St. Mary Mackillop is the first Australian saint. Her parents were Scottish immigrants who had settled in Fitzroy, Melbourne, Australia. Her father had started to study for the priesthood in Rome but then left and moved to Australia where he married. The Mackillops had a family of eight children with Mary being the eldest. The father could not support his family, often depending on relatives to help his family struggle with poverty. In fact, when Mary was 16 years old, she was sent to work in a stationery shop in Melbourne, becoming the breadwinner of the family.
A change came in Mary’s life when working as a governess for the children of her aunt and uncle in the small town of Penola in South Australia, she met Fr. Julian Woods, the parish priest of the town. Urged by his Bishop, this priest was determined to start Catholic Education in the smaller towns. He recognized the qualities of Mary Mackillop, who had ended up teaching not only her cousins but also the children of the neighbourhood. He supported her in opening a school which was nothing more than an improvised stable! There she started to provide free education.
From then on, the aim of Mary’s life was to fulfil the call to educate, particularly to educate the children of families living in what is called ‘the outback’ of Australian towns. These included the Aborigines, considered outcasts of society at the time. Her vocation was to serve the poor, the marginalized.
Mary was joined by other women and together they worked not only in setting up schools but also places of refuge and rehabilitation for all those in need. Mary took vows, taking the name of Mary of the Cross. Together with Fr. Julian, she started a Religious Order for women ~ the Rule of the Sisters of St. Joseph, dedicated to supporting people from all walks of life, in their material and spiritual needs, becoming known throughout Australia as the Josephites.
Mary had to face many difficulties as she met with hostilities from members of her own Order, as well as from priests and Bishops who did not fully understand the spirit of her mission. For some time she was even excommunicated (cut out from the Catholic Church), a decision that was revoked after a few months. But she never lost heart. She travelled from Australia to Rome to have the Rule of Life of the Sisters of St. Joseph approved officially by the Pope.
Later in years Mackillop suffered a stroke that paralyzed the left side of her body. For seven years she had to rely on a wheelchair to move around but her mind and speech remained intact. She remained the Superior General of the Josephites until her death on the 8th August 1909.
She was canonized in 2010 by St. Pope John Paul II and declared Patron Saint of Australia. The Josephites and their mission continue to be widespread throughout Australia and New Zealand, inspired by Mary Mackillop’s motto: “Never see a need without doing something about it.”