August 8 – Mary Helen MacKillop

These weekly “People to Commemorate” posts are a kind of calendar for the commemoration of the saints, reproduced here from a Uniting Church Assembly document which can be found in full here. They are intended for copying and pasting into congregational pew sheets on the Sunday closest to the nominated date.

Images (where provided) are of icons by Peter Blackwood; click on the image to download a high resolution copy of the image.

Mary Helen MacKillop, Christian pioneer

 Mary Helen MacKillop became the first Australian to be officially recognised for ‘extraordinary holiness’ by the Roman Catholic church in October 2010.  She pioneered a new form of religious community for women, working in twos and threes to respond to the the need for both education in faith and social outreach in colonial Australia, especially among the poor.

A plaque in the footpath in Brunswick St, Fitzroy marks the place where the MacKillops’ rented house stood and where Mary was born on 15 January 1842. She was the first of eight children of Alexander MacKillop and his wife Flora (MacDonald) who had migrated from Inverness, Scotland. She was educated mostly at home by her father. The family finances which were often precarious, and relied on Mary’s income from the time she was 14. She was a clerk in Sands and Kenny stationers (later Sands and MacDougal) for four years, and then teacher in Portland, Victoria before taking a position as governess to her aunt and uncle’s children (the Camerons) in Penola, South Australia.

In Penola she shared her hopes of religious life with the parish priest, Fr Julian Tenison-Woods, and together they developed plans to provide Catholic education to children especially in rural and poor areas.  On 15 August 1867 she took vows as a religious sister within the new community dedicated to St Joseph and the Sacred Heart of Jesus, and adopted the name Mary of the Cross. The rule of life of the new community emphasised poverty, dependence on Divine Providence, no private ownership and the openness of the Sisters to go wherever they were needed. In November 1867 Mary’s sisters Annie and Lexie joined the new community, by the end of 1867 there were 10 members, and two years later 72 members running 21 schools as well as outreach and welfare centres.

However, misunderstanding dogged the work, and Mary learnt early to remain serene while being misrepresented and humiliated. The Sisters did not fit traditional European models of cloistered life, and Mary was famously excommunicated in Adelaide for nine months from September 1871 until the sentence was lifted in February 1872, and papal authority for the work confirmed in 1873. Nevertheless, the Sisters’ system of central government (under the director of their own superior rather than the local bishops) remained controversial. In 1883 in the midst of ongoing tensions, Mary transferred the administrative centre to Sydney. She suffered a stroke in 1901, and although mentally alert was an invalid until her death on 8 August1909.

The wideapread publicity around her canonisation in 2010 brought new interest in her life. As the Josephite Sisters continued to remind the public, the conviction that God is to be trusted, that Jesus really is the model of freedom, defined MacKillop’s commitments before anything else. See

Mary modelled a commitment to ‘above all get help in prayer’. Her letters (the bulk of her writing) were often preoccupied with business, but underpinned by faith. She was sustained by her conviction that the human dignity of each person was God-given. Her capacity to speak reverently and carefully even of those who had caused her great pain and damage inspired her Sisters. She was committed to drawing out the best in others, advising: in 1871:  “Make no reserves with God. Reject no-one. You never know what grace can do.”

Katharine Massam