Mary Mackillop the Battlers' Saint

By Bryan Patterson
Herald Sun
October 9, 2010

MARY MacKillop - the tough-minded 19th century nun - who was excommunicated, tossed out on the streets and once even accused of being an alcoholic - is still causing controversy a week before her elevation as Australia's first saint.

The official canonisation in Rome next Sunday of the woman some Catholics are now calling "the patron saint of whistleblowers" - 101 years after her death - is raising new questions about the Vatican's long and arduous process of declaring saints.

Some of the most vocal calls for changes to the rules of canonisation have come from within the MacKillop camp.

In a Compass documentary to be screened on the ABC tonight, Marie Foale, Sister Mary's biographer and a leader of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart - the order formed by MacKillop - says she cannot understand why the Vatican requires two confirmed miracles to declare someone a saint.

"I don't understand why it is so important that we have to have these miracles for the verification of a person's sanctity," she says.

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"Anyone who reads Mary's letters, who follows the course of her life, the trials and tribulations she went through, the way she behaved, can tell straight away this was a thoroughly good woman who acted out of her principles at all times and who loved God very deeply.

"Why she couldn't be declared a saint on the strength of that is beyond many of us to understand. But even to this day the church still insists upon these miracles."

Her view is echoed by Father Paul Gardiner, the man in charge of the MacKillop canonisation process for 25 years. It was Father Gardiner who had to uncover and painstakingly research the two "miracles" necessary for her canonisation.

"It seems to me looking for a second miracle is like striking the rock twice," he says.

"If you had a clear case of divine intervention once, you're saying to God, 'Yeah, we'd like you to do it again'.

"I think there's room for a lot of speculation about how to reform this thing."

It's no surprise that some controversy surrounds the making of Australia's first saint. She will be one of only a handful of the Catholic Church's nearly 3000 saints definitely known to have once been excommunicated. Another was Joan of Arc.

Mary MacKillop, according to those who have studied her, was a pragmatic political operator as well as a decent, compassionate and humble nun. She was more than capable of leading the struggle against the patriachal Catholic authorities to help the poor and the abused. She adopted the motto, "Never see a need without doing something about it".

Sister Mary, later to become Mother Mary, was briefly tossed out of the Catholic Church in 1871, when she was 29, and her order shut down, officially for insubordination after she refused to allow the Catholic hierarchy to take over her self-governing order of Josephites. But there may also have been a more sinister reason behind the move.

The excommunication came soon after members of her order of nuns reported a pedophile priest.

The order discovered that children were being sexually abused by Father Patrick Keating in Kapunda Parish, northeast of Adelaide in South Australia. After being reported, Keating was sent back to Ireland, where he continued to serve.

A friend of Keating's, Father Charles Horan, swore revenge on Sister Mary. She was excommunicated after Horan became assistant to Adelaide's Bishop Laurence Shiel.

Father Gardiner says the bishop was "a puppet being manipulated by malicious priests".

"This sounds terrible, but it's true," he says.

Marie Foale says the independent Josephites were "a great threat" to the bishops.

"They were Australian, they were independent thinkers, they went out among the people. They worked among the poor; they didn't care about the rich. So they (the priests and bishops) just didn't know how to handle them."

After the excommunication, Sister Mary and many of her nuns were thrown on to the streets. Help came from an unlikely admirer - a wealthy Jew named Emmanuel Solomon, who let MacKillop and the sisters stay in several of his houses.

Bishop Shiel, on his deathbed, five months later, absolved the punishment and restored Sister Mary to the sisterhood.

"It was just an absolute disaster. from every point of view," says the present Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, in tonight's documentary. "It was a disaster for Mary and the sisters. It was a disaster for the church. It was a disaster for the bishop and everyone else involved because it was such a bad reflection on the church of the time."

Father Gardiner denies Mary MacKillop was specifically excommunicated for reporting clerical sexual abuse. But a group led by American Jesuit James Martin has already called for Mary MacKillop to be named patron saint of abuse victims.

Father Martin says: "Now victims of sex abuse and their families and friends, and all who desire reconciliation and healing in the Church, can pray to Mary MacKillop, who understands them perhaps better than any other saint."

Mary MacKillop probably could have been declared a saint long ago. But there were unsettling rumours. In 1882, she was exiled from her order again after allegations by a jealous fellow nun that she was an alcoholic.

Marie Foale says she suffered from dysmenorrhea - painful menstruation - for many years and self-medicated with nips of brandy. But she was not an alcoholic.

Her contemporaries painted the picture of a dedicated holy woman with a keen sense of humour.

"She was a genuine troubadour of the Lord, scattering joy wherever she went," said one. "Many's the time she cheered up despondent sisters. In this she imitated St. Ignatius Loyola, who once danced Spanish dances to drive away gloom from a despondent religious."

Her road to sainthood started in 1925. Then there were the two miracles to be uncovered and verified.

Mother Mary was beatified in 1995 by Pope John Paul II, who cited her intercession as the cause for a Sydney woman's cure from terminal leukemia in 1961. That first miracle placed Mother Mary one step away from sainthood. The search for a second necessary miracle took some time. The Josephites received more than 1000 letters from people attributing miracles after praying to Mother Mary. Only six of these seemed promising.

One case was of a six-year-old boy named David who had an aggressive brain tumour. His family prayed to Mother Mary for a miracle and the boy recovered. But an error in the reading of one of the boy's scans meant the recovery was not deemed a miracle.

Another possibility was the survival of Sophie Delezio. When a car ran into her child care centre in 2003, Sophie was so seriously injured that she was not expected to survive. She did, after her parents prayed to Mother Mary, but the survival did not fulfil the conditions of a miracle according to the Vatican.

Sophie, now 9, is among thousands of Australians who will be in Rome for Mary MacKillop's canonisation next Sunday.

In December last year, a papal decree attributed a second miracle to her - the complete cure of Kathleen Evans, an Australian woman, of lung and secondary brain cancer. Pope Benedict announced in February that Mother Mary would be canonised.

When she died in 1909, Mother Mary left 650 nuns, 108 convents, 117 schools and 11 charitable institutions.

Thousands of people lined the streets as her funeral procession wound its way to St Mary's Church in North Sydney. At her funeral, Cardinal Moran, known as a pragmatic and unemotional man, let it be known that he considered her worthy of one day becoming a saint.

After her burial, many superstitious souls scooped earth from around her grave. Her remains were transferred in 1914 to a vault in the newly built Memorial Chapel in Mount St, Sydney. The words on her tomb were ones she often told her nuns - we are but travellers here.

Sister Monica Cavanagh, author of Mary MacKillop: A Window Of Hope, says many Australians see the sanctified nun as "something of an Aussie battler".

"In particular, Australians identify with her ability to stand up for what she believed in," she writes.

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