Mary MacKillop

Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), foundress of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart and candidate for canonisation as a saint of the Catholic Church, was born in Melbourne on 15 January 1842, eldest child of Flora (born MacDonald) and Alexander MacKillop, Scottish immigrants. Initially well off, her parents fell upon hard times because of Alexander's imprudent charity to friends. Mary grew up familiar with poverty and, while still young, had to work to support her family.

She was well educated, her principal teacher being her father, who had studied for the Catholic priesthood in Rome before deciding that his vocation in life lay elsewhere. From him Mary acquired a sound knowledge and deep love of her religion and a profound respect for the Catholic Church and its institutions. She felt called to convent life and was encouraged in her vocation by Father Julian Tenison Woods of Penola, South Australia, whom she first met in 1861. In obedience to his bishop, Woods had tried, albeit with little success, to provide Catholic schools for the children of his 25,000 square kilometre district. He had concluded that results would improve if his schools were taught by dedicated nuns prepared to live in similar conditions to the settlers. As there were no such nuns in Australia, he resolved to establish a new religious order, the Institute of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Its members were to be poor themselves and to run schools in isolated settlements. Religious life of this kind appealed to Mary but family commitments prevented her adopting it until January 1866, when she took charge of the Penola Catholic school. On 19 March 1866 she formally committed herself to becoming the first sister of St Joseph.

Bishop Sheil verbally approved the Institute when he appointed Woods Director of Catholic Education and transferred him to Adelaide. Woods brought Mary to the city and, in July 1867, formally established the Institute there. Its membership increased rapidly and the sisters took charge of schools and charitable institutions in many urban and rural centres. It ran into difficulties because of Woods' lack of experience in the spiritual direction of religious women and the heavy demands he placed upon young, inexperienced sisters. His want of prudence regarding school matters brought him into conflict with his fellow clergy.

Because of their association with Woods, the sisters came under close scrutiny. Several priests demanded that the bishop bring the Institute's rules into line with those of contemporary Irish orders or that he suppress it. Mary withstood pressure to accept changes to the rule and encouraged her sisters to follow their consciences; on 21 September 1871 Sheil excommunicated her for alleged insubordination and dismissed almost half the Institute's 127 members. Mary remained steadfast in her faith and loyalty to the Church, and on 23 February 1872 Sheil lifted the excommunication and reinstated her as superior of the Institute. The sisters, who had never lost confidence in her, quickly reassembled and the Institute flourished again.

In 1873 Mary travelled alone to Rome seeking pontifical approbation for the Institute. While approving it in principle, the Roman authorities rewrote its rules. They retained the centralised authority structure strongly advocated by its founders but made major changes regarding the observance of poverty. Mary accepted these changes in a spirit of submission to the will of God but became estranged from Woods, who thought she should have resisted them more strongly.

In 1875 Mary was elected superior general under the new Roman Constitutions. She travelled widely, establishing schools and institutions in many parts of Australia and New Zealand. Her fidelity to her rule was frequently tested by bishops who objected to the Institute's being centrally governed. She refused to compromise, even though conflict with bishops pained her deeply and led to her being banished from Adelaide in 1883 and deprived of her position as superior general for some years.

Rome, having observed her behaviour and that of her sisters with approval, ratified the Institute in July 1888 and transferred its Mother House to Sydney. There Mary founded the teacher training centre which enabled the Institute to become a leader in Catholic education. She was re-elected superior general in 1899 and, although dogged by illness, carried on unremittingly.

Mary was noted for her kindliness and concern for the poor and underprivileged. When she died in Sydney on 8 August 1909, all Australia and New Zealand grieved.

Marie Therese Foale

William Modystack Mary MacKillop: a Woman before Her Time 1982.