Issue 3 - 20 Oct
A Silver Lining by Richard Leonard SJ
Saturday 17 October 2020 marked the 10th anniversary of Saint Mary MacKillop’s canonisation at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome, declaring her Australia’s first canonised saint. We are the only parish where: a canonised saint worshipped at St Francis Xavier, Lavender Bay, on most Sundays she was in Sydney; her Requiem Mass was celebrated in the church that was on the site of the present St Mary’s, North Sydney, on August 11 1909; and, after initially being buried at Gore Hill on 27 January 1914 her remains were exhumed and transferred back into our parish coming to rest in the chapel at Mackillop Place.
Just when you might think we know most things about St Mary Mac I hope these reflections might cast some fresh thoughts on her life and how she’s the inspiration that keeps giving.
St Mary MacKillop (1842 – 1909)
Strictly speaking, Mary MacKillop is known as St Mary of the Cross. She is Australia’s first and at present only canonized Catholic saint. It is striking that most Australians do not use her formal title, but refer to her by her baptismal name. Maybe it has something to do with Australia’s more relaxed and informal style for, even after she was canonized, many Australians drop the ‘Saint’ altogether when we speak of her—because good friends rarely stand on ceremony.
It’s not that Mary did not know about being crucified; she certainly did. She gives comfort to every sane, rebellious prophet in the Church and the world.
While she may have set out to become a saint, something all baptized people are told by St Paul to desire, she was a most reluctant prophet. A teacher by profession, she was appalled by the poverty in rural Australia and knew that education was one of the great keys to true freedom, especially for the deprived people of the Australian outback. In 1866, with her priest friend and adviser, Fr Julian Tenison Woods, she founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, for the education of poor children. Within five years, 130 sisters were running more than 40 schools and welfare institutions across South Australia and Queensland. Within a hundred years (along with the Sisters of Mercy), the “Joeys” (as they are affectionately called) were in every tin-pot place in the country.
In 1866, Australia was not yet a federation; that occurred in 1901. However, decades before that event, Mary MacKillop wanted her sisters to be free from the interference of local bishops and to respond to national needs. So she opted for a central, national government for her Congregation. Most of the Australian bishops did not like it, especially Bishop Shiel of Adelaide who, believing false allegations that Mary was financially incompetent and an alcoholic, also formally excommunicated her on the September 22, 1871.
Shiel was certainly not alone. Of the fourteen bishops in Australia and New Zealand in 1871, eleven wrote to Rome against Mary and her sisters. Only three bishops supported her, and they all belonged to a religious order themselves. Today, none of these men are known, except to historians, but the woman they condemned is given to us as a model of universal holiness. In a dominantly patriarchal church, St Mary MacKillop was loyal in her dissent, strong in hope, magnificent in faith, and unfailing in her forgiveness of her enemies.
With the excommunication lifted on February 23, 1872, Mary had to set about protecting her work, and her sisters. This was aided and abetted through an unlikely conspiracy between a Jew, a Presbyterian, and two Jesuits. (That’s starting to sound like the beginning of a joke!)
One of Mary’s great patrons and friends was Mrs Joanna Barr-Smith, a devout Presbyterian, who helped finance Mary’s first mother house in Adelaide and paid for her tombstone. To have a protestant benefactor may have been bad enough at the time, but to call her “my very dear friend,” as Mary often did, was dangerous in sectarian nineteenth century Australia.
One of Mary’s other good friends was Emmanuel Solomon, a Jewish man who was transported to Australia as a convict for theft in 1818, and later became a successful businessman, Parliamentarian, and philanthropist. He admired Mary’s work. When she was excommunicated it was Mrs Barr Smith and Mr Solomon who paid for her first-class ticket on the boat from Adelaide to Rome to petition Pope Pius IX to approve and protect her community of sisters.
Mary’s younger brother, Donald, was educated by the Jesuits and later joined the Order, and her own spiritual director in Adelaide was an Austrian Jesuit, Josef Tappeiner. When the 29 year-old Mary was excommunicated, Fr Tappeiner was so appalled at what he thought was an invalid and immoral act, that he and another Austrian Jesuit, Fr Joannes Hinteroecker, gave Mary the Sacraments in spite of the bishop saying that anyone who communicated with her would suffer the same penalty.
Mary arrived in Rome in 1873. Fr Tappiener had paved the way for her with introductions to his old Jesuit friend, Fr Anton Anderledy, who was an Assistant to, and later became, the Superior General of the Jesuits. It was Fr Anderledy who assisted Mary through the Vatican’s processes for approving her constitutions, to gain papal protection for her sisters from local bishops, and, finally, to be personally received by Pope Pius IX.
I only know one other person in the church’s history who has gone from excommunication to canonization: Joan of Arc. She was declared a heretic, excommunicated and burnt at the stake on May 30 1431. 489 years alter we apologised to her (big of us!) and canonised her on May 16 1920. Mary Mackillop went from excommunication to sainthood in 139 years. It is scandalous that these two women had to endure such persecution from the men of their days.
One of the least known chapters in her life, however, is also the one that has the greatest contemporary resonance. In 1870, Mary’s religious sisters accused their local assistant parish priest of sexual offences “committed frequently and with many” against children and women in the confessional. There was an investigation and the priest was found guilty of the offences. He was sent back to Europe. The parish priest was also condemned for “turning a blind eye” to the abuse.4 He was removed from the parish and sent to the Bishop’s House in Adelaide. St Mary MacKillop supported the denunciation of these priests, but it incurred the wrath of the sacked parish priest who, the following year, would then be one of Bishop Shiel’s closest advisers in regard to her excommunication.
In St Mary MacKillop we have an outstanding Christian, who refused to be mastered by her religious masters; a person open to ecumenism and interreligious dialogue, who knew that the best way to tear down sectarianism and religious bigotry is simply by becoming friends; a teacher, who believed that education is one of the best paths to human and spiritual liberation; a passionate advocate, who had to learn how to use her networks to win both the battle and the war; and an adult who paid a terrible price because she would not be silent in the face of sexual abuse by clergy.
Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What Does It All Mean? A Gudie to Being More Faithful, Hopeful, and Loving (Paulist Press, 2017) available at St Paul’s bookstore, (02) 9264 8630,
A commemorative prayer booklet featuring significant moments in Mary’s life, highlighting her values and spirit, is also available to download for all. The prayer booklet includes instructions and a script for Courage Hour for those who wish to join us to ‘Take Fresh Courage’, join together in hope, and remember Saint Mary MacKillop.
The prayer book will also available on the website in Spanish, Italian and Vietnamese.
Take Fresh Courage videos
The Sisters of Saint Joseph have produced a series of inspiring videos that feature people from diverse backgrounds in reflection on how Saint Mary helps them in their lives today.
For more information, please contact:
Sisters of Saint Joseph
+61 2 8912 2722 +61 438 006 566