Catholic Youth Parramatta

Mary MacKillop - a Saint for all seasons


Sister Bridie O'Connell RSJ explores the life, times and legacy of Australia's first Saint.

Sr Bridie's thoughts here are taken from her 'For All the Saints' Lecture at the Institute For Mission (the Parramatta Diocesan Centre for Catholic Adult Faith Formation) on Wednesday 13 October, ahead of Mary MacKillop's Canonisation in Rome on Sunday 17 October 2010.


St Mary of the Cross MacKillop
St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
The journey to sanctity is a seasonal one through many spring-summer, autumn-winter cycles until the the story of the individual - and the 'God Story' - reach harvest time.

The process of Canonisation becomes a harvesting time. Therein is revealed the harmony between Mystery and history; between the God Story and the human story of a particular person.

We are privileged to exist in this ‘moment’ of the Canonisation of Mary MacKillop; to see her life-story coming to harvest and to hear the symphony of her life in its many seasons.

We are invited to own her full humanness in all its fragility and to recognise the mystery of God unfolding season by season through both her gifts and her frailties.

Therein we can find renewed energy for our own journey toward and with God.

Sanctity – a Journey toward and with God

The call to sanctity is available to everyone. However, most saints died unnoticed except by the God who has journeyed with them and those whose lives they’ve influenced. The American Psychologists-Theologians, Evelyn & James Whitehead offer this broad understanding of the Call to sanctity:

A human life does not happen randomly, nor does it proceed mechanistically from a genetic code. Our lives unfold as we sense ourselves being led, coaxed, or invited into certain paths. The Call by which we experience God’s ambitious Presence in our lives is being reimagined to-day as available to all... The invitation is inscribed within me, in my fragile gifts and my best insights. It is lifelong journey toward and with God through many changing seasons. [i]

A Saint for Australia

At certain Providential moments in history a Saint is canonised so that a particular Nation can identify the creative power of ‘God’s ambitious presence at work’. That time is now for  Australia and beyond. It is a time for fulfilment; a time for the ripening of some long-held dreams and desires in the Australian psyche; desires such as those expressed by the notable Australian Poet, James McAuley.

Raise up contemplatives among us ... who will walk within the fire of ceaseless prayer,impetuous desire, set pools of silence in a thirsty land. [ii]

Australia’s soulscape was a thirsty land, indeed, in the mid nineteenth century. Within its barren spirit, God ‘raised up’ Mary MacKillop, a woman willing to ‘walk within the fire of ceaseless prayer and impetuous desire to set those pools of silence’ across the parched soul of this country. Here was a woman who in the words of St Paul allowed ‘the message of Christ in all its fullness to make its home within her. [iii] In this way she became the ‘pool of silence’ for a thirsty land. She is now formally recognised as Saint because of her heroic goodness; a goodness which surely sprang from her silent closeness to God as her home-base through all the changing seasons of her life. Remarkably, in her seasonal journey towards and with God Mary could find in the midst of even her harshest Winters an invincible summer. She could live gently within the paradoxes of life; welcoming both summer and winter times; accepting both blessings and crosses. For her one Season seemed to be hidden within the other. In her words:

I often think of God’s mysterious ways and how little I understood the blessings He was concealing within some early form of sorrow 

Max Harris, a notable Columnist for the Adelaide Newspaper, himself an agnostic, had been a most influential champion of Mary Mackillop’s Canonisation. With a real poetic flourish he captured her greatness. He wrote about the goodness of her being:

This slip of a girl was our greatest citizen, a model of goodness, a value so essential to the Australian identity. Commenting further on her goodness of being he noted that its magnetic attraction [had] brought around her such massive resources of human response that she could create an organisation which attacked an Australian brand of poverty and an Australian brand if despair. [v] 

He found in her A nuts and bolts Saint , a toiler, a battler and a social radical...with  a harmony of spirituality and true temporal grit.

Vignettes from her Seasonal Journey

Young Mary MacKillop
Young Mary.
The seasonal journey of ‘this slip of a girl’ who achieved such ‘goodness of being’ is full of light and shadow. Her life-story reveals the entwining of Summer and Winter themes. Her Portland years 1861-1865 began as a true Spring –Summertime but ended in Winter shadows. Aged 19 Mary went as Governess to Mrs Duncan Cameron at Fitzroy Cottage Portland. Soon she gained a salaried Teaching position at the local School where she spent the next two years. She looked back on it as ‘a God-given opportunity’ an excellent foundation for later years. For her family a Spring season dawned when Mary rented Bayview House in Portland. This was a joyous time, a first- the entire family in a home of their own. Mary also dreamt of establishing a Boarding School there to further her Education dreams as well as securing a more stable financial base for family.

This struggling migrant family of seven children had already experienced much instability and sorrow relying on relatives for shelter and sustenance. Since the age of sixteen Mary, as the eldest child, supported the family through steady employment. The Scottish Celtic origins of this family shaped uniquely the heart and spirit of Mary. Her family life became anchored in God, a value which was deeply embedded in the history of her forebears- oppressed Highland Catholics from the Braes of Lochaber. Mary had an abiding sense of a provident God whose surrounding presence became the compass point of her life. From such a childhood, she journeyed through many rugged seasons carrying that ancestral  lantern of faith.

A Shadowed Childhood

While Mary’s springlike childhood was indeed lit by faith it also held many long shadows. My life as a child, she wrote was one of sorrows, my home when I had it a most unhappy one [vi]. The winters of Mary’s childhood could be ascribed to the usual struggles of new migrants in a young Colony. However an added shadow for the MacKillop family seemed to gather around the tragic figure of Mary’s father Alexander. John Lahey drew this inspiring pen sketch of Alexander

A colourful man who was brought down by his foibles but blessed by his beliefs. While it is true that Alexander was a tragic figure, his dark aspects were lit by a blaze of love for his religion and for the world...his memorial, the religious faith and compassion which filled his children especially Mary. [vii] 

This pen sketch of Mary’s mother, Flora, likewise highlights her as a woman of faith:

A gentle winsome lady...a well-educated loving spouse...Dependence on family and friends was an embarrassment to her independent spirit...Only her beliefs in a providential loving God could have sustained her. [viii] 

From the winter of her childhood Mary emerged anchored in Faith and a highly responsible provider. That Portland Spring season for the family in Portland was short-lived. Annie’s later memoir described the onset of winter there: We were all very happy for awhile until Pa & ma disagreed’ [ix]

After two years Mary was forced to surrender her dream because of increasing family debt. 1865 brought the break-up of the family, a deeply painful event. Alexander had to move out and live with his brother Peter in Hamilton Victoria. Sadly, there he died in 1868, aged 56.

Decision time for Mary –The Call to Penola

Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods
Artist Reg Campbell's painting of Mary MacKillop and Fr Julian Tenison Woods © Sisters of St Joseph, Perthville.
In this vulnerable time Mary felt caught between ongoing care of family and her Calling to become a Religious. Her decision to leave Portland, painful though it was, came in response to the invitation of Fr Woods that she and Annie join him in the Penola Catholic School project. What an Autumn season for Mary – a time for so much ‘letting go’!

Penola, where the dream of Mary and Julian took shape, was the place where mysteriously they had first met while Mary was Governess at her cousin’s homestead. They nurtured a mutual passion to address the education and care of deprived children in the young colony. In this Spring season of 1866 their reunion in Penola led to its eventual emergence as ‘the national capital of the spirit life and higher aspirations of the Australian psyche’ [x] The spiritually impoverished colony of South Australia was later described by Mary in her Document for Roman Approval in 1873. She noted the gravity of needs in South Australia:

…the indifference of secular governments towards the catholic poor and incapacity of the Catholic Church to cope with the needs of its people. [xi]

Within this desert God’s dream unfolded through Mary Mackillop and Julian Tenison Woods. South Australia was to witness a springlike flourishing of the new Institute which fitted easily into the young Colony providing a life-giving stream for the deprived. That flourishing Founding Season soon moved into a severe winter with the event of Mary’s Excommunication in 1871. In essence it was an unjustified attack upon Mary’s integrity an attack which she withstood with a nobly tranquil spirit.

More Summer –Winter Seasons

Raffaele Gagliardi’s Rome 1925 painting
Artist Raffaele Gagliardi’s painting of Mary MacKillop, Rome 1925.
Mary’s next season ushered in a Springtime of new beginnings in NSW when Bishop Quinn of Bathurst invited the Sisters to Perthville in 1872, to establish Schools across his vast Diocese. That season too came to early bloom before the winter gales of conflict over Governance of the Sisters. Eventually in 1876 Mary had to withdraw most of her Sisters to Adelaide. Amazingly, Bathurst continued to flourish with expanding Schools for the remotest areas, eventually putting forth branches into several Diocesan Congregations [Federation] of Sisters of St Joseph.

In 1874 the Springtime of Mary’s receiving Papal Approval of her centrally Governed Institute changed into a Winter of disapproval from Fr Woods and other Clergy on her return to Australia.

Through all her Seasons Mary revealed herself to be a woman of very great love. She continued to see the Summer blessings across the bleakest Winters, ever attuned to God’s dream unfolding in and through the gifts and the weaknesses.

Mary’s Final Season

There were many changing seasons too in Mary’s personal life of physical suffering. She cheerfully endured several winter seasons of poor health.

Unflinchingly she committed herself to travelling enormous distances to stay connected with her Sisters and the people they served. Even when finally confined to the wheel-chair, love and compassion continued to flow from her. In her final years she completed her inner journey. Becoming increasingly  contemplative she lived ‘within the fire of ceaseless prayer’ creating within and around her that ‘pool of silence’ Not surprisingly  the many tributes which poured in after her death had recognised in her the features of a Saintly woman whose legacy of goodness would continue to inspire for several generations those still making their seasonal journey toward and with their God.

In her Canonisation we are witnessing Australia’s awakening with great generosity of heart to the spirit life embodied in Mary Mackillop – our Saint for Every Season.
[i] James & Evelyn Whitehead, Seasons of Strength,1
[ii] James McAuley
[iii] St, Colossians 3:2
[iv] Mary’s Letter to Flora, London 1874.Congregational resource Material Book 2.
[v] Max Harris, quoted in Sheila McCreanor, Mary Mackillop and the Print Media ,164]
[vi] Mary’s letter to Monsignor Kirby, 1873
[vii]  J. Lahey, quoted in In Searchof Alexander Mackillop, V. Feehan &A. MacDonell, St Joseph’s Publications 1994.
[viii] Evelyn Pickering rsj, Congregational Resource Material, Book 2
[ix] Paul Gardiner, Mary Mackillop,49.
[x] Max Harris op cit 164
[xi] Mary quoted in P. Gardiner ibid, 26

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