MacKillop, Mary Helen (1842–1909)

views updated

MacKillop, Mary Helen (1842–1909)

Australian religious leader and founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart . Name variations:Mother Mary of the Cross; Mary Helen McKillop. Born Mary Helen MacKillop on January 15, 1842, in Melbourne, Australia; died on August 8, 1909, in Sydney, Australia; daughter of Alexander MacKillop and Flora (MacDonald) MacKillop; educated in Melbourne public schools.

Born on January 15, 1842, in the Fitzroy neighborhood of Melbourne, Australia, Mary MacKillop was the eldest of eight children of Alexander and Flora MacKillop , both of whom had immigrated from Scotland. Looking back on her early years, MacKillop wrote: "My life as a child was one of sorrow, my home when I had it a most unhappy one." Much of this unhappiness was probably linked to a lack of financial security. For most of MacKillop's young life, her family was forced to depend on relatives for food and shelter; by some accounts, her father had caused their impoverishment through his charity to others. When she was 16, Mary became the principal provider for her large family, working first as a governess, then as an assistant at a stationery store, and later as a schoolteacher in Portland, Victoria.

Alexander MacKillop was the principal source of his daughter's education, particularly in matters of the Roman Catholic church. Before marriage, he had studied for the priesthood in Rome, and he provided his daughter with a solid foundation of knowledge about Catholicism, which was not based on fear of the fierce God of the Old Testament but was instead an embodiment of the love for all people felt by Jesus Christ. In her teens, MacKillop began to feel drawn to a religious life, although her family commitments initially kept her from acting on these feelings. In 1861, she met Father Julian Tenison Woods of Penola, South Australia, who encouraged her to seek a religious vocation. Five years later, in 1866, she finally was able to accept his invitation to teach in the priest's school in Penola. Woods had been directed by his bishop to provide a Catholic education for the children of his district, which covered more than 25,000 square kilometers (approximately 15,500 square miles). Father Woods believed that such an education would be most effective if the teachers were dedicated nuns willing to live under the same conditions as the families of the children they taught, and so he wanted to establish a new religious order, to be called the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. On March 19, 1866, MacKillop became the first sister of this order of nuns, which was the first such established on Australian soil by Australians. The school was called the Institute of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. Before long, other young women who felt called to a religious vocation joined MacKillop in the school and in the Sisters of St. Joseph (later affectionately known as the "Little Joeys"). Their school was open to all children in the district, and parents who were financially unable to enroll their children received assistance.

The religious community of the Sisters of St. Joseph was organized along egalitarian lines, and the sisters (many of whom, like MacKillop, had not been born into privilege) lived among the people of the district in tents, shanties, and low-rent accommodations. All of this was a sharp departure from the accepted practice in orders that had been imported from Europe, most of which were made up of women sufficiently well-born to afford a dowry to bring to the convent where henceforth they would live, to a greater or lesser degree, secluded from the world. The local bishop formally approved the new school and appointed Woods director of Catholic education, transferring him to Adelaide. A short time later, Father Woods called MacKillop to the city, and in July 1867, the school was officially relocated to Adelaide. In its new location in the capital city of South Australia, enrollment at the Institute increased dramatically, and the Sisters of St. Joseph soon extended their reach beyond the Institute to other schools and charitable institutions. Some conflicts arose between the sisters (and therefore MacKillop) and Father Woods, who had little experience in working with nuns and apparently tended to be overly demanding of inexperienced members of the order.

Conflicts also arose between Father Woods and other clergy who disapproved of the unorthodox manner in which the Institute was run, and these eventually spread to MacKillop and her fellow nuns. A number of local priests called upon the bishop to either impose strict rules on the operations of the Institute or to dissolve it. MacKillop stoutly resisted these calls for conformity and encouraged her fellow nuns to do as their consciences dictated. Citing her insubordination, the local bishop excommunicated MacKillop on September 21, 1871, and dismissed nearly half of the 127 nuns who taught at the Institute. Despite this setback, MacKillop remained loyal to the Catholic Church, and less than six months later the bishop relented, revoking her excommunication and reinstating her as mother superior of the order. Soon the Institute was flourishing again.

In 1873, with money she had begged, MacKillop made a pilgrimage to the Vatican to seek approval for the Institute. While approving the Institute in principle, Vatican officials decided that the school's rules needed to be rewritten; the centralized authority structure of the Institute was retained, but major changes were made regarding the order's observance of poverty. The end result of MacKillop's Vatican trip was a rift between her and Father Woods, who was angered that she had failed to resist these changes more vigorously.

MacKillop was elected superior general in 1875, under the new Vatican-imposed regulations. She traveled widely throughout Australia and New Zealand, setting up schools and charitable institutions. Through the years, she frequently came into conflict with bishops who disliked the lack of local power that resulted from the Institute's central government structure. Although intensely uncomfortable being at odds with bishops, she consistently resisted their calls for change, and this resistance led in 1883 to a temporary banishment from Adelaide and the loss of her position as superior general for several years.

Despite this, in July 1888, the Vatican, which had been closely observing the conduct of MacKillop and the other Sisters of St. Joseph, signaled its approval of their behavior with a formal ratification of the Institute. It ordered the Institute's Mother House relocated to Sydney. At the new Sydney headquarters, MacKillop established a center for the training of teachers, enabling the order to make further strides in Catholic education. Although her health was beginning to falter, MacKillop was reelected superior general in 1899, and she continued to work to advance both her order and the cause of Catholic education throughout the region until her death at the age of 67 in Sydney on August 8, 1909.

Mary MacKillop's leadership and advocacy of education made a significant contribution to changing the status quo in Australia and beyond, despite the fact that women were, and still are, routinely denied power both by the Roman Catholic Church and society as a whole. She devoted much of her life to those who had been discarded by most of society, including rural and urban poor children, street people, prostitutes, ex-convicts, and unmarried mothers. In her own words, MacKillop felt that all people, regardless of their background or the lives they led, deserved to be "given a go." The case for her beatification was presented in 1925 and formally introduced by the Vatican 50 years later. While visiting Sydney in 1995, Pope John Paul II declared her "Blessed," an important milepost on the road to the formal acknowledgement of Mary MacKillop as Australia's first saint.


Radi, Heather, ed. 200 Australian Women: A Redress Anthology. NSW, Australia: Women's Redress Press, 1988.

Don Amerman , freelance writer, Saylorsburg, Pennsylvania

More From

About this article

MacKillop, Mary Helen (1842–1909)

Updated About content Print Article

You Might Also Like