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Australia celebrates 10th anniversary of St. Mary MacKillop’s canonization

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Photograph of Saint Mary MacKillop in 1890. Public domain.

Rome Newsroom, Dec 7, 2020 / 09:30 am (CNA).

Australia is celebrating the 10th anniversary this year of the canonization of the country’s first and only saint, St. Mary MacKillop.

The pioneering religious sister founded the Josephite sisters who brought schools and orphanages to the Australian outback in the 19th century despite facing numerous challenges.

“What she stood for really encapsulates the values and spirit of Australia, and this is why her appeal goes much beyond just that of the Catholic community,” the Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Chiara Porro told EWTN News.

The Australian ambassador hosted a webinar to celebrate the life of St. Mary MacKillop on Dec. 4. She said that the Australian saint provides lessons in leadership for women leaders in the Church today.

“Mary MacKillop used to say: ‘Never see a need without doing something about it.’ And that was really what inspired her life. She went out of her way to work with those on the margins of society and set up schools for the poor, for the indigenous population who at the time were very desolate and had no hope,” Porro said.

“I think for me what it shows is the role of these women, religious women, in addressing some of the most important needs of society today and particularly during times of crisis where the poorest always suffer the most.”

MacKillop was the first of eight children born of Scottish immigrants in what is now Melbourne in 1842 at a time when the European settlement in Australia had been established for a little more than 50 years. Her father had studied for the priesthood in Rome for seven years before migrating to Australia where he met her mother who had arrived from Scotland less than two years earlier.

The family faced continuous economic difficulties and had to move frequently. The postulator of MacKillop’s cause for sainthood, Sr. Maria Casey, described the conditions at the time:

“Poverty was rife especially in country areas, religious discrimination was widespread, the plight of the aboriginal people was deplorable, unemployment was common-place and communication was difficult in the extreme. … The Church had few priests to serve its people who were scattered around rural areas and, as a rule, were experiencing poverty. Education was limited and virtually non-existent in rural areas,” Casey said at the webinar.

“From a young age, Saint Mary had increasingly felt the call to live as a religious sister but she still had the obligation to care for her family, a burden she undertook from when she was 16 to 25.”

Mary dreamed of the possibility of offering free education for Australia’s Catholic rural poor, and with the help of her spiritual director and mentor she developed a plan for a congregation of sisters to aid those in need in Australia’s vast rural areas.

She began the order’s work with a school in a stable in the small town of Penola, Australia in 1866. Taking the religious name St. Mary of the Cross, MacKillop founded what would go on to be the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Her sisters went on to establish many schools and orphanages across Australia, including in the “bush” areas where hardship was common.

“Travel over any distance was for the fearless and tough. Roads were merely tracks through the bush, travel by steamer was not for the faint-hearted and trains were rare. Mary used all means to visit her sisters,” Sr. Casey said.

As an innovator and as a woman in the 19th century, MacKillop encountered many challenges, including from inside the Church.

“Mary envisaged the sisters being governed centrally by one superior and being free to go wherever there was a need anywhere in the colonies. … The system of governance was contrary to that experienced in most European religious congregations of the time and was the cause of disputes with some of the bishops as the fledgling Institute expanded,” her postulator said.

“A complex set of circumstances led to the Bishop of Adelaide, who was once her friend and benefactor, excommunicating Mary in September 22, 1871 for supposed disobedience. This excommunication was invalid and unjustified in the light of later information. Mary accepted the excommunication and the dismissal of many of her sisters with serenity and peace. The Bishop revoked the sentence before his death less than six months later.”

By the time of MacKillop’s death in 1909 there were 650 sisters in her congregation ministering in all Australian states and in New Zealand.

Today, the “Josephites” have extended their ministry to Ireland, Peru, East Timor, Scotland and Brazil.

St. Mary Mackillop was remembered at an event in Rome co-hosted by the Australian and U.K. Embassies to the Holy See, which also honored another innovative female Catholic leader, Blessed Mary Ward, who founded the Congregation of Jesus and the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary in England in the early 17th century.

The undersecretary of Vatican Congregation for Institutes of Consecrated Life and Societies of Apostolic Life, Sr. Carmen Ros Nortes, said at the webinar that both Catholic women founded religious institutes that were “born from an inspiration of the Spirit that seeks to renew the Church.”

“If we ask from where Mary MacKillop and Mary Ward received this vision of the future and the inner strength to realize it, we can only say that the Spirit blows where it wills, and that God has his time for everything,” Sr. Carmen said.

“There are men and women designated as instruments of Providence in times of great historical crisis.”


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