Born in 1842 in Melbourne, Australia, Mary Helen learnt to know and love God from a mother and father, Alexander MacKillop and Flora MacDonald, whose ancestors had held fast to the Catholic faith in Scotland through centuries of persecution. When she came into the world, scarcely more than 50 years had elapsed since the first Europeans had settled in Australia.
After Mary there were three more daughters and four sons born to the family. Although Alexander was a good man and genuinely religious, he was not a successful money earner, and his firstborn found herself with the duty of supporting this family until she was 25.
From her earliest years Mary had a delicate sense of God's presence, and felt called to live a life of poverty consecrated to the service of his poor. But she had to wait. The family needed her, and at the age of 16 she went to work to earn money to support them. Two years later she went to teach as a governess in a little town in South Australia called Penola. There she found that the priest, Fr Julian Tenison Woods, was concerned that in the vast area under his care the children had no education, religious or secular.
In time Fr Woods' problem and the young woman's vocation found a single solution in the great religious and educational enterprise known as the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. "Our work was instituted by God", Mary said, "to destroy the secular spirit of education among our schools". The foundation is traced to the period when she returned to Penola in 1866 after some years teaching elsewhere, and became Sr. Mary of the Cross.
After small beginnings in a school building that had been a stable, the Sisters of St Joseph moved to the capital city, Adelaide, where their numbers grew rapidly. Before long, their works of charity had spread to other parts of Australia and to New Zealand. Besides primary schools, they cared for anybody in need, orphans, old people, girls in danger, and the friendless of all ages. No money was asked for any of these services. They depended on alms for everything.
In 1873 Sr. Mary was sent to Rome to obtain the approval of the Holy See for the institute. She had several audiences with Pope Pius IX, who gave her great encouragement. She returned to Australia with a modified Rule, being assured by the officials of the Congregation de Propaganda Fide that after some years' trial it would be given final approval.
In 1875 Mary was elected Mother General. After many difficulties she had the joy of seeing the institute approved by Pope Leo XIII in 1888, by which time the mother-house was in Sydney.
She was Mary of the Cross, and her cross took many formsâ€”ill health, frequent long journeys in primitive conveyances on land and sea in oppressive weather, the writing of thousands of letters, struggles to obtain the necessities of life, the hardships of real poverty.
But her most distressing crosses came from people, sometimes in high places. What she suffered is sometimes astonishing to read (as when she was falsely excommunicated), but more astonishing is the story of her charity and forbearance towards those who were unjust to her. She judged nobody, she blamed nobody, she was never heard to utter a word of criticism or bitterness, and her reverence for the sacred character of priests and Bishops was never diminished. She always tried to excuse those who had wronged her, called attention to their good qualities, and reminded the sisters of favors received from them in the past.
Her public achievement is a historical fact in Australia and New Zealand, but for those who knew her personally the most striking thing about her was her kindness. In everything she said or did she showed respect and love for those around her, making no distinction between the rich, the high-born, and the influential on the one hand and the lowly and the outcasts of society on the other. Her love did not depend on performance. Once a condemned murderer (a wild animal, people called him) poured abuse and blasphemy on anyone who tried to talk to him, until Mother Mary came into his cell, calmed him down, and helped him to die at peace with God and man.
Love was the soul of her virtues, always ready to make allowances and to endure whatever comes (1 Cor 13:7). Her faith enabled her to look beyond what she could see and hear and smell, and to respect all as children of God redeemed by the blood of Christ, one whom she had not seen but whom she loved (1 Pt 1:8). Her union with God was constant, fed by long hours of prayer and great devotion to the Eucharistic Sacrifice and to Christ in the Blessed Sacrament. From childhood she had looked on the Blessed Mother of God as her mother. She loved poverty with the quiet St Joseph, the patron of her institute, and honored him as a model and helper at all times.
Mary MacKillop, lover of the crucified Christ, had never been without the Cross. Besides ill health she had to bear human opposition, calumny and rejection. With the passing of the years the human problems faded, but her physical sufferings grew worse, until in her last months they were constant and distressing. But she always said, "my only prayer is that his will may be done in the matter".
When God finally called her from this world on 8 August 1909, she had borne her cross with incredible patience and with the joyful love of the dear will of God which had marked her whole life. That love of God had filled her heart and overflowed to all those around her, but it was especially tender towards anybody in trouble. She had kept the great commandment, "Love God" and the second, "Love your neighbor" (Mt 23:37).
Her place of rest in the chapel of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, North Sydney, is a place of pilgrimage and devotion.
Printed with permission from L'Osservatore Romano, January 25, 1995