Mary McKillop: Dauntless Daughter of Desires

October 11, 2010




Image Credit: Labyrinth.net.au

The Story Begins

The story really began in Melbourne back in the 1840’s, when Australia was divided into colonies, each struggling for survival. Less than ten years earlier the Henty brothers had arrived at Portland Bay and landed their cargo of sheep, fowls, seeds and rabbits, and John Batman had decided on his “place for a village.” Melbourne was growing very slowly and was still a straggling town where the chief nuisances were wandering sheep and goats, where the first post office had just been opened, but where already there were vast slum areas – as well as stocks outside the markets and gallows in the open for major criminals.

It began on 15th January, 1842, with the birth of a daughter, Mary, to Alexander McKillop and Flora MacDonald, both emigrants from Scotland. Her birth caused no stir, although there had been, perhaps, just a faint prophetic note in the fact that her mother had worn a relic of the true Cross during the previous months.

Mary’s childhood and girlhood were uneventful enough. The family moved about more than most, because Alexander McKillop found it difficult to earn a living. He had spent seven years studying for the priesthood before he decided that it was not his vocation, but his philosophy and theology and fluency in several languages did not help him make his way – nor did his native recklessness and improvidence help the situation. So his family often knew want; they knew, too, the humiliation of depending upon relatives for food and shelter. Mary’s whole young life, infact, was dominated by the necessity of making a living.

Because Mary was exceedingly intelligent and interested in learning, she made the most of every opportunity to attend school and of the lessons her father gave her himself. At 14, however, she began work as a nursery goerness, and later went to business at Sands and Kenny.

Image Credit: Luna Park, St Kilda, Melbourne

A Pattern Emerges

Dreaming goes with girlhood, and Mary had vast dreams and desires. She wanted to serve God as a religious – but not as a member of any of the Orders then in Australia. Her longing stretched out to a life of extreme poverty, one that would show unbounded confidence in God’s loving providence, and a life devoted entirely to the needs of the poor.

Meanwhile, however, she had to help her mother keep the home together, so when an invitation came to act as governess in her aunt’s home in Penola, she at once set out on the slow, wearisome journey by coach across Victoria to South Australia.

The homestead was about three miles from Penola and ringed about with thick scrub where emus and kangaroos abounded. As Mary settled into her new work and struggled with homesickness, she did not know that within a few days there would occur a meeting which would change the whole course of her life.

We have no details of that first meeting between Mary and Father Tenison Woods, but we can imagine his riding into the homestead and swinging to the ground, stiff after his hours in the saddle, grateful for the rest, the ease, the warm hospitality of the homestead. He was a young English priest in charge of the district of Penola and Mount Gambier, a vast parish of over 22,000 square miles.

For the past three years Father Woods had spent most of his time in the saddle, journeying from one section of his scattered flock to the other. Everywhere he saw the sturdy bush children growing up without opportunity of education – or, at best, only the opportunity of secular education. He realised that there was a great need for religious training if these young Australians were not to grow up in complete ignorance and neglect of their faith. When he met Mary, their dreams fused into a splendid vision.

Original Sketches by Fr Julian Edmund Tenison Woods

Extracts from: Dauntless Daughter of Desires: the story of Mary McKillop and her work 1866-1966, by Sister M. Peter. Published by Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, 1965.

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