Our Lenten Journey, March 26: St. Mary MacKillop and Clergy Abuse

The Dialog

March 26, 2020

By Virginia Durkin O’Shea

How many saints do you know of who have been excommunicated? Joan of Arc comes to mind, however, she met a tragic end. You may not have heard of St. Mary of the Cross, the Australian nun whose fate was much better than that of St. Joan.

Mary Helen MacKillop was born in Melbourne on Jan. 15, 1842 to Flora MacDonald and Alexander MacKillop, Scottish immigrants who met and married in Australia. Alexander was a former seminarian, and had a good heart, but was unsuccessful at most professions, so the family struggled.

The oldest of eight children, Mary began working as a clerk at age 14. She later took a job as a governess for her aunt and uncle, followed by more teaching positions and running a school in Penola. During her teaching career, she always made an effort to include poor children from the area in her lessons. She felt that educating people was serving God.

In 1866, she met a young priest, Fr. Julian Tenison Woods, who invited her and two of her sisters to open a Catholic school in Penola. They opened a school in a former barn; it was a “free” school, taking no funding from the government (which was the norm) and accepting only what parents could pay. Mary wished to dedicate her life to God by serving the poor, and began wearing all black.


By 1871, 130 nuns were working in more than 40 schools and charitable institutions across South Australia and Queensland. Then things took a strange turn for Sister Mary and the order. Accounts say that she and several other sisters reported a local priest for suspected abuse. The priest was sent back to his home country, but one of his peers launched a revenge campaign against Sister Mary that included accusations of alcoholism. Sister Mary refuted the claims, and argued with Bishop Sheil — who at the time also wished to take control of her order. As a result, Sister Mary was excommunicated by the bishop for insubordination in 1871. Many of the schools were closed and the nuns became homeless. The order survived, with the sisters living on charity from supporters. A year later, on his deathbed, Bishop Sheil admitted that he had been misled, and lifted the excommunication.

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