St. Mary MacKillop, Foundress (RM)

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Born in Australia in 1842; died there on May 25, 1909; canonized by Pope John Paul II in 1995.

Although Mary MacKillop's heritage was Scottish, she is Australia's first native-born saint. Her father was a seminarian educated at the Scots College in Rome, but left before his ordination. Instead he emigrated to Australia where he met his future bride. Though it was an unhappy marriage, perhaps because he was often away from home traveling to Europe, it produced good fruit that was nurtured by the father.

In 1860, Mary became a governess in Penola, south Australia, where she met Father Julian Tenison Woods. He became her spiritual director. Several years later they founded a new congregation of Josephites, whose mission was to found schools and orphanages to provide much needed educational outlets. The first rule was drawn up in 1867 and received episcopal approval the following year. In 1869, Mary professed her final vows.

The next few years were difficult, during the absence of the Australian bishops at the First Vatican Council. Mary established a foundation in Brisbane. At the same time, Fr. Woods undermined her work by encouraging some visionary nuns, insisting on excessive poverty, and refusing all state funding. Upon the return of the bishops, Father Woods was removed from the direction of the sisters, who then numbered over 100 in 34 schools.

The bishop of Adelaide, an alcoholic who listened to gossip, attempted to control the congregation. He excommunicated its foundress on the charge of disobedience, then dispensed 47 nuns from their vows. In 1872, on his deathbed, he apologized for his actions and absolved Mary from excommunication. The Holy See sent a delegation to investigate. Their findings led the Vatican to support MacKillop and her nuns against some of the local bishops.

In 1873, Mary traveled to Europe, where she was well-received in Rome. The Holy Father permitted the congregation to have a superior-general, who could move the sisters from house to house within the congregation but across diocesan borders. The rule of poverty was also modified to permit the sisters to own, rather than simply rent, property. During her time in Europe, Mary MacKillop also visited England, Ireland, and Scotland to obtain new recruits for the enterprise and funding to support it. MacKillop was elected to the office of superior-general in 1875.

MacKillop's exemplary attitude towards the bishops who opposed her was complemented by the outstanding work of the congregation. Protestants, as well as Catholics, loudly praised their charity to the poor, their personal poverty, and their abstinence from active proselytizing. They found many supporters who contributed to their mission.

Beginning in 1885, the congregation was again under attack by the bishops, but found support from Rome. The Holy See, however, believed that MacKillop had remained in charge too long, so another superior-general was elected and served from 1888 until 1998. During that time, Mary served as visitor to the houses of New Zealand. At the death of her successor, Mary again took up the reigns and remained as superior-general until her own death. The congregation flourished even in the face of internal dissensions. The foundress suffered from rheumatism for many years, but finally died of a stroke.

Photographs of Mary MacKillop reveal a beautiful woman with a firm jaw and chin. About 1,000 of her letters survive. They show that she was a woman of patient persistence in adversity and a respect for authority. Some see Mary as a feminist pioneer; others as one who cared for Aborigines in difficult times; still others connect her with conservation of the eucalyptus, which is her emblem in art.

The congregation has spread to Peru. In Australia, they are the primary providers of Catholic education to girls. In 1981, the congregation numbered about 1,800 (Farmer).

Source: Oxford Dictionary of Saints, D.H. Farmer


Prepared by Kathy R. Republished with permission of the author.


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