"He is a just and merciful God, you may be sure that the trial is sent in love" - St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
On Sunday 8 August we celebrate the Feast of St Mary MacKillop, in honour of the first and only Australian saint, and take time to reflect on Mary’s life and the immeasurable impact her devotion and calling has had on Catholic education throughout this country. Over the last two centuries, thousands of dedicated women and men, often with very limited resources, rose to the challenge of building the vibrant and diverse Catholic education system that exists in Australia today, but none more so than St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.
Born into a life of hardship and poverty, Mary was a woman of unwavering faith and strength. Never one to back down from adversity or a challenge, she showed by example what it is to be a bearer of Christ’s love, going about her work with courage and grace, respecting and defending the dignity and inclusion of all—particularly those on the margins of society.
Mary opened the first St Joseph’s school in Penola, South Australia in 1866, allowing many Australian children access to a Catholic education. She faced great opposition from both inside and outside the Church, but with much courage, she fought for what she believed to be right and continued her work with the assistance of others—and so began the congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
Under Mary’s leadership, the sisters travelled to wherever the need was, regardless of geographical and financial constraints. In 1880, the Sisters of St Joseph found their way to St John’s Catholic Primary School, Dapto. It wasn’t long before the Sisters were providing spiritual and academic support to students in 22 other schools throughout what is now the Diocese of Wollongong. Today we are blessed to have the continued support of Josephite sisters in three of our schools.
Peter Hill, Director of Schools in the Diocese of Wollongong, said Mary demonstrated “relentless determination” in her pursuit of an inclusive Catholic education for all.
“When Mary MacKillop opened her first St Joseph’s school in 1866, I doubt she fully comprehended the resounding impact her actions would have on Catholic education 200 years later,” said Mr Hill. “Her selfless contribution was one full of passion, faith and tireless dedication to the mission of God.”
The Josephite education and the legacy Mary left behind had a profound impact and influence on the formation of Joanne Kenny, Head of Service - Catholic Life, Education, and Mission.
“What a privilege to be educated by such inspirational women!” said Mrs Kenny. “The nuns encouraged us to speak with courage and to fight for justice, and reinforced for me that the difference is often made in the little things; the ordinary efforts of each day.”
“From the story of Mary MacKillop, I have been inspired to ‘just do it’. Mary didn’t let obstacles get in her way; she worked around them, even straight to the top when needed. She stood up with courage against injustice within the Church when others tried to impose their ways and agendas on her. She stripped things right back to what she believed Jesus was asking her to do and met the challenges face-on so that she would be able to continue her work with the most vulnerable, poorest and most neglected ‘parts of God’s vineyard’.”
The work and devotion of the women who followed in the footsteps of Mary MacKillop inspired Sr Monica Barlow RSJ, a Sacramental and Liturgy consultant in the Diocese of Wollongong, to join the order as a young woman.
“Growing up I heard many stories of the ways the Sisters looked out for those who were in need. When it was suggested that I might like to join the Sisters, I resisted much as I admired them. I had other plans for my life. However, God thought differently and I finally decided to give it a go!
“Fifty-five years later I am still a Josephite and still inspired by my Sisters and all they have taught me to live a meaningful life. Of course, their inspiration came from Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods, the founders of the Sisters of St Joseph. Their heart for those who were poor and in need, showing them by their simple actions how much God loved them, drew many young women to join the Sisters and continues to be our inspiration today.”
This Sunday as we celebrate the incredible life and work of this inspiring, courageous woman, may we draw on the strength of Mary MacKillop to help guide us, give us resilience and show compassion to others, as we navigate our way through our own challenging and uncertain times.
Please click below to view a special liturgy to celebrate the feast of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop with Bishop Brian Mascord and the Sisters of St Joseph in the Diocese of Wollongong.