Bishop Peter J Elliott
It was a sunny Spring Sunday – 17 October 2010 – and we were celebrating the canonisation of our first Australian saint, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. I was the stand-in for Archbishop Hart, who was in Rome for the occasion. St Patrick’s Cathedral was packed. People were even crouched around the bishop’s chair. In pride of place were the Josephite Sisters, wearing blue scarves for the joyous occasion.
I was tired of the way her story was usually focused on Sydney, where she spent her last years and where she died in 1909. In my homily, I claimed her as “our sister, our Melbourne saint” and with good reason.
On 15 January 1842, Maria Ellen MacKillop was born in a little wooden house, Marino Cottage, at 7 Brunswick Street, New Town, which is now Fitzroy. Baptised in the incomplete St Francis Church Lonsdale Street, she was raised in a Scottish Catholic family, the firstborn child of Alexander MacKillop, former seminarian, and Flora, nee Mc Donald.
Inept in practical matters, Alexander sold the cottage, and Flora had to raise a growing family as they moved around. At one stage, the MacKillops lived at Darebin Creek, near her maternal grandparents’ property. When she was five, grandfather McDonald drowned in the creek.
On the farm, Mary became a skilled horse rider. But, to finance a trip to Scotland, Alexander mortgaged the property to a relative. A family row erupted when they were turned out. After some time at Plenty, they returned to Melbourne. While they were living in Richmond, the sixteen-year-old Mary paid the rent from wages she earned at the stationers, Sands and Kenny (later MacDougalls). There she developed an open ecumenical outlook, for her employers were not Catholics.
In the gold rush years of rapid change when “Marvellous Melbourne” emerged, she spent her formative years in and near this city. Yet she felt frustrated in her work. God had other plans for this beautiful, intelligent young woman with the serene smile and gentle eyes. Already she felt drawn to the service of the needy. She could see the other side of the Gold Rush: social disruption, abandoned children, broken families, poverty and vice in the slums.
She left Melbourne for Penola, South Australia, to work as a governess for her cousins, the Camerons. Her father had educated her well so she was a capable teacher. In Penola she met her spiritual guide, Fr Julian Tennison Woods, a brilliant English priest, eccentric and mercurial, yet he was God’s instrument in helping Mary discern her radical vocation of service.
The founding of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart began when she took vows in 1866 as Sister Mary of the Cross. Adelaide then became the focus for this new community dedicated, first of all, to teaching little children, especially the poor.
In the following years, whenever she returned to Melbourne, Sister Mary saw our glorious cathedral of St Patrick rise in two stages. She raised money to assist her loyal friend Archbishop Thomas Carr in the second phase. Her feet trod the tiled floors. Her eyes were raised to the new high altar of emperor red marble, her heart drawn in adoring love to the golden doors of the tabernacle where Jesus the Eucharistic Lord still dwells among us. Before her health collapsed in 1902, she saw the cathedral completed and consecrated, except for the spires later built by Archbishop Mannix.
Image: David Crosling (AAP)
After Mass on the day of her canonisation, many of us gathered near the site of her birth to walk in procession down Brunswick Street and Gertrude Street to the Exhibition Buildings. Here the civic event was celebrated outdoors, in the presence of then Prime Minister Julia Gillard and presided over by Bishop Les Tomlinson. The message was clear: St Mary belongs to all Australians.
Her sisters in the brown habit went out to find those in need, in the bush, in the cities and towns: children in schools, women, especially unmarried mothers and prostitutes, poor families and Indigenous Australians. She said, “Never see a need without doing something about it.”
Not only did she establish schools across this archdiocese, but she set up a refuge for women in the worst part of the city, Latrobe Street, and a foundling home at Surrey Hills. Behind the cathedral, in Albert Street, she opened the convent that is now the Mary MacKillop Heritage Centre.
Have you visited the centre? I can recommend it. In this peaceful place, I have given final Confirmation catechesis to children in grades five and six from our schools. The sisters tell them stories of St Mary, guide them around the beautiful exhibits and reinforce their Confirmation mission of care for others in need. That is the Josephite charism.
Ten years after Pope Benedict XVI canonised her, her mission is proclaimed by Pope Francis – to go out to the margins, to reach out to the poorest, the vulnerable, the isolated, refugees and asylum seekers, the mentally afflicted, addicts, victims of our disordered society.
For Mother Mary of the Cross, life became a Way of the Cross, particularly when she was challenged or undermined. Yet amidst these trials she reminded her sisters that ‘God will take care of us all’. Her holiness rested on a simple, but devastating, spirituality – total trust in God, abandonment to the Will of God.
Again and again in her life, we see this surrender to the will of God, and her response to the words of Jesus Christ in the Gospel, “…do not worry about tomorrow. Tomorrow will take care of itself…” Abandonment to God’s provident love drew her to the fiery warmth of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Christ. Her Eucharistic spirituality of trust was nourished by the Jesuits, who constantly stood up for her and cared for her sisters.
Her total trust in God included a childlike trust in Mary the Mother of God. She wrote of “the immaculate and sorrowing Mother”, “our sweet Mother” or “our gentle Mother”. In these troubled times, she is inviting us to turn to Mary.
Therefore, she was not canonised for her many good deeds, rather for accepting the supernatural energy that made them possible, the grace of the Holy Spirit. She was canonised because she was holy.
What then does our sister and saint teach us? She would direct us to that great teaching of the Second Vatican Council, that we are all called to be holy – all called to be saints. She shows us that holiness is forged in the small things in daily life when, through grace, we seek to love God and serve others selflessly. And in all this, “God will take care of us all”.
Most Rev Peter J Elliott is Auxiliary Bishop Emeritus of Melbourne.