Mackillop a True-Blue Mover and Shaper

By Martin Flanagan
The Age
October 16, 2010

Now a female figure has emerged who has the power to outstrip them all.

I'M BARRACKING for Mary MacKillop. This is not an endorsement of the papacy or the church of Rome. Nor do I wish to buy into the debate over miracles, which dates back to before the Reformation.

I'm for Mary MacKillop because she had a rare and noble vision and pursued it regardless of what came her way - and an awful lot came her way. And I'm for her because she was consciously Australian. In 1873, she wrote to a Vatican official, "What would seem out of place in Europe is still very much the reverse in Australia. It is an Australian who writes this." Three years later, a bishop would describe her as "a woman who never spent one hour in religious training" and "young, sentimental, female, obstinate and colonial".

I know enough about her life to want to know more. She was a Fitzroy girl. Her parents were from the Scottish Highlands. Her father was a highly intelligent but disputatious individual who had studied for the priesthood but didn't complete the course. He seems to have had trouble holding a job and at one point left the family in poverty for 17 months to take a sick friend home to Scotland. But Mary's mother had a remarkable faith - God, she said, would provide.

From an early age, Mary worked to help put food on the family table and, aged 18, while working as a governess at Penola in South Australia, she met the local priest, Father James Tenison Woods. If you were to make a film about Mary MacKillop's life, you'd put a lot of thought into who played James Tenison Woods. It seems he was charismatic, good-looking and highly accomplished in science and the arts. He and Mary conceived the idea of the Josephites, Mary's company of nuns.

The Josephites were different from the start in that they did not submit to the governance of the local bishops. They governed themselves. Unfortunately for Catholics who have serious regard for their church's formal structures and beliefs, part of what makes MacKillop a compelling figure is her battle with the church - or, rather, its authority structure. Battling with authority is, I hardly need to add, an old Australian theme.

It has now come out that MacKillop's excommunication in 1871 arose after members of her order reported a priest for sexually abusing children. The local bishop, advised by a priest who was implicated in the matter, decided to bring the overly independent Josephites into line. MacKillop failed to comply, was excommunicated for insubordination and put out into the street, along with those of her order who supported her, with nothing and nowhere to go. A Jewish businessman in Adelaide, Emmanuel Solomon, an admirer of their work, took them in.

MacKillop's story vaults divisions of race and religion. Vicki Clark, from the Victorian Aboriginal Mission, has said her canonisation is important for indigenous Catholics. When she started her mission to the poor in South Australia, she cared for Aboriginal children. Her brother, Donald, became a priest and worked with Aboriginal people at Daly River in the Northern Territory.

In 1873, she journeyed to Rome to shore up her position with the Vatican. Pope Pius IX gave his imprimatur to her order but varied one of its founding conditions, conceived by MacKillop and Woods. The original order had embraced poverty in a radical way - basically, they made ends meet by begging. The Pope insisted they be less strict in this regard. Woods, according to some accounts, never forgave her for this alteration to their original vision.

In 1877, she was demoted after a member of her order asserted that she had a drinking problem. MacKillop said she wished someone who knew her more closely would speak on her behalf (she drank brandy to ease severe menstrual cramps). Again, having a tipple is hardly to be classified as un-Australian.

I see MacKillop as one of those larger-than-life entities - the diggers at Gallipoli, Ned Kelly, Burke and Wills, Bradman etc - popularly recognised as Australian legends. They are, to state the obvious, all male. Now a female figure has emerged who has the power to outstrip them all.

Broken Rites Australia, a network assisting victims of sexual abuse, recently stated on their website that while they don't have a patron saint, if they get one, it'll be Mary MacKillop. To quote from Our Sunshine, the song about Ned Kelly co-written by Paul Kelly and Mick Thomas, she's "still riding on".

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