Born in 1842 to two Scottish immigrants, Mary Helen MacKillop was brought up in a very religious, financially unstable household in Fitzroy, Melbourne.
She resolved at a young age to lead a religious life. This goal was realized in 1866, after MacKillop had worked as a shop assistant, teacher and governess. In 1866 MacKillop met an English priest, Julian Tenison-Woods who was based in South Australia. Tenison-Woods shared her quasi-mystic, almost zealous brand of Catholicism.
Together they founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, which was dedicated to looking after poor Catholic children, and providing them with a quality, Catholic education. The establishment of the order was not without its drama. In 1871 MacKillop was excommunicated from the Catholic Church for insubordination; reports had been made of strange visions, self-inflicted versions of Christ’s wounds, and other unorthodox practices among the sisters of the order.
Although the order’s numbers decreased, MacKillop was determined that this would not be her undoing. Bishop Shiel had excommunicated MacKillop. However, in 1872, while on his deathbed, he withdrew his accusations. MacKillop traveled to Rome.
Here she gained approval for the Josephites’ Rule, and what became her own order. This was opposed to the vision she had shared with Tenison-Woods, and in seeking approval from Rome, she effectively severed their relationship. By 1875 the order had grown to include over 200 nuns and more than 40 schools. It was organized according to the original principle of providing the poor with quality Catholic education as a means of escaping their financial hardship.
The Josephites continue to be characterized by living their own lives in poverty, and maintaining a fiercely egalitarian ethos among themselves and in their teaching. MacKillop was elected to the superior-general’s position within the sisterhood in 1875, and she was popular amongst followers of her order. Nevertheless, in 1883 MacKillop was plagued by criticisms of financial mismanagement. Her prescribed medicinal use of brandy fuelled allegations of alcoholism.
Demonstrating a determination to overcome these difficulties, MacKillop relocated the order’s financial headquarters away from her critics, and rose above the pettiness of malicious claims. MacKillop died in May 1909 from a stroke. In the early 1960s, over fifty years later, the requisite miracle for her beatification occurred: prayers offered to her are said to have cured a woman of cancer. She was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II, and is the first Australian to have had this honor.
MacKillop is significant to Australia’s large Catholic population, and the strong Catholic tradition within Australian culture. However, MacKillop is not only revered for her religious work, but also her cultural contribution. Her refusal to submit to patriarchal Church authority, a fierce independence, and the egalitarian attitude of her life and work recommend her as a strong female and Australian role model.