. She had experienced the social and political differences that distinguished them, but was able to recognise the similarities that necessitated an Australian approach to foster the spread of the Christian message
– She understood the climate in Australia of emerging secular liberalism and the growing sentiment of democracy.
Mary MacKillop’s document to the Vatican, after the opening prayer begins:
“As the Institute of the Sisterhood of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart was established to meet the many wants of the Australian Colonies, and as these wants can hardly be realised by those who have not had some experience of them, it follows naturally that a brief explanation of some may not be unwelcome to those charitably interested in the welfare of religion in that remote quarter.
“The first care, indeed the great work of the Sisters being the education in a strictly Catholic manner of the children of the poorer class, it becomes necessary for those interested in such a work to understand the general position of persons of this class.
“With this clearly present in our minds, they can the more readily realise the peculiar nature of the Sister’s vocation, the extreme necessity for such work; and thus not hesitate in seeing that what would seem much out of place in Europe, is still the very reverse in most parts of Australia.
“It is an Australian who writes this, one brought up in the midst of many of the evils she tries to describe, and who has over and over again heard pious priests and zealous bishops sadly deplore a state of things which they could not remedy; and later still known many of the same to declare that in the peculiar spirit of the sisterhood; they saw at least the answer to their frequent sighs and prayers.”
She goes on to describe the difficulties faced by members of the working class – most emigrants from the British Isles of Europe – the scattered nature of settlement, the poor knowledge of Catholic beliefs, the lack of opportunity to frequent Mass and the sacraments and receive instruction, the difficulties faced by Catholics in a sectarian environment and of those parents in mixed marriages, and the education policy of the colonial legislatures and how these influences have “produced (in many) a total blindness to all that concerns the religious education of their children”.
This is the first in a series that The Catholic Leader, in conjunction with the Sisters of St Joseph, will present on the letters of Blessed Mary MacKillop
The Catholic Leader is an Australian award-winning Catholic newspaper that has been published by the Archdiocese of Brisbane since 1929. Our journalism seeks to provide a full, accurate and balanced Catholic perspective of local, national and international news while upholding the dignity of the human person.
The Catholic Leader acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people as the First Peoples of this country and especially acknowledge the traditional owners on whose lands we live and work throughout the Catholic Archdiocese of Brisbane.