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Mary Helen MacKillop (1842–1909)

by Osmund Thorpe

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Mary Helen MacKillop (1842-1909), known in life as Mother Mary of the Cross, was born on 15 January 1842 in Fitzroy, Melbourne, the eldest of eight children of Alexander McKillop and his wife Flora, née McDonald. Her parents had migrated from the Lochaber area in Inverness-shire and married soon after they reached Melbourne. After a prosperous start the family became impoverished.

Mary was educated at private schools but chiefly by her father who had studied for the priesthood at Rome. To help her family Mary became in turn a shopgirl, a governess, and at Portland a teacher in the Catholic Denominational School and proprietress of a small boarding school for girls. As she grew to womanhood Mary was probably influenced by an early friend of the family, Father Patrick Geoghegan, and began to yearn for a strictly penitential form of religious life. Concluding she would have to go to Europe to execute her plan, she placed herself under the direction of Father Julian Tenison-Woods who, as parish priest of Penola in South Australia sometimes visiting Melbourne and Portland, wanted to found a religious society, 'The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart'; they were to live in poverty and dedicate themselves to educating poor children. With Mary its first member and Superior the society was founded at Penola on 19 March 1866 with the approval of Bishop Laurence Sheil. By then she was spelling her surname MacKillop. The Sisterhood spread to Adelaide and other parts of South Australia, and increased rapidly in membership but ran into difficulties. Tenison-Woods had become director of Catholic schools and conflicted with some of the clergy over educational matters. One priest with influence over the bishop declared publicly he would ruin the director through the Sisterhood. The result was that Mary was excommunicated by Bishop Sheil on 22 September 1871 for alleged insubordination; most of the schools were closed and the Sisterhood almost disbanded. The excommunication was removed on 21 February 1872 by order of the bishop nine days before he died.

In 1873 at Rome Mary obtained papal approval of the Sisterhood but the Rule of Life laid down by Tenison-Woods and sanctioned by the bishop on 17 December 1868 was discarded and another drawn up. Tenison-Woods blamed her for not doing enough to have his Rule accepted and this caused a permanent breach between them. She travelled widely in Europe visiting schools and observing methods of teaching, and returned to Adelaide on 4 January 1875. In March she was elected Superior-General of the Sisterhood. In journeys throughout Australasia she established schools, convents and charitable institutions but came into conflict with those bishops who preferred diocesan control of the Sisterhood rather than central control from Adelaide. In 1883 Bishop Christopher Reynolds, misunderstanding the extent of his jurisdiction over the Sisterhood, told her to leave his diocese. She then transferred the headquarters of the Sisterhood to Sydney. On 11 May 1901 she suffered a stroke at Rotorua, New Zealand. Although retaining her mental faculties, she was an invalid until she died in Sydney on 8 August 1909.

Mary's finest feature was her large blue eyes. Affectionate but determined, her virtues were multitudinous with charity towards her neighbour outshining all. Always regarded as holy, she was put forward in 1972 as a candidate for the honour of beatification and canonisation and on 1 February 1973 the Cause was formally introduced. Mary was beatified on 19 January 1995 at Randwick Racecourse, Sydney, in a Mass celebrated by Pope John Paul II. She was canonised as Saint Mary of the Cross at a Mass celebrated by Pope Benedict XVI in St Peter's Square in the Vatican on 17 October 2010.

Select Bibliography

  • Life of Mother Mary, Foundress of the Sacred Heart, Westmead (Syd, 1916)
  • O. Thorpe, Mary McKillop (Lond, 1957)
  • Archives, Archdiocese of Adelaide, Congregation for the Propagation of the Faith (Rome), Sisters of St Joseph (North Sydney).

Citation details

Osmund Thorpe, 'MacKillop, Mary Helen (1842–1909)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1974, accessed online 22 July 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 5, (Melbourne University Press), 1974

View the front pages for Volume 5

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Mary MacKillop, c.1870

Mary MacKillop, c.1870

State Library of South Australia, 20486728

Life Summary [details]

Alternative Names
  • St Mary of the Cross MacKillop
  • Saint Mary of the Cross Mackillop
  • Mother Mary of the Cross Mackillop
  • McKillop, Mary Helen

15 January, 1842
Fitzroy, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia


8 August, 1909 (aged 67)
North Sydney, Sydney, New South Wales, Australia

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