Mary MacKillop’s compassionate heart

Tuesday 5 August 2020

Communications Office
On 8 August we celebrate the feast day of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, Australia’s first saint.
Mary grew up in the new colony of Melbourne and was very aware of the hardships and difficulties endured by the poor. She witnessed the needs of the society of her time and tried to address them. Mary was both an educator and a social worker and as a result of her dedication and commitment, orphanages and homes for the destitute were established.
We remember at this time Mary MacKillop, the woman who gave of her whole self in order to serve God and others, even before her sainthood was officially bestowed. Here are just some of the ways that Mary MacKillop helped her community.

1. Educating poor children from country areas

In 1890, Mary, then Mother Mary of the Cross and co-founder of the Josephite Sisters, established the first Josephite school in Numurkah, country Victoria. The first Josephite school in the Catholic Archdiocese of Melbourne was also opened, in Bacchus Marsh. Students from outlying areas were accepted as boarders in these rural towns. The Sisters of St Joseph continued to open schools in isolated areas in Sandhurst, Ballarat and Sale dioceses.

2. Educating children living in the slums of Melbourne

In the 1890s there were an estimated 10,000 children between the ages of 6 and 15 making their living on the streets of Melbourne, selling race cards, matches and newspapers. Although education was compulsory, these children did not attend school. In 1897 Mary MacKillop and Sister Gertrude Hayman opened the Catholic Poor School in a two-roomed cottage in Cumberland Place, located behind the ‘Providence’ (a home for destitute women), which had been established by the Sisters on Latrobe Street in 1891. St Joseph’s Poor School provided basic education for children from the nearby slums.

In 1898, the Archbishop of Melbourne Thomas Carr arranged for a new brick convent/school building and provided for its upkeep. Mary visited the school several times, taking lollies for the children. St Joseph’s School continued to provide an education for poor children until 1926.

3. Housing for poor children

In 1891, at the request of Archbishop Carr, the Josephite Sisters acquired the St Vincent de Paul Children’s Home and its debt. Mary went to the Surrey Hills home in 1891 and, as ‘Beggar in Chief’ in Melbourne, worked hard to make a home for the children, helped financially by friends. During the harsh winter of 1891 Mary travelled throughout Western Victoria, visiting foster homes and requesting donations. The Sisters of St Joseph continued to care for children at Surrey Hills until 1980.

4. Visiting children placed in foster care

Throughout 1891 Mary travelled extensively to check that children fostered out from the Congregational Homes in Victoria were being well cared for and happy, and that the foster families were suitable. Mary’s diary entries reveal the loving care she always had for children and their welfare.

5. Housing for destitute women

In the late 1880s, when Melbourne’s land boom ended and the depression set in, many people lost their jobs. Domestic servants were overrepresented among the poor who sought charity assistance because when they lost their job, they also lost their home. Many young girls were placed as domestic servants after growing up in orphanages and so had few support networks. Other women were also vulnerable, working for half the rate of pay for men and often in the lowest-paid occupations such as shopkeepers and factory workers.

In September 1891, Mary and Sister Gertrude established St Joseph’s Providence, a home for destitute women, at 43–45 Latrobe Street. It was comprised of a convent, a refuge for women and a children’s night school. These young women now had a safe place to stay.

In 1892, the Sisters of St Joseph advertised a home for unemployed servants and the Providence moved to ‘Nottingham Place’ at 535 Victoria Parade and then to ‘Floraston’ at 39 Victoria Parade. Women and girls employed in warehouses could board there.

6. Caring for prostitutes

Little Lon (Little Lonsdale Street) was the Red Light district of Melbourne. There were an estimated 35 brothels in Little Lon, with the most famous being Madame Brussels. Mary helped the girls working in the brothels. Sister Ethelburga, who nursed Mary when she became gravely ill while working in Little Lon, wrote of Mary: ‘I have known her to go into some of the slums of Melbourne, and get men and women from ill-famous houses, and got them to go to Mass, also to their religious duties.’

7. Caring for Syrian migrants

Syrian migrants began arriving in Victoria in the 1880s, many residing in Exhibition Street and Little Lon. These Maronite Christians were largely unskilled and itinerant workers and considered by many as below the Chinese on Melbourne’s list of ‘undesirables’. When the Sisters of St Joseph opened St Joseph’s Poor School in 1897, many Syrian children attended. By the early 20th century it was referred to as St Joseph’s ‘Syrian School’. The Sisters taught the children and also provided clothes for them to wear to Mass. They would collect the children on Sundays, accompany them to Mass and then take them back to their parents’ homes.
As part of the ongoing legacy of the Sisters of St Joseph, a group of Josephite Sisters and Affiliates have been asked to contribute video content about their Ministries and how they participate in God’s mission today, to be released in coming days.
Sr Monica Cavanagh, Congregational Leader, believes strongly that Mary MacKillop is with us. ‘Her own experience of life leads us to be in deep communion with her. We remember that Mary herself suffered from ill-health and will be close to all those whose health has been impacted by the COVID-19. She was close to death on a few occasions and found comfort in those who shared these times with her.’  
The Sisters of Saint Joseph believe that Saint Mary MacKillop would offer encouragement during these difficult times. In 1907 she wrote to the Sisters: ‘We must let no obstacles deter us from proceeding with courage in the path marked out for us. It may sometimes be dark and full of windings, but a beautiful bright light shines at the end of this path and a few more windings will bring us to it.’

Drawing from reflection on Saint Mary MacKillop’s experience, Sister Monica said: ‘My advice to young Australians of faith is: be the voice of the Gospel and the face of God in the world today. Be courageous; use your passion and energy to address the critical issues facing the world and Church today.’

Mass for Saint Mary MacKillop’s Feast Day in the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel will be live-streamed at 10am on 8 August followed by a time of Prayer at the Tomb. Here is the link: Mary MacKillop Place will be CLOSED due to major renovation works taking place at the moment, due for completion in February 2022. 
With thanks to Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre for the provision of resources for this article. For more information, see:
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