Mary MacKillop

Mary MacKillop: An Australian Treasure

10 November 2021

3.1 MINS

One of Australia’s most famous nuns, Mary MacKillop is an Australian national treasure. Her character, kindness and love for the poor continue to inspire Christians around the world today.

The boy rowing the boat screwed his face up in timidity and fear.

Every time Mary Mackillop went to the orphanage at Kincumber, three boys were sent to Woy Woy to bring her the five kilometres across Brisbane Waters. Two were assigned to row the boat and one to bail furiously. On this occasion, one of the boys had a beaten, hang-dog look. “Please, Mother,” he confessed, “Sister sent me to tell you I stole a loaf of bread.”

A hundred years previously, the boy would have been dragged before a magistrate. His punishment would have been a sentence of transportation and seven years as a convict on the other side of the world. Children only came to be protected by law about the time Mary MacKillop died in 1909. So, the boy had cause for concern.

But Mary MacKillop—or Mary of the Cross—knew justice needed to be tempered with mercy. She could see that this orphan was not a criminal but a victim of a society unable to look after its most vulnerable people: orphaned children.

Mary’s understanding of human nature endeared her to many people. A novice nun was sent to her for discipline after losing several heavy bags of soup bones on her way back from town. She was let off after explaining, “so many dogs were following me that I felt sure that you would rather the dogs would eat the bones than they would eat me!”

Mary MacKillop’s Early Years

Mary’s early childhood was not easy. Her parents were Scottish immigrants who settled in Melbourne, where Mary was born on 15th January 1842.

Money worries were part of Mary’s life. The ‘boom and bust’ gold days saw the MacKillops suffer continual financial instability.

From her teens to mid-twenties, Mary supported the family, working in a stationery business and then as a school teacher and governess. Soon after, at the age of 24, she took the first of many courageous life steps.

Mary wanted to serve the poor, particularly educating the children who lived in the bush. She opened a school in a stable on 19th March 1866, wearing a simple black dress to signify a radical life change. The first school set the pattern for many to come — it was for the working class children, providing them with a basic but thorough education. The school aimed to make children independent, employable and well-grounded.

Other young women joined Mary MacKillop and worked to establish places of refuge and rehabilitation for people in need. Mary developed a Rule for the Sisters of St Joseph, as they became known, dedicated to meeting the material and spiritual needs of struggling people.

The Canonisation of Mary MacKillop

Mary MacKillop’s kindness and understanding were remarkable in a stiff, strict world where excuses were seldom tolerated. After her death, one sister saw a picture of Mary in a shop and asked to buy it. The storekeeper refused to sell it. “That kind lady, and holy nun that she was, saved my wife and me from starvation.” Although the man was not a Catholic, he continued to help the orphanages she founded.

Mary of the Cross was canonised by the Catholic Church in 2010. She was, however, honoured and well regarded by many Australians for well over a century before this.

Her fame emanates from her founding role in the Sisters of Saint Joseph: a Catholic order of women who devote themselves wholly to the service of God by serving the poor of the world. Today, they operate in Australia, New Zealand, Ireland, Peru, East Timor, Scotland and Brazil.

Mary’s Character in the Face of Trial

The most notorious episode of Mary’s life was her excommunication from the Church during late 1871 and early 1872. This action was quickly understood as unfair, being essentially motivated by a powerplay within Adelaide Catholicism.

While many people would become embittered by such an unjust experience and seek to retaliate, Mary refused to lower herself to such standards. Avoiding all temptation to badmouth her accusers, she came through the whole experience displaying nothing but love and compassion to all: a Christ-like quality that characterised her life.

Mary MacKillop’s attitude was always of forgiveness and respect. Her many letters are evidence of her vision, courage and leadership.
Her life and contributions to society might be summarised by the words of James 1:22: “Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.”

Mary was not naïve, nor did she shy back from a challenge. She understood who her Lord was and lived her life by His example. Mary’s life was one of service, love and humility. She was a strong character who consistently put her Lord and others first.

First published at DIDUNO. Image via Sisters of Saint Joseph.

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  1. Sr MaryEllen O'Donoghue 11 November 2021 at 3:37 pm - Reply

    Thank you for including this article on Mary MacKillop, who was indeed a great Australian woman. The article highlights many of Mary’s gifts and qualities.
    As a Sister of Saint Joseph I would like to highlight an inaccuracy in paragraph 10 where it states, “Mary developed a Rule …”. It was in fact, Fr Julian Tenison Woods who wrote the Rule for the Sisters.

    • Kurt Mahlburg 11 November 2021 at 3:54 pm - Reply

      Thank you for highlighting this to us Sr Mary. Do you have a source for the information about Fr Julian Tenison Woods? If so we will make an update to the article! Blessings.

  2. nel farnik 12 November 2021 at 12:14 pm - Reply

    I too am grateful for Mary MacKillop as I received most of my education via the Sisters of St Joseph here in Adelaide. At a very difficult time in my life I was shown great kindness through one special nun and I am appreciate many of the deep values imparted to me.

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