St. Mary MacKillop: The First Australian Saint

Gillian Weyant

St. Mary MacKillop: The First Australian Saint

On October 17, 2010, Mary MacKillop became the first ever native of Australia to be canonized by the Catholic Church.  Her life was full of service to the poor or otherwise helpless, and throughout her years on earth she displayed a truly Christlike devotion to others.  She was especially dedicated to serving children, and reached the lives of many through her lifetime of hard work and sacrifice.  Mary’s own childhood was fraught with difficulty, and so as we learn about what she accomplished in her efforts to educate and care for children especially, we can learn much more about what Christ meant when he said, “do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”


Early Life

Mary Helen MacKillop was born on January 15, 1842 in what is now a suburb of Melbourne, Australia.  Her parents, Alexander and Flora MacKillop, had emigrated from Scotland to Australia separately and then married each other there in 1840, very shortly after they each arrived.  Mary eventually became the eldest of eight children born to Alexander and Flora: her siblings were Margaret, John, Annie, Alexandrina (who later became a Josephite nun), Donald (who became a Jesuit priest and worked among Aborigines), Alick and Peter. It is emblematic of the importance of the Catholic faith in the MacKillop household that several of the children felt themselves called to religious vocations when they reached adulthood.  It is likely that the devotion to the faith passed largely from Alexander, who himself had been studying for the priesthood for years in Scotland.  Although he chose to leave the seminary shortly before his ordination and pursue the vocation of marriage instead, he remained faithful to the Church himself and worked to truly pass on the faith to his children and family.

Despite the religious fervor in the MacKillop family, their lives were difficult otherwise.  Alexander struggled to work consistently and did not find success in his various business and entrepreneurial endeavors, and so the lives of the MacKillops teemed with financial tension and unpredictability.  The stability of the family often depended upon the help of relatives, and when the children became old enough, they brought in income of their own which they contributed to the family in general. So it was that Mary was thrust into a position of great responsibility from an early age, as she became one of the main providers for her family by the young age of 16.

A Heart for Teaching: Mary’s Vocation

In 1860, Mary took a job as a governess for her aunt and uncle, Alexander and Margaret Cameron, and became a teacher and caregiver to their children.  This position seems to have sparked a longing in her to care for children, and she often included the other children near the Cameron estate in her care.  This position brought Mary into contact with a local parish priest by the name of Fr. Woods.  After Mary had been a governess for the Camerons for two years, and after she taught at a nearby school and proceeded to open her own school for girls, Fr. Woods approached her about beginning to focus on general Catholic education in Australia. Fr. Woods saw great potential in Mary to help remedy the distressing lack of education (especially Catholic education) in Australia, and so Mary and her sisters Annie and Alexandrina began teaching over 50 children in 1866.  At this time, Mary dedicated herself to God and began wearing a simple habit.  Joined by her sister Alexandrina and several other women, they began to call themselves the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.  These Josephite sisters (colloquially known as the Brown Joeys) went on to found the first religious institute in Australia at the request of Bishop Laurence Sheil.


Mary’s Lifetime of Work

The Josephite sisters lived by a rule of poverty and dependence on God to provide for material things.  This helped them remain unattached to the things of this world and go freely to wherever there was a need that could be filled, usually for religious education or care for the impoverished.  By the year 1869, over 70 Josephite sisters were teaching at 21 schools across the country.  They also focused on caring for orphaned or neglected children, the elderly, those who suffered from incurable illnesses, the poor, and young girls in danger.  The Josephite order continued to expand, and by 1871, there were 130 sisters teaching and working across Australia.

Later on in 1871, Mary became the subject of a campaign that sought to discredit the Josephite sisters. She was accused of conducting herself poorly in a number of ways, and was thus excommunicated by Bishop Sheil, who cited insubordination as the reason for her excommunication.  Unfortunately, the initial allegations against Mary only arose after she and several other Josephites reported that a priest north of Adelaide had been abusing children.  The priest was removed, but Fr. Charles Horan, who was a friend of this priest and was displeased at his removal, sought to discredit Mary and her order as a form of revenge.  It was Fr. Horan’s deceptive influence over Bishop Sheil that ultimately led to Mary’s excommunication.

The Josephites were not forced to dissolve their order at this point in time, but Mary’s excommunication caused many of the Josephite schools to close.  There was some turbulence surrounding the order until Bishop Sheil, realizing the error of his ways, lifted Mary’s excommunication in 1872 and allowed her to resume her normal work.

Later Years and Death

After Mary was able to resume her efforts in publicly carrying out Christ’s call to help the helpless, the Josephite order once again began to thrive as the sisters worked throughout Australia.  A monumental event in 1873 was Mary’s journey to Rome to seek papal approval of the Josephite order.  She was encouraged by Pope Pius IX at that time, and some years later in 1888, Pope Leo XIII gave the final approval to the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

By this date, the order had opened schools in many places in the country, and the Josephite sisters continued to carry out many of the corporal works of mercy in their everyday work.  Despite their vows of poverty and the fact that the sisters still lived through alms given to them, the order was successful enough to fund their efforts in expanding throughout Australia.  Mary was not the superior general of the order at this time, but she worked closely with Mother Bernard in managing the order.  Mary worked to found a convent and base for the sisters in Petersburg (now Petersborough), Australia, and succeeded in opening it in 1897.  Mother Bernard died two years later, and Mary was unanimously elected to replace her as superior general.

Mary continued to serve her religious community as superior general over the subsequent years.  Despite her declining physical health, her mental acuity did not fail, and her fellow Josephites reelected her as superior general in 1905.  She had suffered a stroke previously but served with grace still.  She died on August 8, 1909, and even at the time of her death was recognized as a saintly woman.

Mary’s Canonization and Impact on the World

Devotions to Mary arose almost immediately, and her body was moved to a memorial chapel financed by a lifelong friend.  The process of canonization began in 1925, a mere sixteen years after her death.  There was some delay in the canonization process, but after multiple women were cured of cancer due to Mary’s intercession, Mary was finally canonized in October 2010 by Pope Benedict XVI.  Although not a Catholic country, Australia regards Mary with reverence and considers her to be an inspirational figure in the history of the country.  Many Australians traveled to Rome for her canonization and she is beloved in the country still.  Mary’s feast is celebrated on August 8.

As we look at Mary’s life, we can see what it means to have true Christian charity towards everyone.  Although she primarily worked to educate children, she also spent much time tending to those who were often rejected by the majority of society: the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the marginalized.  She was a truly pro-life figure who exhibited the mercy of God towards an impressively great number of her brothers and sisters on earth.  Like Mary, let us contemplate and take to heart the works of mercy, and work to show the love of God to all the people we may meet.


St. Mary MacKillop, pray for us!