Stirrings of the Spirit

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Never see a need without doing something about it

After learning the story of Mary MacKillop, a friend commented to me that they don’t make Christians like that anymore.  I think that these stories of amazing people only come to the attention of the general public, long after they are gone.  There could be someone somewhere, truly living the life that God has called them to in a way that changes the lives of people around them for the better.  I wonder in a hundred years, what people from this era will be used as an example. 

For those outside Australia, the story of Mary MacKillop might not be as common. 

Mary was the daughter of Alexander and Flora MacKillop, both originally from Scotland, and the eldest of their eight children.  It seems the children had a rather unsettled childhood, due to the many failed business dealings of Alexander.  As the eldest, Mary had a responsibility to help provide for the family, and started working at 14. 

At 18, Mary moved to Penola, South Australia, as a governess to her younger cousins.  It was here that she discovered a desire to educate others, especially those living in poverty, and it wasn’t long until she was inviting other children to attend the classes she was giving.  This work eventually led her to the local parish priest, Fr Julian Woods. 

Fr Julian and Mary both shared a desire to help the poor, especially their educational and spiritual needs.  The colony of Australia was expanding, and more children were growing up in rural areas.  Together, with the help of some of Mary’s siblings, they opened a Catholic school by transforming an old stable in a class room.  With her brother John now able to provide for her family, Mary felt for the first time that she was able to give her life to God in the way she truly desired.

My parents took my sister and I to Penola in South Australia, when we were children, and we were able to see the buildings where all this started. 

Mary, and her sister Lexie, eventually discarded their secular clothes and started dressing as religious postulants.  Fr Julian achieved his dream of starting a religious order of nuns for Australia, and with the approval of Bishop Sheil, Mary became the first sister and Mother Superior of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.  By the end of the year, another 10 women had joined the order. 

The school they ran was revolutionary at the time, as it accepted and educated all, without distinction.  Both those who were able to  pay and those who could not.  She taught her students important life skills, such as writing a letter, or adding up a grocery bill, as well as religion, in the hope that they would be able to use this education to improve their lives. 

Soon, the Bishop of Queensland, James Quinn, invited the Sisters of St Joseph, to set up in Brisbane.  By 1871, 128 women had taken vows, averaging 23 years of age, living and working in remote parts of the country.  Mary knew each sister by name and wrote to them all regularly, to empathise with the challenges they faced. 

After a while, Fr Julian was on the brink of breakdown, and was no longer capable of leading the sisters as their founder and mentor.  Mary had to deal with this and the other displeased priests, and unhappy Bishop Sheil who ordered a commission to examine the lives of the sisters. One of the recommendations from that commission was that each convent be placed under the authority of the local priest.  This went against everything that Mary and the other sisters had worked so hard to establish, and Mary took a courageous stand and shared her concerns with the Bishop.  This resulted in her being excommunicated.  Five months later, Bishop Sheil lifted this as he approached his death.  Still facing opposition from other bishop’s who wanted to change the order to a Diocesan one, Mary traveled alone to Rome, to seek formal approval for the Order.  She returned to Australia with 15 new Irish postulants, and a letter from Rome approving the Central government style of the order.  This brought with it a series of trials that would continue for the years to come.

In 1901, Mary MacKillop suffered a stroke, after deteriorating health for some time. While recuperating, she kept in touch with the sisters through letters and sometimes visited the children in the schools and orphanages.  She entered her eternal reward on 8th August, 1909

Cardinal Moran remarked on his last visit to her before she died, “Today, I Believe that I have assisted at the death of a saint”.  At the time of her death, 750 women had taken vows, 117 schools had been opened which taught to 12 409 students.  Those seeds first sowed in Penola had changed the nation. 

I attended Mary MacKillop’s Beatification in Sydney in 1995.  This October, Mary’s Canonisation will take place in Rome. 

The Church does not make a saint – it recognises a saint. Canonisation is the act by which the Holy Father declares in a definitive and solemn way that a Catholic Christian is actually in the glory of heaven, intercedes for us before the Lord and is to be publicly venerated by the whole Church.

Canonisation is a double statement – about the life of the person and also about the faith of the people who are alive at this moment. They are as much a part of the canonisation as the person who is being recognised.

A lot of the information in this post is from Please check it out for further information. 


July 7, 2010 - Posted by | Faith, Spirituality | , , , , ,


  1. interesting post

    Comment by Chazz Byron | July 9, 2010 | Reply

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  3. […] a repentance that has us engaging on those fronts where the hurt is greatest.  Mary MacKillop,  famously said, “Never see a need without doing something about it”.   Her revolutionary schooling […]

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  4. […] Australia’s first saint, along with another 5 saints from various parts of the world.  Mary MacKillop was the founder of the Josephite sisters and encountered plenty of obstacles in the process from […]

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