Saint of the Day – St Mary of the Cross (1842-1909) Also known as St Mary Mackillop – Virgin, Religious Sister and Founder of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart (the Josephites), together with Fr Julian Tenison Woods. a congregation of religious sisters that established a number of schools and welfare institutions throughout Australia and New Zealand, with an emphasis on education for the rural poor. She was born on 15 January 1842 at Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia as Maria Ellen MacKillop and died on • 8 August 1909 at Sydney, Australia following a stroke. Patronages – Australia, Brisbane, Knights of the Southern Cross.
Mary of the Cross MacKillop was born on 15 January 1842 in Melbourne, Australia. Conditions in the mid-nineteenth century were still appallingly primitive. Poverty was rife especially in country areas, religious discrimination was widespread, the plight of the aboriginal people was deplorable, unemployment was common-place and communication was difficult in the extreme. Travel over any distance was for the fearless and tough.
Many of the first settlers were of convict origin with little education and many were descendants of Irish Catholics much discriminated against because of their religion and place of origin. The Church had few priests to serve its people who were scattered around rural areas and, as a rule, experiencing poverty.
Mary was the first of eight children of Scottish immigrants, Alexander MacKillop and Flora MacDonald. These Catholic parents imbued their children with a great love of their faith. The family was poor, the father often without work because he dabbled in business and politics. Mary, in her teens, was called upon to assist the family finances by finding employment.
At a young age, Mary had increasingly felt the call to live as a religious sister but she still had the obligation to care for her family. While working as a governess in Penola, she met Father Julian Tenison Woods who was parish priest of a large part of South East, South Australia. At that period of Australian history, schools, medical care and any form of social services were lacking, especially for the poor. The Catholic rural poor were especially disadvantaged. Blessed Mary’s dream of a free education for such children corresponded with the dream of Father Woods. He became her mentor and spiritual director and encouraged her vocation. Together, they developed a plan for a congregation of sisters who would work wherever there was a need but especially in rural areas. They would live in small convents or in whatever style of dwelling that the local people had. It was a courageous plan.
In January 1866 the plan was put into action. Mary and her two sisters began teaching in Penola, South Australia, in a stable refurbished by her brother. With the encouragement and mentoring of Father Woods, the Congregation of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart was born. On the advice of Father Woods, Mary moved to the main South Australian city of Adelaide. On 15 August 1867 Mary and her companions professed the three vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Mary took the name Sister Mary of the Cross. She was joined by other young women, who responded to needs in rural areas where they provided, without payment, elementary teaching in religion and secular subjects to poor children who, otherwise had no hope of education.
Soon afterwards Mary’s charitable heart opened to the destitute and elderly who were friendless and abandoned in a harsh society without any social welfare. By 1869 there were sixty sisters working in schools, orphanages and refuges for women.
Father Woods and Blessed Mary envisaged the sisters being governed centrally by one superior and being free to go wherever there was a need anywhere in the colonies. In a short time, therefore, the sisters could be found in the other colonies and in New Zealand.
A complex set of circumstances led to the Bishop of Adelaide, who was once her friend and benefactor, excommunicating Mary in 1871 for supposed disobedience. Mary accepted the excommunication and the dismissal of many of her sisters with serenity and peace. The Bishop revoked the sentence before his death less than six months later. Mary returned to her work and the majority of the sisters, who had been sent away, returned to the Institute. They were dark days.
Mary was advised to go to Rome to seek the help of Pope Pius IX. Crucial for the institute was the concept of central government, which would enable her to send the sisters anywhere there was a need, rather than be confined to a particular diocese. While in Rome, Mary did not receive final approval for the institute—this came in 1888—but she did receive encouragement from many and especially from her three meetings with Pope Pius IX. She returned to Australia with support for central government.
Back in Australia, further problems arose and Mary was ordered to leave Adelaide for Sydney where, in 1885 she was deposed as Mother General. It was not until 1899 that the sisters were free to elect her as their Mother General, an office she held until her death. She accepted these harsh changes and still retained respect for the bishops and priesthood and encouraged her sisters to do the same. Mary was untiring in her zeal for the poor. One of her favourite sayings was, “Never see a need without doing something about it.”
Her devotion to the Sacred Heart, the Blessed Sacrament and Saint Joseph impelled her to love God and His people. Her attention to the will of God enabled her to accept the joys as well as the difficulties that beset her so frequently. She wrote, “The will of God is to me a very dear book and I never tire of reading it.”
Throughout her life Mary suffered from ill health and was often confined to bed with severe and debilitating headaches. But she used her illness to come closer to God. While visiting New Zealand when she was sixty years old she suffered a stroke. Her right side was impaired but she learned to write with her left hand and continued in the office of Superior General and even made several visitations to faraway convents.
By 1905 deterioration was becoming evident and for the next years she suffered heroically and kept a cheerful, pleasant outlook on life, always speaking of God’s Will. In 1909 her condition worsened and she died peacefully on 8 Augus 1909.
Her last days were ones of sadness for those who were gathered around her. Cardinal Moran said when he left her, “I have this day attended the death-bed of a saint… Her death will bring many blessings.” One thousand sisters then in the Institute mourned her death. Mary’s remains were removed to the Memorial Chapel at the Motherhouse in North Sydney, NSW, Australia.
Three popes, Paul VI, John Paul II and Benedict XVI, have prayed at her tomb as have thousands of pilgrims annually from all over the world.
The lasting memory many sisters had of Mary was her kindness. It was not just the kindness reflected in all the works for which she had been responsible, nor the kindness of an isolated, aloof person but the kindness which St Paul describes in his first letter to the Corinthians: Love is patient and kind; it is never jealous; love is never boastful or conceited; it is never rude or selfish; it does not take offence and is not resentful. Love… delights in the truth; it is always ready to excuse, to trust, to hope, to endure whatever comes. (1 Cor.13: 4-7).
During his visit to Sydney for World Youth Day in July 2008, Pope Benedict XVI, in speaking of Mary MacKillop, said “I know that her perseverance in the face of adversity, her plea for justice on behalf of those unfairly treated and her practical example of holiness have become a source of inspiration for all Australians”. The Holy Father spoke again, quoting Mary MacKillop, “Believe in the whisperings of God to your heart. Believe in Him. Believe in the power of the Spirit of love”. Mary was so immersed in the presence of her God that she was well placed to hear His whisperings throughout her life.
St Mary of the Cross was Canonised on 17 October 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI and is the first native-born Australian Saint.