After Pope Benedict's Sunday declaration of the six newest saints, some of the loudest cheers in St. Peter's Square came from Australians. They had reason to celebrate: their own Bl. Mary MacKillop had just become their country's first canonized saint.
Pope Benedict officially recognized her and five others as saints on Sunday morning.
Now known as St. Mary of the Cross, MacKillop founded the Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. She focused particularly on the education of poor children.
She began the order’s work with a school in a stable the small town of Penola, Australia in 1866. Before her death many more educational institutions were established in "bush" areas where hardship was common.
Today, the "Josephites" are present across Australia and New Zealand, and have extended their ministry to Ireland, Peru, East Timor, Scotland and Brazil.
Official Vatican estimates for the Oct. 17 canonization put the number of ticket-holding Australians in attendance at a minimum of 6,000 people. They witnessed the Pope’s Latin-language declaration of their national hero's sainthood.
CNA spoke with some of the Australian pilgrims, who all said they had personally been touched by St. Mary of the Cross' ministry. Each one was happy to tell his or her story.
Toto Piccolo, an Italian missionary with the Neocatechumenal Way, has lived in Australia for more than 30 years. He led a group of pilgrims from Sydney to Rome to take part in the celebration.
In his view, the saint helps to give courage to Australian Catholics today. "In a secular society," he said, "she managed to give witness to Christ with her life." This is still relevant for Australia, which he called a “young” nation that can "go in any direction."
Rose Ingram, who had come with a group from the Western Australia city of Perth, felt privileged to be in Rome for the celebration. She said her group couldn't help but cheer the short biography of St. Mary of the Cross, read before the Holy Father declared her to be a saint.
The canonization is "just great" for Australia, she said. St. Mary was "champion of the poor" who took education "to the outback" and all over the nation, explained Ingram, herself a former student of the Josephites.
For Ingram, the canonization took on the character of a reunion. At the event she ran into former Josephite school directors who had worked in Perth but had moved on to Ireland and other parts of the world.
Also present were nineteen-year-olds Heidi Welsh and Charlotte King, who live in a boarding house for first-year university students called the MacKillop House near the Australia’s capital of Canberra. The young women welcomed the canonization of Australia's first saint.
Particularly important to Welsh was that the first saint was a woman. "How awesome is that?" she exclaimed.
Thinking about the fact that MacKillop founded the order at 24 years old, she said that she still has a few years to put something together herself.
A pair of teachers, Bernie Maginnity and Amy Tabain, were chosen by New South Wales' Diocese of Wagga Wagga to head a group of 45 young people for the celebration. The youth came from all over Australia and also East Timor and New Zealand.
Maginnity said the canonization "was just the ultimate for us."
It was "spiritually uplifting," added Tabain. "She's a phenomenal Australian, an ordinary Australian who had an amazing vision and fulfilled the dream and the legacy that continues today through her work, through the Josephites and all the other ministries associated with that. She would be really proud today."
As teachers, she said, they strive to be as humble, dedicated and motivated as she was. Tabain explained that MacKillop's sainthood has an effect on all people regardless of religion and background in Australia and in the places where the Josephites continue the work MacKillop started.
Maginnity appraised her life in concise Australian terms, saying that the new saint is someone who sets an example as “a 'fair dinkum' Aussie battler, having a fair go, trying to help her mates.”