Australia's First Saint Overcame Excommunication

By Tanalee Smith
Washington Post
October 15, 2010

PENOLA, Australia -- Mary MacKillop's path to sainthood included an unlikely hurdle: excommunication.

As a young nun, MacKillop - who will be canonized as Australia's first saint Sunday at the Vatican - was briefly dismissed from the Roman Catholic Church in a clash with high clergy in 1871.

One of the catalysts for the censure strikes a note familiar to the present-day church: her order of nuns had exposed a pedophile priest.

The scandal, downplayed in church history, came to the forefront last week in a documentary about her by the Australian Broadcasting Corp. MacKillop was not the one who reported the abuse, but as a co-founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, she was the scapegoat, the Rev. Paul Gardiner told the country's public broadcaster.

Priests were "annoyed that somebody had uncovered it ... and being so angry, the destruction of the Josephites was decided on," said Gardiner, the chaplain of the Mary MacKillop Penola Center, a state-run historic site.

The exposure of the priest was just one of many factors - including bitter rivalries among priests - that led to MacKillop's excommunication, the Sisters of St. Joseph said in a statement.

She and 47 other nuns were thrown onto the streets of Adelaide, relying on the charity of friends to survive.

Five months later, the bishop revoked his ruling from his deathbed, restoring MacKillop to her order and paving the way for her decades of work educating the poor across Australia and New Zealand.

MacKillop grew up in poverty as the first of eight children of Scottish immigrants. By 16, she was the family breadwinner and at 18 she moved from Melbourne to the tiny sheepherding and farming town of Penola in southern Australia to become governess for her young cousins.

It was in Penola, a sleepy agricultural center then and now, that MacKillop became a teacher, inviting the poor and the Aborigines of the area to attend free classes in a six-room stable. In 1867, she began teaching in a newly built stone schoolhouse, which still stands today at the state historic site.

That year, MacKillop took her vows as a nun, becoming Sister Mary of the Cross. She co-founded her order with the goal of serving the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, particularly through education.

"Her teaching, her life and devotion to God started here," said Michael Black, a 70-year-old Penola resident who was helping to clear rubble from the base of the schoolhouse in preparation for celebrations on Sunday.

The school was damaged by a mini-tornado that whipped through the town of 1,100 in late July, tearing some stones and roof planks from the historic building.

Black's ancestors settled in Penola in 1857, and he said some of them had been taught by MacKillop. As the white-haired man stooped over to add more stones to his bucket, he said he was doing his part to clean up the town for its saint.

"She's not being canonized especially for this school or what she did here, but she was a great woman, good for Australia and good for the world," Black said.

MacKillop traveled extensively in Australia and New Zealand, setting up schools and expanding her order, known as the "Brown Joeys" for the color of their habits and the term for a baby kangaroo. Today, there are 850 Josephite nuns in seven countries.

After her death in 1909, swelling public requests for blessings in her name prompted supporters to begin pushing for sainthood in the mid-1920s.

The Vatican agreed to a formal inquiry in 1959, a lengthy process that culminates in papal recognition of two miracles. In 1995, Pope John Paul II recognized the first: the recovery of a woman diagnosed with terminal cancer after she prayed to MacKillop. Last year, Pope Benedict XVI recognized the recovery of another woman from a similar condition as the second.

Five other people are being canonized on Sunday, including two Italians and one each from Canada, Poland and Spain. The Vatican ceremony will be broadcast live on giant screens at the sports field in Penola.

Similar events will take place in other cities as Australia celebrates its first saint. Commemorative coins have been minted, a musical based on MacKillop's life is on stage and the Sydney Harbor Bridge is being lit up with her image.

To protect the saint from being commercialized, the government is requiring its approval for any service or product using her name or image - an honor previously extended only to cricket legend Donald Bradman.

Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, an atheist, described MacKillop as a pioneer who embodies "the best of the Australian spirit."

MacKillop always attributed her spiritual roots to the small town where she started.

"The work of our dear institute began at Penola," she wrote in a letter years later to the Josephite sisters. "Little did either of us then dream of what was to spring from so small a beginning."

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