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Participants process through the streets of midtown Manhattan during the 35th annual Pax Christi Metro New York Way of the Cross/Way of Peace April 14 in New York City. "Jesus Calls Us to Active Nonviolence" was the theme of this year's Good Friday commemoration. (CNS photo/Gregory A. Shemitz) See GOOD-FRIDAY-STATIONS April 14, 2017.

Bumping into St Mary at Adelaide cross

Hugh Dougherty finds it easy to encounter the powerful, living legacy of Australia’s first Saint

TAKE a walk up Adelaide’s stylish parade and you’ll find an oval, brass plaque laid into the pavement just before busy Portrush Road, reminding you that you’re walking in the footsteps of Australia’s first saint.

The plaque, placed there by the City of Norwood, reminds passers-by that St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, to use the official title, as bestowed on her by Pope Benedict XVI in 2010 at her canonisation in Rome, walked these streets and lived and worked in the district between 1872 and 1883, leaving a powerful legacy that still resonates.

My wife and I came across the plaque when visiting our son, daughter-in-law and granddaughters in Adelaide this year, and its discovery led, thanks to a little local digging, to connecting with the life and times of this remarkable woman of Scottish descent, who founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.

Better known in Adelaide and across Australia as the ‘Brown Joeys,’ thanks to the order’s original brown habit, the order was founded by St Mary and Fr Tenison Woods, after he invited Melbourne-born young women of Christian vision to open a school in Penola, some 300 miles from Adelaide, in 1866.


Scottish heritage

Mary’s parents had emigrated to Melbourne from Roy Bridge, just outside Fort William, and Mary was very conscious of her Scottish heritage, with a culture and Highland Faith rooted firmly in the concept of helping the most disadvantaged in society.

So, when she arrived in Adelaide in 1872, she set to work with her growing order of sisters to establish schools, orphanages, refuges for women and girls at risk, and to visit the sick and destitute in the rapidly growing city.

All these achievements are recorded in the Mary MacKillop Museum, a stone’s throw from the pavement plaque, while her life and times are also recalled by the order’s present-day regional headquarters building, St Joseph’s chapel, which contains a relic of St Mary, as well as the refuge established by her, which stands today.

What is remarkable is that this Victorian woman managed to increase the size of her order so quickly, as well as establishing schools throughout Adelaide, and, also throughout South Australia, when she was not a trained teacher in any shape or form.



But, all was not plain sailing in Adelaide, as an information board on Heritage Walk on the St Mary MacKillop Cultural Heritage Trail told us. Local clerical jealousies centred on the instant success of the ‘Joeys,’ as the order is still affectionately known, led to Bishop Laurence Sheil excommunicating Mary for insubordination.

A more worrying aspect, which rings all too true for its time, was that Mary had reported a Fr Keating, an Adelaide parish priest, for alleged child sex abuse, and was horrified that Fr Keating was simply sent back to Ireland, with the official line being that he had been removed from his parish because of alcohol-related issues, when Mary MacKillop wanted a proper enquiry.

It was during her excommunication that she sought shelter with the Jesuits at nearby St Ignatius’ Church, just yards away from the Joey complex on Portrush Road, and we followed in her footsteps to say a prayer before her portrait which hangs in a side chapel. During her exile from the Church, the Jesuits continued to administer the Sacraments to her, while a loyal Jewish supporter gave her lodgings when she was thrown out of the convent.

This is stirring stuff, made very real by walking the heritage trail. Eventually, Bishop Sheil relented just before his death, and Mary was exonerated and travelled to Rome in 1873 to have her order fully recognised by the Vatican.

It was on the way to Rome that Mary visited her parental home in Roy Bridge, sailing up the Caledonian Canal by steamer to Inverness and also visiting the Catholic church in Nairn, before heading for the Holy City via Ireland, where she succeeded in recruiting 15 new sisters to her order, and bringing them to Adelaide.


‘Flame and heritage’

Before she died in 1909, St Mary had established an order which is known far beyond Australia, two Joeys even working in parishes in and around Fort William. Her flame and heritage alive for pilgrims wanting to visit local sites associated with Australia’s first saint.

There’s no doubt that, in this secular world, it was refreshing to see a local authority taking the importance of ‘their’ saint on board, and there was no doubt that St Mary is a very visible part of local culture and heritage, also recalled by the Mary MacKillop College for girls, which stands close to where she set up her refuge.

Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop is alive and well in Adelaide Diocese. She is also commemorated by a statue outside Adelaide Cathedral, and, at Mass on three Sundays at St Joseph’s Church, we heard her invoked in the Prayer of the Faithful.

What chance then, a St John Ogilvie heritage walk, marked with plaques as in Adelaide, or similar for Blessed Margaret Sinclair in

Edinburgh? I think that St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, would have thoroughly approved. Saints shouldn’t be hidden away.

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