Mary MacKillop

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Sister Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), Australian nun, foundress of the congregation of Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart

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Mary MacKillop was the oldest of 7 children of Scottish migrants to Australia. She was educated in private schools and by her father. The family were often in financial difficulties, and in order to help provide for them Mary took a job as a clerk and then as a teacher in Portland, Victoria. In 1860 she became governess to the children of an uncle by marriage in Penola, South Australia. She included in the educational work other poor children from the surrounding district. Mary helped her family open a boarding school in Portland.

She had came into contact with Fr Julian Woods, the local priest, whose vast Catholic parish included many children in need of education. Fr Woods asked Mary and her sisters Annie and Lexie to start a Catholic school in Penola and the first St Joseph’s school was opened there in 1866 in an old stable. There were about 50 pupils. The school was free and great value was placed on music. Mary had long felt called to be a nun. Unable to find a suitable order, she and Fr Woods began their own, The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, in 1867, by the end of the year there were 10 other sisters who committed themselves to live in poverty and help educate the poor. They became known as the "Brown Joeys".

The order grew, with schools in Adelaide in 1867 and Brisbane in 1869. There were now 70 sisters in the order. Work was not confined to schools, but included orphanages, children at risk, work with the elderly and the chronically ill. A lot was done in the outback, where the nuns shared the hardships of local life.

In 1871, Bishop Sheil of Adelaide, who had approved the rules of the order, excommunicated Mary for “disobedience and defiance”, this came about because some of her Nuns had reported to the higher-ups in the church that a local priest in their area was a paedophile, she personally had actually had no part in any of it. She was reinstated 5 months later. She went to Rome and got papal approval for the rules of the order. She continued to contend with opposition to her work, but had some strong supporters. The key issue, the independence of the order versus being subject to control by bishops and local clergy. Partly in response to this, the headquarters of the order moved from Adelaide to Sydney in 1883. Despite the difficulties, the order grew. This included work in New Zealand, which Mary visited several times. The first school in New Zealand, opened in Temuka in 1883. Other schools and institutions followed, now in all the Australian states, New Zealand and beyond.

Mary suffered ill health in the latter part of her life. While in Rotorua, New Zealand in 1901 she was partially paralysed by a stroke. Thereafter she needed a wheelchair, but her mind and speech were unaffected. She was re-elected as Mother Superior-General in 1905. She died at the Mother House of the Order in Sydney. So revered that people kept coming to take earth from her grave. Her remains were eventually transferred to a vault in the chapel on what is now known as Mary MacKillop Place. Moves were begun in 1925 to have her recognised as a saint, but it was not until 1995 that Pope John Paul II formally beatified her during his visit to Australia.

BORN: 15 January 1842, Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia

DIED: 8 August 1909, North Sydney, Australia