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Mary Mackillop : Australia's First Saint

Updated on July 30, 2018
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A librarian, family historian and artist, Jen loves to travel and take photographs

Australia's first saint
Australia's first saint | Source

Mary Helen MacKillop, 1842-1909

Mary MacKillop was a remarkable woman. Strong, capable but humble. Teacher, Nun, Visionary. Also a writer, it was Mary's letters which were used as evidence by the Catholic Church to determine her suitability for sainthood.

The diary kept by Mary, describes the situations she faced, working to educate poor children. Mary details her feelings of loneliness, doubts and frustrations as she endured excommunication by the Church for supposed insubordination.

Early days

Mary's birth is recorded as Maria Ellen, daughter of Highland Scottish parents, Alexander MacKillop and Flora Ann McDonald in Melbourne on 15 January 1842. Her father, Alexander MacKillop, schoolmaster, aged 26, arrived in Port Jackson in 1838 aboard the ship Brilliant. Flora Hannah McDonald married Alexander MacKillop in 1840 in Victoria.

Mary was the eldest of eight children. Her siblings were

  • Margaret (Maggie) 1843-1872,
  • John 1845-1867,
  • Annie 1848-1929, Alexandrina (Lexie) 1850-1882,
  • Donald 1853-1925,
  • Alick who died only 11 months old and
  • Peter 1857-1878.

Mary was educated at private schools and by her father at home. Her first job was in Melbourne at age 14 as a clerk for Sands and Kenny Stationers. Devotion to a spiritual vocation was prominent in this family. Donald was to become a Jesuit Priest. Rev. D MacKillop worked at Hawthorn and at Richmond. Lexie became a Nun attaining the position of Mistress of novices at the convent of the Good Shepherd in Abbotsford.

We may feel our crosses hard at times, but our courage should rise with them.

— Sister Mary MacKillop

Mary the Governess

Mary became a governess for her Aunt Margaret and Uncle Alexander who lived at Penola in South Australia. Scottish born Alexander Cameron and his wife Margaret, nee MacKillop, were among the first settlers in the district having been granted a lease in 1845. Mary was employed to teach and care only for their cousins, but Mary was keen to help the poor wherever she could and included other children from the estate in her classes.

Father Woods

Mary met Father Julian Edmund Tenison Woods, a well respected scientist, scholar and deeply spiritual man, during visits to her uncles Donald and Alexander at Penola.

Fr Woods was concerned about not having Catholic Education in South Australia. He invited Mary and two of her sisters to join him in opening a local catholic school.

St Joseph's school, Penola would begin in an unused stable on land belonging to the MacDonald's family. Family ties remained strong. Donald, Mary's brother was influential in making the stable comfortable for Mary and the children. A cottage nearby was rented to house Mary and her two sisters Annie and Alexandra. This is how an institution was founded which was destined to spread throughout Australia.

Memorials to their work exists in the form of the Mary MacKillop Stable School Park In Penola and the Woods Sculptures north of Penola. Both of which have seen renewal in recent years.

Saint Mary Mackillop 1890
Saint Mary Mackillop 1890 | Source

Struggles with the Catholic church

Mary was a woman before her time. Taking on a male dominated world she would not compromise when she was unjustly excommunicated by Bishop Sheil in Adelaide in 1872. She was excommunicated by the Bishop on the grounds of insubordination. Calmly, she said it was a 'terrible mistake' and went on praying for the dying bishop until the excommunication was revoked.

In 1873 Mary made the long journey to see the head of the Church in Rome. She went alone, not knowing any Italian and without a return fare. Mary met with Pope Pius IX. A very brave thing to do for a lone excommunicated nun. The Pope was gracious with his dealings with her and when she left it was with his blessing.

Never see a need without doing something about it

— Mary MacKillop
St Joseph's Primary School Culcairn, NSW
St Joseph's Primary School Culcairn, NSW | Source

The "brown Joeys"

Mary became the first Sister and Mother Superior of the Sisters of St Joseph of the sacred heart.

The sisters of St. Joseph had expanded to become 300 in number by 1891. The order spread across the states of Australia and into New Zealand.

The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart were often referred to as the brown joeys.

The habits the sisters wore were brown and joeys is a natural abbreviation for St Josephs, if you are an Australian.

Along with regular curriculur activities, the school includes opportunities for students to be involved in school masses and special litergies.

The death of Mary MacKillop

Mary died on 8 August 1909 at Mount Street, North Sydney, aged 67, after a stroke suffered seven years previously.

Her health greatly deteriorated and she spent much of this time as an invalid.

It was Mother Laurence, mother superior of the Sisters of St Joseph who started to apply for Mary to be canonized as a saint.

Mary was buried in Gore Hill Cemetery in Sydney.

A memorial marks the spot where she once lay. In 1914, her body was exhumed and moved to the newly built chapel in the grounds of the convent at North Sydney.

The chapel began construction in 1913 at the request of Mother Baptista Molloy in memory of Mary MacKillop. Mary's tomb is now located in the original vestry of the chapel.

Thousands of Catholics have visited Mary's final resting place.

"Servant of God"

1972 Mary is nominated for beatifcation and canonisation

One of the miracles considered for Mary MacKillops sainthood

Two miracles are required before full sainthood.

In the 1960s a Sydney woman was dying of leukemia and her family and friends prayed to Mother MacKillop. The woman lived and is mother to six children. Naturally, she shies away from publicity and her identity is kept secret.


To beatify is to formally announce that a person who has died, lived a holy and Christian life. This can be the first stage towards sainthood.

The ceremony of beatification,

which will take place at an open-air mass at Randwick Racecourse on

Thursday, 19 January, 1995, will mark the achievements of an Australian

woman who displayed a rare appreciation of Australia as a nation.

— Paul Keating

The beatification of Mother Mary MacKillop is a kind of "consecration" of the people of God in Australia. Through her witness the truth of God's love and the values of 'his kingdom have been made visible in this continent, values which are the very basis of Australian society. - Pope John Paul II


  • September 2008, marked the beginning of the long and drawn out process towards canonisation.
  • December 19 2009, Pope Benedict XVI approved a miracle attributed to Mary MacKillop.
  • February 19, 2010 Pope Benedict XVI announced that Mary MacKillop was to become Australia's first saint.

Sunday October 17

Mary was one of six women and men to be canonised during the Mass at St Peters. The square was filled with thousands of people from all around the world. Included was a group of 150 St Joseph's nuns.

St Peter's Square

St Peters Square
St Peters Square | Source

Indigenous scholarships

The Sisters of Saint Joseph established a foundation in Mary's name. One of the important roles it plays is providing scholarships for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Students. Following in the tradition of Mary MacKillop, the foundation allows for this access to education to empowe Indigenous students. Giving them control over their lives and having a choice in their future.

Mary's legacy

Mary MacKillop was often physically unwell, suffering from sever rheumatism and highly impractical about ordinary matters such as money and dealing with the world outside her own community. But she had amazing qualities such as resilience. She was strong-willed and tough, travelled widely for the age and stood up to authorities figures for what she believed in.

Mary’s legacy has gone far and wide from the modest beginnings in Penola, South Australia. The Sisters of St Joseph today work in Australia, New Zealand, East Timor, Ireland, Peru and Brazil and follow in Mary’s footsteps doing a wide variety of tasks

In 2012 a new convent was built in Mary's honor at Penola not far from where her first school resided.

Mary MacKillop continues to inspire people to do do good work in her name. Long may her legacy continue.

© 2011 Jen Wood

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