The life of Mary MacKillop

Mary Helen MacKillop was born in Fitzroy, Melbourne on January 15, 1842.

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Her parents were Scottish immigrants, and her father, Alexander, had studied in Rome to join the priesthood, before abandoning this vocation and moving to Australia.

Mary MacKillop was the eldest of eight children. Her family were not wealthy, and at the age of 14, Mary is sent to work for a stationer in Melbourne.

At the age of 18, Mary goes to work as a governess for her aunt and uncle’s children in the small South Australian town of Penola. Shortly afterwards, Mary meets Father Julian Woods. The two decide to build a Catholic school in the SA town.

In 1867, Mary MacKillop becomes the first nun and Mother Superior of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, an order of nuns created by Fr Woods. By the end of this year, ten others had joined the order. By August 1871, that number had swelled to 120 women.

Growing tension between the Bishop of Adelaide and the Sisters, and opposition to the Order on the centralised power structure of the church leads to Mary MacKillop’s excommunication in September 1871. The excommunication is lifted less than six months later, while Bishop Sheil is on his deathbed.

In 1873, Mary MacKillop travels to Rome to seek approval of the Rule, written by Fr Woods. She returns to Australia more than a year later.

Over the next few years, the Order grows, as do tensions over the Constitution of the Order and the way in which the institution was being run. The Sisters must contend with opposition from priests and bishops.

By 1877, the Sisters have garnered enough support in the community to run 40 schools. One of her biggest supporters is Jewish Penola resident Emmanuel Solomon. By 1883, they’d managed to open a school in New Zealand.

Pope Leo XIII gives his final approval to the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart in 1888.

At the age of 60, Mary MacKillop suffers a stroke and becomes paralysed on her right-hand side. She is confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life.

Mary MacKillop dies aged 67, on August 8, 1909. She is buried in Gore Hill Cemetery. At the time of her death, 750 women had entered the Order. The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart had opened 117 schools with a total of over 12,400 pupils.

Four years after her death, a Memorial Chapel is erected in North Sydney, close to where she died.

Her canonisation process begins in 1926, but is postponed in 1931, and reopened again in 1951.

Mary MacKillop is beatified by Pope John Paul II in January 1995.

In December 2009, the Vatican issues a papal decree recognising Mary MacKillop’s second miracle, paving the way for her canonisation, which was announced in February of this year.

She is being canonised on October 17, 2010, making her Australia’s first ever saint.