Franciscan Spirit Blog

Radical Saints: Mary MacKillop

Born January 15, 1842, in Australia | Died August 8, 1909, in Australia
Canonized October 17, 2010

Mary’s Radical Gift

Mary MacKillop was excommunicated for insubordination, and later she was told to move her congregation out of a diocese. Through it all, she showed a radical trust in God and the Church, even when some of its leaders were less than Christlike.

Mary’s World

When Mary was born, Australia consisted of six colonies with a total population of around three hundred thousand. While gold had been found earlier on the continent, discoveries in 1861 in New South Wales and Victoria prompted large population influxes, bringing the number of Australians to more than 4 million by the end of Mary’s life. On January 1, 1901, the colonies formed the Australian Commonwealth.

Mary’s Radical Path to Holiness

Faith and trust in God were about the only things that ever seemed to come easily to this daughter of Scots immigrants to Australia, who would be known as Mary of the Cross in religious life. One of the many things that always came hard was money, and so the MacKillop children—Mary was the oldest of eight, seven of whom lived past their first birthday—periodically were farmed out to other relatives. When she was sixteen, Mary went to work at a Melbourne stationery store, and with her brother John, she took on most of the financial responsibility for the family.

Two years later, Mary moved to the private town of Penola to serve as a governess to some of her cousins; an aunt and uncle had been the area’s first European settlers and had done quite well for themselves compared with the MacKillops’ hardscrabble existence. It was in Penola that Mary met Fr. Julian Tenison Woods, who was under pressure from his bishop to provide a Catholic education for area children. He became Mary’s spiritual director, and the two talked about establishing a community of women religious. However, in the meantime, Mary had taken a teaching position about a hundred miles away, and her family had joined her there.

Growing more desperate after a couple laywomen he had hired for the school both left, Fr. Woods again reached out to Mary. While she felt she couldn’t leave her family since she was their main financial support, a younger sister agreed to fill in. Classes were held in the local church until Mary’s brother John managed to fix up an unused stable. In 1866, Mary returned to Penola. By later that year, she, one of her sisters, and some companions began forming a religious community with Fr. Woods’s help. He was moved up the coast nearly 250 miles to Adelaide a year later, where he faced the same educational challenges. Mary and the others agreed to join him. Fr. Woods wrote the Sisters of St. Joseph community’s rule, and Bishop Laurence Sheil approved it in late 1868. Within a year, the “Brown Joeys,” as they were known because of their habits, were in charge of nearly two dozen schools, a women’s shelter, and an orphanage.

But trouble was ahead. Mary and three other sisters moved to Queensland at the invitation of Brisbane’s bishop. Severe disagreements ensued over control of the schools—Mary believed it belonged with the sisters; the bishop, with the diocese. Mary returned to Adelaide in April 1871 to more headaches. Rumors were starting to bubble up about sisters’ teaching abilities, as well about Fr. Woods’s behavior.

Indeed, almost soon as Mary had arrived, he sent her off to visit the society’s residences throughout the region. During Mary’s travels, she became aware that some community members had told Fr. Woods that they were hearing allegations of sexual abuse by a priest. After an investigation, the accused priest was ordered to leave Australia. Another priest then promised revenge.

His complaints about the sisters and his view that they needed to be under diocesan control found their way to Bishop Sheil, the same bishop who had approved the community’s original rule. Back in Adelaide, on September 22, 1871, after receiving a letter from Mary stating her desire to continue to operate the community according to that rule, Bishop Sheil excommunicated her and evicted the sisters from their residence. On his deathbed the following March, the bishop ordered her excommunication rescinded.

Concerns about all the Adelaide turmoil resulted in an apostolic commission investigation. While Mary was exonerated, Fr. Woods was removed as the society’s director and reassigned seven hundred miles away. Intent on moving the community beyond diocesan politics, Mary left Adelaide in March 1873 and did not return until January 1875. When she met with Pope Pius IX in Rome, her first stop, he called her “the excommunicated one.” After traveling throughout Europe, Mary was called back to Rome and accepted a revised constitution.

Back home in Australia, Mary continued to encounter opposition from the bishops, who believed they needed more control over the sisters. This round of discord included the bishop of Adelaide, who in November 1883 sent Mary to Sidney. It is perhaps not surprising that Mary was removed as superior general in favor of a more pliable sister. Mary served as her assistant superior general, but the pair failed to see eye to eye on many topics. To add to Mary’s challenges, Fr. Woods died in 1889; their relationship had never been completely repaired.

When the superior general died, the sisters returned Mary to that role, a position she would hold until her death. A stroke in 1902 confined her to a wheelchair but had no other effects on her abilities. Indeed, she was elected to another term as superior general three years later.

Praying with Mary

St. Mary, help me to put aside my temptation to let my desire to be one of the “cool kids”
when it conflicts with faithful obedience. Help me to trust and to believe that being popular
with God is all that matters.

Radical Saints

3 thoughts on “Radical Saints: Mary MacKillop”

  1. Interesting biography of sister Mary 🤔
    Especially liked prayer at the end about being a fool if you’re always trying to be cool 😎

  2. Lord Jesus Christ, inflame our hearts with love for you and for your ways and help us to exchange the yoke of rebellion for the yoke of submission to your Holy and loving word. Set us free from the folly of our own sinful ignorance and rebellious pride that we may wholly desire what is good and in accord with your will. Amen.

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