As the Fortnight for Freedom continues, so does our series looking at the freedoms and trials of various women. My good friend Rae Reilly generously offered to write an essay. Given her recent sojourn Down Under, the choice of saint seemed a natural.
I became acquainted with St. Mary MacKillop this winter while spending 3 months in Brisbane, Australia. It was the imposing sculpture of her in a little chapel on the grounds of the Cathedral of St. Stephen that ignited my interest in her.
The figure, created by John Elliott in 1998, is larger than life. Placed in a small devotional area separated from the sanctuary by a screen, it filled the space, allowing me to examine it closely. This was no static figure – it caught St. Mary mid-stride. Why was the wood so rough, so cut up? I learned it was made from the truck of a century-old tree, cut into pieces and then recombined. Why were the hands so large? There were places where it looked as though twigs had been clipped off, leaving little stubs. Why? Then there was the face – smooth, warm. I almost ignored the 4-panel screen. But then I noticed some writing and drawings. What were those about?
St. Mary MacKillop is known for establishing, with Fr. Julian Tenison Woods, Australia’s first religious order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart (1867). She was the first sister and first Mother Superior, taking the name Mary of the Cross. To her, crosses were blessings, challenging her to learn and grow. The Order’s emphasis was on educating the poor and serving the needs of the orphans, neglected children, the aged poor, and others in need. The sisters lived as the miners, farmers, and railroad workers did in the rugged outback where they educated the children. The schools they established were open to all, regardless of ability to pay. The sisters went to any rural area needing their services. They often supported themselves by begging. The Order grew and spread through Australia and beyond. By her death, 750 had entered the Order, establishing 106 houses including 12 institutions which sheltered 1000 people in need. One hundred seventeen schools had served 12,409 students.
Good story, good works. However, politics became her cross. She was another Worthy Woman who, like Mother Marie-Anne Blondin in yesterday’s “Worthy Women” contribution, DID stand up to the clergy and bishops – over and over again.
The bishop in Adelaide ordered a Commission to examine the Order. Among the recommendations – giving the local priest authority over each convent. When she presented her concerns to the bishop she was excommunicated, though that was lifted several months later before the bishop’s death.
She traveled to Rome to receive formal approval of the Rule of the Order. After more than a year, the governing structure was approved: it would be governed by the Superior General and her council. Sr. Mary of the Cross became the first Superior General. In spite of Rome’s approval, bishops in Australia continued efforts in a variety of ways and over many years to have diocesan control over the sisters’ communities within their dioceses. After yet another (the last) effort by the bishops to gain power over the Order, Mother Mary and several others successfully appealed to Rome to retain their governance, with its headquarters in Sydney.
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it. Investigations, Council recommendations, desire for power over the women. Time spent dealing with these issues keeping Mother Mary and others from their mission to serve the poor.
Throughout, Mother Mary MacKillop remained dedicated to God and her mission. She wrote often to her Sisters, encouraging them. Some of these writings are found in her handwriting on the panels in the devotional area where I first met St. Mary.
“Have courage and think of the noble work to which the Will of God has called us all. I think of the love too deep for words to express, with which God watches over this children.” (Aug. 6, 1870)
“Never see a need without doing something about it.” (1871)
“We have had much sorrow and are still suffering its effects, but sorrow or trial lovingly submitted to do not prevent our being happy – it rather purifies our happiness, and in so doing draws our hearts nearer to God.” (1883)
And from her final letter to the Sisters:
“Whatever troubles may be before you, accept them cheerfully, remembering whom you are trying to follow. Do not be afraid. Love one another, bear with one another, and let charity guide you in all your life.” (Jan. 12, 1909)
St. Mary MacKillop’s work and legacy are larger than life. The rough texture of the sculpture mirrors the rough life in the bush where she and her sisters worked and lived – and her toughness in dealing with challenging politics. The huge hands – capable and hard working. Her posture – determined and forward moving. Her face – filled with compassion for those in need and with a passion for God.