St Mary of the Cross, known as Mary Helen MacKillop, was a nun who was canonised as Australia’s first saint on October 17, 2010. Her feast day is celebrated each year on August 8, which is the date she had died in 1909. After Mary’s death, there were over 600 sisters scattered among parts of Australia and New Zealand. They were looking after more than 1,000 children and adults in need. They had established 12 charitable organisations and were teaching more than 12,400 children in 117 schools.

Born and raised in Melbourne, Mary MacKillop was known for her compassion for the poor. She was also renowned as an educator who started multiple schools in Australia and New Zealand. The Australian nun also opened an orphanage and a shelter for women who had been released from prison.

Early life

Mary was born on January 15, 1842 in Fitzroy, Melbourne to her Scottish immigrant parents Alexander MacKillop and Flora MacDonald. Mary is the eldest of eight siblings. She began working as a stationary clerk at the age of 16 to provide for the needs of her family. Mary moved to a small town called in Penola, South Australia at the age of 18 to look after and educate the children of her aunt and uncle. Mary generously educated the rest of the farm children on the estate where she was living. It was in South Australia that Mary founded a religious order and established several schools.

Establishing schools with Father Julian Woods

Mary met Father Julian Woods in Penola, who asked her to help him establish Catholic schools in Australia. She accepted a teaching position at Portland, Victoria in 1862. During her time in Portland, she opened a boarding school in 1864, now known as Bayview College.

Mary returned to South Australia in 1866 and became one of the co-founders of a Catholic school opened in a stable in Penola, along with Father Woods. Her sisters, Annie and Lexie, helped her teach more than 50 children after the renovations were completed by her brother John. The children were taught to read, write and do basic mathematics.

Discovering her vocation to be a religious sister

In the same year, Mary founded a religious order called the Josephite Sisters (Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart) and gave herself the religious name ‘Sister Mary of the Cross’. She dedicated herself to her vocation as a religious sister on the feast of the Assumption of Mother Mary on August 15, 1867, but it was on the feast of St Joseph on March 19 that same year that she had made the decision in her heart. Several women joined her religious order and assisted with the establishment of schools and the education of children.

Combining her love for the poor and education, the sisters opened a school in Yankalilla, South Australia in October 1867. The Josephite sisters moved to a house in Grote Street Adelaide, where they also started a school nearby. They established their religious order in Brisbane, Queensland in December 1869.

‘’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.’’

St Mary of the Cross MacKillop

Founding several charitable organisations

By the time it was 1871, there were more than 120 Josephite sisters spread out among 46 schools and 4 charitable institutions within South Australia and Queensland. Some of the charitable institutions included an orphanage, the House of Providence – a home for vulnerable women of all ages, and a refuge for women who needed protection.

Expansion to New Zealand

The Josephite sisters had eventually expanded across the ditch to parts of New Zealand. In 1896, she spent several months in New Zealand in Port Chalmers and Arrowtown in Otago. The sisters started a school in Arrowtown, near Queenstown in the South Island of New Zealand. They celebrated their Silver Jubilee of the foundation of the order in 1891, where there were over 300 sisters. At least 80 foundations were spread out across 9 Australia and New Zealand dioceses.

Mary’s illness and her last days

While Mary was in Auckland, New Zealand, she suffered a stroke in 1902 and was paralysed on her right side. She was confined to a wheelchair for the rest of her life, but Mary continued to help her sisters spiritually and professionally as teachers.

Mary and sisters established a training school in Mount Street, North Sydney in 1900. The school eventually became part of the Australian Catholic University by the late 1900s. As Mary’s health deteriorated, she was no longer able to write and used a typewriter instead.

On January 12, 1909, she typed: ‘’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.’’

Cardinal Moran stood by Mary during her last moments and said: “Today I believe I have assisted at the death bed of a saint.’’

A walking saint on earth

She attracted large numbers of people at her funeral procession to Gore Hill Cemetery in St Leonards, Sydney. A Requiem Mass took place beforehand at St Mary’s Church in North Sydney. Before her canonisation, she was beatified in Sydney on January 19 1995 by St John Paul II. Mary is the patron of many parishes, dioceses, charities and institutions in the world.

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