Australia’s First Saint

Sister Mary MacKillop, australian nun (1842-19...
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Mary MacKillop is one of Australia’s most famed women of Scottish heritage. When she is canonised by the Church this month, she will be officially known as Saint Mary of the Cross, and will become the first Australian in history to become a saint.

Mary MacKillop was born in 15 January 1842 in Fitzroy, Melbourne. The eldest of eight children, her parents had migrated from the Lochaber region of Inverness and married soon after they reached Melbourne. Despite a prosperous start in the new land, the MacKillop family soon became impoverished.

Although Mary attended private schools, her father, who had trained for the priesthood in Rome, provided much of her education. To help her family, Mary worked as a shopgirl, a governess and as a teacher at a Catholic school in Portland, where she was also the proprietress of a small boarding school for girls.

As she grew to womanhood a family friend, Father P.B. Geoghegan, influenced her to follow a strictly penitential form of religious life. Concluding that it was not likely that she would be able to travel to Europe to follow her religious yearnings, Mary placed herself under the direction of Father J. E Tenison-Woods. Her mentor, who was a parish priest of Penola in South Australia, wanted to found a religious society – the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Founded in March 1866 with Mary as its first member, the sisterhood soon spread to other parts of South Australia, its membership rapidly grew, and the sisters established new schools.

Unfortunately, Father Tenison-Woods, who became at the director of Catholic schools, came into conflict with the clergy over educational matters. Certain bishops of influence decided to humiliate him by compromising the new sisterhood. The result was that Mary was excommunicated in September 1871 for alleged insubordination. Most of the schools were closed and the sisterhood almost disbanded. In February 1872, nine days before he died, the bishop responsible removed the excommunication.

In 1873 at Rome, Mary obtained papal approval of her sisterhood, but her and Tenison-Woods went separate ways over new rules and regulations drawn up by Mary for the sisterhood. After this, she travelled widely in Europe visiting schools and observing methods of teaching, and returned to Adelaide at the beginning of 1875. In March she was elected Superior-General of the Sisterhood. Journeying through Australasia, Mary established schools, convents and charitable institutions. Affectionate, ambitious, and determined, it is said that Mary’s virtues were countless, but that the charity she showed to her fellow human beings outshone them all.

In May 1901, Mary suffered a stroke at Rotorua, New Zealand. Although retaining her mental faculties, she was an invalid until she died in North Sydney on 8 August 1909. She was buried at the Gore Hill Cemetery. After her burial, however, people continuously took earth from around her grave. As a result, her body was placed in a vault before the altar of the Mother of God in the Memorial Chapel in Mount Street, Sydney.

In 1925, the Sisters of St Joseph began the process to have Mary MacKillop declared a saint, and the church began its official investigation into her life and writings – a process that was completed in 1972. In 1992, the pope declared Mary’s ‘heroic virtue’ . In the same year, the Vatican confirmed Mary’s first miracle – saving a dying women in 1961 – and Mary was beatified on 19 January 1995. In 2009, the Church issued a papal decree recognising a second miracle –  the complete cure of lung and brain cancer in an Australian woman – and it was announced in February this year that she would be canonised on 17 October 2010. Whether you are a Scot or not, Australia’s first saint is someone we can all be proud of.

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