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Mary MacKillop: the ground of her loving

24 September, 2010

164 pp. Darton Longman and Todd Ltd. To purchase this book online, go to www.dltbooks.com

After a first chapter on the life of St Mary MacKillop, Margaret Paton delves quite deeply into what inspired this great Australian woman and her devotion to children and to the poor. She also explores MacKillop’s articulate intelligence which enabled her to stand up to bishops, and the generosity of spirit which led her to forgive those who wronged her. There are interesting chapters on how Mary discerned the will of God in her life with links to the spirituality of Ignatius of Loyola, Simone Weil and Evelyn Underhill. An interesting parallel is drawn with Sister Helen Prejean with whom Mary MacKillop courageously shared a willingness to be with prisoners facing the death penalty. An excellent introduction to understanding this saint to be canonised on Sunday 17th October.



  1. A Selfless Life 
  2. Mary MacKillop and the will of God 
  3. Living Creatively with the will of God – Mary MacKillop and Evelyn Underhill 
  4. Revisiting the Virtue of Humility with Mary MacKillop 
  5. The Vow of Poverty — Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods 
  6. Mary MacKillop’s heart and the Sacred Heart 
  7. Mary MacKillop, Ignatius Loyola and obedience 
  8. Mary MacKillop and friendship 
  9. The wisdom of Mary MacKillop 
  10. The spirituality of courage — Mary MacKillop and Helen Prejean 

Further Reading 


Many books have been written about Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), an Australian of Scottish descent. They are mostly books about her remarkable life. One can read and re-read the story of her life, and in the year of her Canonisation there will be more interest in her life than ever, particularly by those in countries other than Australia, although there are Australians too who know little about her life.

The title, The Ground of Her Loving, was inspired by Paul Tillich’s phrase, the ground of being, by which he meant the reason or reasons for being. Such an abstract phrase would hardly be appropriate as a title for a book about Mary MacKillop, who is earthy and practical. She is more concerned with loving than being. Her reasons for loving are the Sacred Heart of Jesus that was pierced for love, and the will of a God of great goodness who loves the poor, especially poor children.

The Spirituality of Mary MacKillop is the sub-title. Spirituality is not an easy word. By spirituality I mean the relation between the whole person, body, mind and spirit, and God. God comes into every part of a person’s life. Daniel Lyne has written a book on Mary MacKillop’s spirituality and I am indebted to him. I have tried to draw out the salient points of her spirituality in connection with the Will of God, humility, poverty, the Sacred Heart, obedience, unity, Eucharist and friendship and courage.

As I studied Mary MacKillop’s spirituality, I have discovered that she had ideas in common with other spiritual writers. For example, the French philosopher, Simone Weil, regarding our attentive response to the Will of God and the concept of affliction. Evelyn Underhill, who wrote, as Mary MacKillop did, about the adorable Will of God. And Helen Prejean, who is still alive, and with whom Mary MacKillop courageously shared a willingness to be with those who were in prison, facing the death penalty, that few, if any writers, have acknowledged adequately.

The contents of this book have been accumulating since 1997. It seems a very slight book to have taken so long to come together but I wrote as and when I was inspired and could find time. It is in the form ofa series of articles that I trust will give the reader a sense of her articulate intelligence, which enabled her to stand her ground against bishops, the loving advice she gave to the Sisters, and her generosity of spirit which led her to forgive everyone who had wronged her.

The book has a theme, namely: what contemporary relevance has Mary MacKillop? It breaks down into a series of questions: What can she teach us about spirituality? What can we learn from her about Religious life and about her experience of life? It is really a book of much needed revisiting of concepts that have tended to lose their significance in this post-modern age, such as obedience, humility, and the Will of God. It is also a book whose theological approach is experiential rather than theoretical.

An ego-less life is one in which there is a total absence of self-importance, and no desire for her own way to prevail. Mary MacKillop’s life was ego-less because she was open and welcoming to whatever was to be. The spirituality of an ego-less life reveals the nearness of God to her and the distance of the self. She had completely given herself into the hands of God — so completely that she feared she might do something that would be contrary to the Will of God. The aim of Chapter 1 is to show the extent of the opposition she had to endure from many bishops and priests.

Two articles on the Will of God are included. ‘Mary MacKillop and the Will of God’ (Chapter 2) was published in the Australian Catholic Record in December 1997. ‘Living Creatively with the Will of God — Mary MacKillop and Evelyn Underhill’ (Chapter 3) has not been published before. Mary herself was so committed to the Will of God. It was the centre of her life. I argue in ‘Mary MacKillop and the Will of God’ that it is her undivided devotion to the Will of God that is the key to understanding her holiness and why she is to be canonised as Australia’s first saint. The first paper is theoretical; the second is more experiential. The common, creative approach of Mary MacKillop and Evelyn Underhill to the Will of God is remarkably similar, even to the use of the word ‘adorable’ in relation to the Will of God. I introduce the phrase, ‘living with the Will of God’ to highlight the question: What was it like for Mary MacKillop and Evelyn Underhill to experience and live with the Will of God? It was a creative challenge to both in spite of the negative language that was associated with the Will of God, such as ‘submitting’ and ‘acquiescing’. I maintain that there are some expressive words that have a more positive and creative sense of being open to the Will of God than some of the negative words that have been used and may still have a lingering impact on our understanding of the Will of God. For Mary MacKillop, who used such words as ‘dear’, ‘adorable’ and ‘beautiful’ of the Will of God, this creative language would have been acceptable.

Chapter 4, ‘Revisiting the Virtue of Humility with Mary MacKillop’, was published in 2005. It has often been said that Mary was not concerned with theoretical matters because she was so practical. However, she was certainly interested in the concept of humility. She made a relevant distinction between true and false humility. False humility is a self-centred preoccupation with presenting oneself to others as a very humble person. True humility, on the other hand, is inspired by charity and thoughtfulness for others and putting oneself last. This is a very helpful distinction for us today as we still wrestle with the meaning of humility. Mary MacKillop frequently spoke of humility in connection with obedience and unity, both of which she believed her Sisters needed to take to the Sacred Heart in prayer. There is much that we can learn from Mary MacKillop about humility.
Daniel Lyne says that Mary MacKillop accepted poverty, whether material or spiritual, with a sense of joy. However, it would be a mistake to think that she rejoiced in poverty for its own sake. It was always in relation to the Will of God or the poverty of Christ that she wanted poverty for the Institute. Poverty was the hallmark of the Institute. However, it would have been very difficult to talk about Mary MacKillop’s views on poverty without also taking into account Julian Tenison Woods’ views. To begin with they were very much of the same mind about poverty and never owning property. But I felt, in Chapter 5, that there was a need to clarify the meaning of ‘poverty’ and ‘poor’ as they were using the terms. Mary MacKillop spoke frequently about poverty and being poor. It was spiritual poverty that was the centre of her interest. Sisters living in community were very often ‘strapped for cash’ and did not know where their next meal was coming from. They had to trust in God and recognise their dependence upon God. Today all the Sisters have enough to eat and they have a monthly budget. So, when they take a vow of poverty, what exactly are they vowing? One thing they are certainly vowing is to be detached from material possessions. Only if they are detached will they be able to follow the poor Christ, as Mary MacKillop wanted them to. In the time of the early Sisters, poverty was more of a reality for them than it is for us today. Mary MacKillop herself spoke of how hard it was to get money.

Chapter 6, ‘Mary MacKillop’s Heart and the Sacred Heart’, is intended as a tribute to her love of the Heart of Christ. Worship of the Sacred Heart is no longer as prominent today as it was in the time of Mary MacKillop. ‘Heart’ is no longer considered to be an important word. However, Karl Rahner calls it a ‘primordial’ word. I call the word ‘sacred’ a connecting word. It connects precious experiences, that we wish to honour, with the Sacred Heart. I argue, following Karl Rahner, that a spirituality of the Heart of Jesus is urgently needed in the loveless world of today. Mary MacKillop’s own heart of love can lead us in the direction of recovering a role for the Sacred Heart today, particularly in the Eucharist.

Mary MacKillop thought very highly of Ignatius Loyola, especially his letter on obedience. Obedience is a much misunderstood term today. Obedience was important to Mary MacKillop because she followed Ignatius in maintaining that obedience was essential for unity. She was keenly aware that her own Institute lacked the unity she wanted and she may have been afraid that it would grow progressively more disunited. She wanted all her Sisters to know that the source of their unity was their oneness in God and she wanted them to realise just how superficial their differences of opinion really were. I argue in Chapter 7 that obedience is a much needed virtue in Religious life today, as well as in everyday life, but it is important that we know what obedience really means.

Friendship seemed a good topic to include. When Mary became a religious and took her vows, she certainly did not give up her humanity. I know that there are different views about the place of friendship in the life of a religious. My own view is that friendship is a gift from God. Mary’s friendship with Joanna Barr Smith, a Protestant, the subject of Chapter 8, was a deepening of her human experience. She became her friend when she recognised Joanna’s spiritual difficulties and hoped that she would convert to the Catholic faith. Joanna remained a Protestant but she was a very generous and devoted friend to Mary. There was a bond of affection between them, which helped Mary to be a more understanding person, without in any way diminishing her holiness.

‘Wisdom’ is not a word that is very often used of Mary MacKillop. In Chapter 9, I have found plenty of evidence to show that she did indeed have wisdom. I discovered two core meanings to wisdom. The first is friendship with God — that is how the writer of the Wisdom of Solomon defines wisdom. The second is ordinariness and practical common sense. I argue that Mary MacKillop had wisdom in both these senses. It is her friendship with God that inspires her love of ordinariness. There can be no pretence, or affectation, with God. She knew that she was just herself with God.

Wisdom in the second sense is much more concerned with living life. Mary’s wisdom in this sense resided in her gifts of gratitude, reconciliation and a sense of justice. Her lovely saying, ‘Gratitude is the memory of the heart’, enshrines so much wisdom. Her ability to forgive even her enemies has led Bishop Cuskelly to say that she is a saint of reconciliation for the world. Justice, for Mary, has to do with equality and dignity. But her wisdom in relation to punishment shows her compassionate nature and her realisation of need, not punishment, as a central part of the human condition that was the focus of her attention. Being attentive to the needs of others is a Gospel value full of wisdom and compassion.

Mary MacKillop was firstly an educationalist but throughout her Religious life she was involved in social work. She was concerned mainly with setting up Providences and Refuges for women who had fallen on evil days. Helen Prejean is a nun from the community of St Joseph in Medaille, Louisiana, with whom Mary MacKillop had one thing in common: courage, the subject of Chapter 10. I was impressed when I heard Helen Prejean speaking in Sydney against the death penalty in 2004. She had accompanied six men to the death chamber. Two of them were later found to be innocent. I was amazed to find, when I looked into Mary MacKillop’s social work at the beginning of the Institute in Adelaide, that she had done prison visiting that had included visiting some inmates who were condemned to death. So great was her effect on a man called Fagan that he repented of his crime. Mary asked if she could go to the place of execution with him but it was not allowed. Unlike Helen Prejean, who went to the death chamber with the prisoners, Mary MacKillop could only ask to go with Fagan; but the fact that she was prepared to go so far with him is an example of her courage, which was all the more remarkable given that she was a woman and it was the late 1860s, when men liked women to know their place.

These are spiritual topics, for they are all concerned with Mary MacKillop, the whole person, and her relationship with God. I have endeavoured to bring them all together as the ground or reason of her loving, as the title of this book suggests.



‘Mary MacKillop, profoundly God-centred, aware of the spiritual
presence of that God from her childhood, allowed her awareness
to spill over into loving service of others’.
Colleen O’Sullivan RSJ

Mary MacKillop was an Australian who co-founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1866. The Order grew because it was needed. There were 750 Sisters in the Order (1) when she died at Mount Street, Sydney, on 8 August 1909. Even in her dying she was deemed to be a saint. Cardinal Moran (2), who came to see her a few days before she died, left saying that he had attended the deathbed of a saint. The Cardinal presided at her funeral Mass. In his homily he spoke words that are just as true for today:

It was a glorious apostolate Mother Mary has assigned to them (the Sisters) and it pleased God that the lowly seed sown in humility and poverty in those days of the ostentation of wealth and the pursuit of pleasure should grow into the stately tree it is today …(3).

Today there are over a thousand Associates, as well as Sisters, who live the charism of Mary MacKillop, to do the Will of God with love and gratitude, in their day to day lives.

Who is this remarkable woman who has inspired so many to pray through her intercession for their needs?

She lived an ‘ego-less’ life that attracted opposition, as a mountain accumulates clouds. She always wanted what God wanted and saw each person as being on a pathway chosen for them by God. She spoke about the ‘thorny yet strangely sweet path marked out for each of us to follow’ (4). It is the juxtaposition of her compassion with the patriarchal insensitivity of the Australian Church in the nineteenth century that awakens a sense of the mystery of her love for everyone, both friend and foe alike. Her deep love of God, and the shameful way in which she was treated, shows the light of Christ shining through her sheer goodness, making her more than human. Her acquaintance with many forms of suffering invites people to pray to the Sacred Heart through her.

Mary MacKillop was born on 15 January 1842 at Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, or, as it used to be known, Newtown, Melbourne. Her parents, Alexander MacKillop and Flora MacDonald, were immigrants from the Scottish Highlands, the Braes of Lochaber, near Inverness, described as the cradle of Catholicism in Scotland.

Alexander had trained for the priesthood but was never ordained (5). He was the first member of his immediate family to come to Australia in 1838, on board The Brilliant. He was twenty-six. Alexander and Flora met in Melbourne in 1840. After what may well have been a whirlwind romance they were married on 14 July the same year.

Their first home was Marino Cottage, where Mary was born. She was the first Australian offshoot of this alliance that had its roots in the steep hillsides of Lochaber, which called for courage and endurance. She was the eldest of eight children. Margaret (Maggie) was the second and their third child was John. He was followed by Alick, who died when he was only eleven months, then there were Annie, Lexie (Alexandrine), Donald and finally Peter.

The period between the births of Mary and Maggie was the happiest time for the MacKillops. They owned a home of their own, and Alexander was employed with Campbell and Sons, a trading company, and had made good since coming to Melbourne. Unfortunately in 1841 he became involved with a syndicate, called ‘The Apostles’, whose aim was to rescue a pioneer trader who owed £10,000 to a bank. Alexander lost all his money and was declared bankrupt. He was not prudent where money was concerned, as this shows. He never recovered from the loss and was unable to provide adequately for his family. Mary and her younger brothers and sisters grew up in respectable poverty, dependent on the help of relatives.

Her mother was a devout person who taught Mary to trust in God and his providence. Mary wrote to her mother:

It was in hardships, poverty and even want that you had to rear your children, but in the bitterest trial and greatest need your confidence in Divine Providence never failed (6).

From a young age Mary was well aware of the worry of not having adequate food and clothing and at times not even a roof over their heads.

Her father was the teacher who did most for her education, especially in relation to religion and the Church. He enabled her to see the importance of education. She was very intelligent. Her letters are enlightening and full of spiritual encouragement. She wrote mainly to the Sisters of St Joseph and to her mother.

As the eldest of the family, Mary had a lot of responsibility. The weight of caring for the family fell on her. From her earliest days Mary was a nomad. Her family had no settled home of their own. The lack of their own home, the inability of their father to provide for them, the uncertainty of not knowing where they would be living, must have given rise to tensions, even quarrels, between her parents. Later, Mary was to write of her childhood with feelings of sadness:

My life as a child was one of sorrows, my home when I had it, a most unhappy one (7).

She was a very good horsewoman. She was able to handle horses skilfully and showed courage in controlling them. It was part of her character not to give in or to be beaten by anything but she had a love for animals.

Even in her childhood one can see evidence of her being prepared for the difficulties in her later life. Throughout her life she never shirked a hardship. When she was still a child she came home one day to find the baby Donald’s nurse drunk. She dismissed her at once and looked after the baby herself. When she was a Sister in Adelaide she did prison visiting. She went to a murderer called Fagan. She was warned not to go into his cell. She did; and he prayed with her, much to the amazement of the prison staff.

When she was eighteen (1860), and governess to her cousins at Penola in South Australia, she met someone who was to change her life. The parish priest at Penola was Father Julian Tenison Woods. His parish covered hundreds of square miles. He was often away for days at a time. He met many poor children who were running wild receiving no education. He wanted to start a new Religious Order to teach poor children. It would be a radical Order whose members would live with the people and move with them. They would be available to help them and to teach their children. He had come across the Sisters of St Joseph at Le Puy, (8) in France, when he was with the Marists. They were sent out to be with poor people. He wanted his Order to be modelled on them but it would be entirely new in Australia, where Religious life was thought of as living securely behind convent walls, as it was in Ireland. Together, they dreamt of taking Catholic education to poor children living in remote parts of the bush where there was no school, or at least none to which their parents could have afforded to send them.

Mary knew that she wanted to become a nun and to teach poor Children. She had already decided that she did not want to join any of the existing Orders, like the Sisters of Mercy, who lived in cloisters and who had Choir and Lay Sisters. If she joined them she would only be able to teach those who could afford to pay. She would not be able to teach poor children to whom her heart reached out. She was adamant that she did not want any distinctions. All the Sisters were to be equal, as they were before God. At a time when rank, status and social position in the colonies mattered so much, Mary’s conception of an Institute where none of these things mattered, was forward-looking, even revolutionary. No dowry was asked for or expected. It was the God-given meeting of two people who had the same dream.

In 1867 Mary opened the first Josephite school in a stable at Penola. It was a humble beginning, as it was for Jesus at Bethlehem. Bishop Sheil (9) visited the school, calling her Sister Mary, as though approving of the new Institute Father Woods and she were founding.

In the same year, Mary and Rose Cunningham came to Adelaide. Mary took her Vows and became the first Sister of St Joseph in Australia. Her religious name was Mary of the Cross MacKillop. It was prophetic.

Her life was to be a multiplicity of crosses; a nest of crosses was how Julian Tenison Woods described her life. It was also one continuous prayer. She was always aware of the presence of God hidden in the ordinary things of life. She knew that she was called to bear her cross. She wrote to her mother, Flora:

The Cross is my portion. It is also my sweet rest and support. I could not be happy without my cross. I would not lay it down for all the world could give. With the Cross I am happy but without it would be lost (10).

Mary MacKillop lived by the power of the Cross, in the light of resurrection. She carried her cross without complaint, as a gift from God. She never shirked hardship because she saw it as Christ asking her to do something for him.

Father Woods drafted the First Rule for the new Institute. It gave prominence to no ownership. The Sisters would not own any property or material possessions and would live a life of poverty from contributions to the schools, as people could afford, or from alms. The Institute would have Central Government, which meant that, although the Sisters would work in various dioceses, they would not be under the control of the bishops but answerable to the Superior General of the Institute.

Mary of the Cross lived with three novices in Adelaide. They were the first community of nuns living in a small house in the city. They were innovators, or pioneers, and their lifestyle was simple and rudimentary. Above all they were free to go where they were needed.

They took charge of the Francis Xavier Cathedral Hall school, which had sixty students. The mother of the grandson of Governor Daly wished him to attend, provided he could receive special treatment, such as being kept separate from the other pupils. Mary would not have him in the school on these terms, which went against her principle of equal treatment for all.

By 1869, more than half the Catholic schools in Adelaide — seventeen in all — were run by the Sisters. There were thirty-eight Sisters and thirty-two novices. From then on, schools were set up round Adelaide and in other parts of South Australia.

There was another development in 1869. Mary was asked by Bishop James Quinn in Queensland to bring some Sisters to set up Josephite schools. They stayed in Queensland until 1879, when Mary was obliged to withdraw them after trouble with the Bishop, who wanted control over the Sisters. However, Mary would not yield to his demands. He called her ‘an ambitious, obstinate woman, a disobedient nun, and a very troublesome woman’ (11).

Bishop Matthew Quinn (12), brother of James Quinn, asked Mary to establish a community in Bathurst, New South Wales, in 1871. Mary took a group of Sisters from Adelaide. The Bishop of Bathurst turned out to be particularly antagonistic to Central Government. Mary resisted his attempts. He tried to change their Rule so that he had power over what they taught. He succeeded in getting a group of young women under his control. They were mainly postulants he had brought to his diocese from Ireland. Mary wisely let the Sisters choose whether they would return to Adelaide or stay with the Bishop. All except one Sister remained faithful to their Rule: Sister Hyacinth stayed to train the postulants at the urgent request of Bishop Quinn.

Mary returned to Adelaide in April 1871. While she had been away, things had not been going smoothly for the Sisters in Adelaide, some of whom claimed to have had visionary experiences. They managed to impress Father Woods with their accounts and had been encouraged by him. He regarded them as being very saintly. Mary was more cautious and believed the visions were delusions, and that Father Woods had been imprudent in giving them his support. This, however, was only part of the trouble. Mary had foreseen potential problems with regard to Father Woods relations with other priests in the diocese.

He had become Director General of Catholic Education and Inspector of Schools in South Australia. He was unpopular. Dislike of him focused on the Sisters too. Many rumours were circulating among the priests about the Sisters, who were being made the objects of ridicule and were charged with being incompetent teachers, which was far from being the case. Bishop Sheil’s health was declining and he was so influenced by what he heard about the Sisters from the priests that he excommunicated Sister Mary in the chapel at Franklin Street, and dispersed the Adelaide Sisters. Mary wrote:

The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget (13).

Owning no house, they had nowhere to go, but they had friends in their time of need. Emmanuel Solomon, a Jew, provided a house for the Sisters to live in. Joanna and Robert Barr Smith, Anglicans, were supportive. Jesuit priests at Norwood Church, Adelaide, stood by Mary and tended to her needs. This very tragic mistake was put right within a few months, just before Bishop Shell died. It is hard for us to imagine what the experience of excommunication would have been like for Mary MacKillop and the Sisters. It must have been like being shipwrecked. Restitution would have been justified vindication for the Sisters.

In order to set matters straight regarding the Rule and Central Government, Mary went to Rome in 1873. She travelled as a lay person, to have the Rule approved. It took Rome two years to approve the Constitutions after they had changed the tenet of no ownership to owning property. In particular they  were to own a Mother House in Adelaide. Even with the sanction of Rome, the bishops still tried to get control. Sadly, Father Woods was upset that Mary had gone to Rome without seeing him first, although she had tried unsuccessfully. He was very much against the decision of Rome to make owning property mandatory. He believed that Mary should have defended no ownership which she did not do. It was a very hard time for Mary. It was the end of their working together.

Her sense of the Will of God and the hand of God in everything is what gave her the courage to face daunting tasks. Speaking about the Institute, she wrote to the Sisters:

God will protect His own work. Never is he nearer to it than when danger threatens (14).

This shows her very real sense of God being at work in our lives. God was not some remote father figure for her. God was more of a landscape gardener, creating pathways in our lives.

She returned to Adelaide at the beginning of 1875, having visited Scotland and Ireland and been on a pilgrimage to Paray-le-Monial, in France, while Rome was considering the Rule. Back in Adelaide, she was elected Superior General of the Institute. In the same year she went back to Queensland, taking with her the Constitutions that had been approved by Rome. She went for the sole purpose of trying to come to terms with Bishop James Quinn. There was no possibility of a compromise. He wanted control of the Sisters. She had no choice but to withdraw them from Queensland.

Mary brought the Sisters from Queensland to Sydney. She had the support of Archbishop Vaughan (15) who did not interfere with the Constitutions. Mary spoke of him as being ‘more than kind’. They established schools and a Providence house for destitute women and children. They set up an orphanage for boys at Kincumber and an orphanage for girls at Lane Cove. Once again, God had led them to fresh pastures and many more needy children. In 1883 Mother Mary settled in Mount Street, North Sydney. The property was a gift from Dean Kenny (16). She wrote from there:

We have no noise, bustle or excitement. There is a nice little garden, a paddock with a high fence and birds singing around us (17).

She was happy there and frequently wrote of how well she was when she was in Sydney. Bishop Sheil was succeeded by Bishop Reynolds (18) who, at first, was very well-disposed to the Josephites, but, with the animosity of the priests towards the Sisters, he became disaffected. He decided to set up a Commission in 1883 to inquire into the affairs of the Sisters of St Joseph in South Australia.

They were in debt over the Mother House at Kensington but more serious was the accusation of alcoholism, which originated in Mary taking brandy as a medicinally-prescribed remedy for her health problems. She had a condition known as dysmenorrhea (19) which gave her a lot of pain. Brandy was the only known remedy. It was a very bitter time for Mary. Not all the Sisters were as loyal and truthful as they should have been. The matter ended quite tragically. Mary was expelled from Adelaide without being allowed to give any reason to the Sisters for her departure. This led to misunderstanding, grief and, in some cases, a feeling of being abandoned by the Mother they loved. Some Sisters left Adelaide and went to Sydney. On a more cheerful note, the first New Zealand foundation was begun in Temuka in 1883.

Mary was re-elected as Superior General at the second Chapter in 1881 but she herself doubted that her election was valid. That term of office came to an abrupt end when Sister Bernard was appointed Superior General in 1885, and Mary faced the tragedy of her beloved mother’s death in May 1886. Flora was drowned when The Ly-ee-Moon sank off the coast of Green Cape, near Eden, New South Wales.

The expansion of the Institute continued with the first foundation in Victoria in 1889 at Numurkah. This was followed by a school at Bacchus Marsh. In 1890 a Children’s Home was started at Surrey Hills, a suburb of Melbourne. Archbishop Carr asked Mother Mary to come and help. This was what the Sisters of St Joseph had been founded for — to serve Christ in his neglected little ones’. But Victoria was in the midst of a financial crisis and money was in short supply, especially for a children’s home. Mother Mary referred to herself as ‘Beggar-in-Chief’. In 1892, she became seriously ill and was thought to be dying. According to the doctor, it was only prayer that saved her.

In time, she was well enough to travel again and began a series of visits to New Zealand, a country she loved. Her first was in 1894-5, the second from 1897-8, the third in 1900 and the last one in 1902. Her first time consisted of arduously travelling from North to South Island and back again, stopping at all the Josephite convents. Her second visit was cut short because of the news of Mother Bernard’s unexpected death. Mary returned to Sydney at once, and was elected Superior General at the Fifth Chapter in 1899. When she returned for her third visit she knew her responsibilities as Superior General would not allow her to be away from Australia for long, but there were matters in New Zealand that needed her attention. Her fourth visit was under doctor’s orders to go to the medicinal baths at Rotorua, for a cure for her arthritis. She had been there four months when she had a stroke. Her right side was paralysed and she was confined to a wheelchair. She returned to Sydney at the end of 1902.

In 1904 she made a journey to Victoria and South Australia. It was her last journey to see her Sisters there. She continued to make decisions regarding the Institute. She still had to endure physical pain, which she described as a toothache in every part of her body.

Mary of the Cross was beginning to struggle with governing the Congregation from her wheelchair. She gradually grew weaker. In August 1909, having not spoken for some days, she was asked if she would like the Blessed Sacrament and answered clearly that she would. She never spoke again. Father Matthew Smith went to the oratory for the Blessed Sacrament and when he returned he found the way to her room strewn with flower petals that had fallen from a vase. The beauty and fragility of the petals spoke of the beauty of the self-giving vulnerability of the woman who was dying within.

She is buried in the chapel at Mount Street, North Sydney, which has become a shrine of pilgrimage. There is nothing more peaceful one can do than go and kneel beside her tomb, which has her words engraved on it: Remember we are but travellers here and Trust in God. Blessed Mary MacKillop is still very much alive today. So many people carry her in their hearts.

Mary MacKillop was beatified in Sydney on 19 January 1995, by Pope John Paul II. She was a woman of vision. People have said that she was a woman before her time. But her vision was so relevant and necessary for the hard times in which she lived that one can only say she was a desperately-needed woman for her times, when poor children were not being educated or cared for. The education of poor children, whose parents could not afford to send them to a school, and many of whom were living in ignorance of their faith, was the firm foundation of her vision. Everything else that caused her so much trouble came about through putting her vision into practice. To some extent it was the old, old story of men who could not tolerate a woman speaking her mind, no matter how courteously she did it. They could not understand or accept the idea of Religious life for women being lived in the bush, on the gold fields, outside the jurisdiction of bishops, wherever there was a need. It was a thicket of crosses that Mary was caught in, without any complaint or rancour.

Many of her obituary notices are headed ‘Mother Mary of the Cross’, as though proclaiming the heavy cross she had carried throughout her life. She endured what might be described as a ‘tsunami’ of opposition from one bishop after another, and from many priests, especially those in South Australia.

She lived her spirituality of trusting God. She walked with sure feet on the rugged mountains of God’s challenges to her.



  1. Daily Telegraph, Sydney, 11 August 1909
  2. Cardinal Moran was Archbishop of Sydney from 1884 until his death in 1911
  3. Life and Letters of Mother Mary of the Cross, by a Sister of St Joseph, Westmead, 1916, p.398
  4. Mary MacKillop, Circular to the Sisters, 19 March 1893, Mount Street, 1976, p.179
  5. Victor Feehan and Ann MacDonnell, In Search of Alexander MacKillop, St Joseph Publications, 1994, for further biographical information
  6. Sheila McCreanor RSJ (ed.), Mary MacKillop and Flora (Correspondence between Mary MacKillop and her mother, Flora McDonald MacKillop), 27 Nov. 1866, Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, 2004, p.11
  7. Mary MacKillop, Letter to Monsignor Kirby at Rome, 1873
  8. The Sisters at Le Puy were founded about 1650. For further information see Mary Cresp RSJ, In the Spirit of Joseph, Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, 2005
  9. Bishop Lawrence Bonaventure Sheil was Bishop of Adelaide from 1866 to 1871. He came from Ireland
  10. Sheila McCreanor RSJ, ibid. Mary MacKillop, letter to her mother, 26 February 1872
  11. Mary MacKillop to Franchi, 20 May 1875, MacKillop, Letterbook
  12. Bishop Matthew Quinn, Bishop of Bathurst 1865-1885
  13. Mary MacKillop, letter to Father Woods, September 1871
  14. Mary MacKillop, Circular to the Sisters, 11 December 1880
  15. Archbishop Roger Vaughan of Sydney 1877-1883
  16. Dean Kenny was a friend of her father’s. He gave up his house on the property for the Sisters and went to live in a little cottage
  17. Quoted by Sister M. Peter in her book Dauntless Daughter of Desires, Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, 1965, p.24
  18. Bishop (Archbishop) of Adelaide Christopher Augustine Reynolds died in 1893
  19. Abnormally painful menstruation

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