Sunday, January 24, 2016

52 Saints ~ Week Four ~ St. Mary of the Cross

Somewhere around 2001, we made a quick visit to the tomb of St. Mary of the Cross, Australia's first canonized saint, at her chapel in North Sydney. I think we were all inside for a while, but Nick took our two young children back to the car for a short time, so that I could pray without distractions.

I was there to visit St. Mary of the Cross, and of course, the Blessed Sacrament. I sat by myself in one of the front pews. Although it was an ordinary day in the week and an ordinary time of day, there was a fairly steady stream of people filing in and out, paying their respects to the Lord and to St. Mary. Australians are not very religious, so this was something of a surprise to me.

I began to pray for her intercession and I had a rather long list of people to pray for: family and friends, health problems, one woman who had a brain tumour, the marriages of various people and so on. Soon I began to cry, because of all the needs of these dear people, some of whom were close friends and others only acquaintances or even just friends of friends. After pouring my heart out to God and St. Mary, I went closer to her tomb to pray. A deep peace settled into my heart quickly and I had a sensation that, in the words of Julian of Norwich that “all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”

This peace remained while I sat by the tomb. Then I went back to my pew, shed a few more tears, prayed, genuflected, and went back to the car.

Maria Ellen MacKillop was born on Brunswick Street, Fitzroy, Melbourne on the 15th of January, 1842 to Alexander and Flora MacKillop, who had migrated from the Scottish Highlands. This was their first child and she was always called Mary. I have walked along Brunswick Street, trying to calculate more or less where her family home had been.

When we lived in Adelaide, I often had cause to drive down Portrush Road, where the convent is that she lived in for a time with the Sisters of St. Joseph, which she had co-founded. There are a number of locations in South Australia in particular, associated with her life's work, which I have seen or visited. My appreciation for her was first kindled by reading the beautiful, sympathetic, story of her life by journalist, Lesley O'Brien, called Mary MacKillop Unveiled. This is the kind of hagiography I really like: well researched, sympathetic without undue bias towards the saint or unnecessarily harsh towards her opponents. It covers the important facts and is well written and forthright. St. Mary herself is permitted to shine through as one of God's special friends, as we are all called to be. She was clearly a good-natured woman of intelligence, great warmth, deep faith, commonsense and true, Aussie practicality (except perhaps in her choice of material for their habit!) I can't write this without weeping, she touches my heart so deeply. Now that I think about it, she reminds me of my female elders - all of them, in one way or another, especially the warmth.

The Sisters of St. Joseph were established primarily to teach the children of the poor throughout the colony, giving them a very basic education. There was usually nothing else on offer for such children and the Sisters had schools in a number of cities flung far apart. However, there was other work to be done too:
Mary worked tirelessly establishing refuges for woman, orphanages for abandoned babies and the first permanent Mother House of the sisters of Saint Joseph in the Adelaide suburb of Kensington. the Josephite Order, under Mary's determined and skilful leadership, went from strength to strength, opening new orphanages and schools in areas that needed them and closing old ones as the population changed. They also housed prostitutes who wished to leave sex work and rehabilitated them. *

St. Mary was also a good horsewoman, which was a help to her on at least one occasion:
Mary traveled by stagecoach, ship and rail over long distances to visit her sisters, often under very uncomfortable conditions. In 1876 her friend Sister Laurentia and another sister were badly burned when a lamp exploded where the sisters lodged at Port Augusta. Mary took the train as far as she could and then tried to get a coach and horses to take her to Port Augusta but the coachman refused to go there at night. Fearing Sister Laurentia might die, Mary asked the man to saddle her a horse to ride there over a lonely and dangerous pot-holed track. Her courage in volunteering to ride all alone in foul weather shamed the coachman into driving her there. Inspired by Mary, and through perseverance and hard work, by the late 1880s the sisters of St. Joseph had schools, orphanages and refuges of various kinds in many areas of Australia and in parts of New Zealand.

Her years as a religious sister, the co-founder with Fr. Julian Tenison Woods of the Sisters of St. Joseph, were from the age of 26 until her death at age 67. During that time, she had to endure being excommunicated by a bishop, who 5 months later reversed the decision, a long sea voyage to Rome to receive the Pope's official endorsement, decades of suffering with dysmenorrhea, many long coach journeys between Australian cities (often in terrible heat), crazy and deluded people, ghosts(!), false accusations of alcoholism and more!

She was known in religion as Sister Mary of the Cross, then as Mother Mary of the Cross. Now she is known officially as St. Mary of the Cross, but because Australians are allergic to religion, she is generally just known as Mary MacKillop, as if she were no-one special.

But she is far more special than generally reckoned and not just for respectfully standing up to high-handed bishops, which is what she is mostly admired for. Her faith was very deep and her love for God and determination to do His will in service of the most vulnerable people in Australia shines through in O'Brien's book:
The love that Mary showed those around her stemmed from the love of God she felt inside her. A priest and friend to Mary, Father Francis Clune, said his impression of Mary was that she was "completely wrapped up in God. As far as any human being could be, she was in union with God." In her dying years, Mary wrote with great insight on what she had learnt about the 'strange' ways in which God worked in answering prayers for help. "If anything should grieve me, it would be the fear that any might feel disappointed at so much devotion being apparently unanswered. Let me beg that no one will think so. The prayers will all be heard – if not as we wish – as God sees best."

She had a deep trust in the love of Our Heavenly Father and what better reason could we have to love her?

St. Mary of the Cross, pray for us.

Louise LaMotte is a friend from Light on Dark Water. Since she lived in Australia at the time we met online, I never thought we would meet in person. I was wrong.

If you want to see all of the posts in this series, click HERE.


  1. Thank you so much for this deeply significant statement of faith.

  2. second effort from grumpy