Mary MacKilllop: Beggar-in-Chief

October 13, 2010

I have dismounted to love
gliding towards me dauntless nautch-girl on the face of the waters
dauntless daughter of desires in the old black and flamingo
get along with you now take the six the seven the eight or the little single-decker

take a bus for all I care walk cadge a lift
home to the cob of your web in Holles Street
and let the tiger go on smiling
in our hearts that funds ways home

~ Sanies I, Samuel Beckett, from Echo’s Bones and Other Precipitates (1935)

Image Credit: Trever Phillips

The Work Begins

 Mud and more mud – slanting rain and squalid, tumbledown shacks – men and women shabby and dejected – ragged children with the pinched faces of hunger – Mary’s impressions had been building up ever since her steamer had nosed its way into the Port River. They deepened as the train bore Father Woods, her companion and herself towards Adelaide, and as they joted their way in the carriage over a wretched, muddy road to the cottage in Grote Street that was to be their Convent. Mary had not been prepared for all these evidences of stark poverty in the city that boasted of its free and planned origin.

Father Woods, however, explained rapidly how immigrant ships were continually arriving from Great Britain and Ireland, and of the lack of employment for those who came. Even those who obtained work, he said, were not much beter off, for wages were low and prices high. There was need, great need, for the kind of religious congregation they planned where the Sisters would be poor among the poor.

Image Credit: Trevor Phillips

Of that there was no doubt. Mary waited only long enough to make an eight-day Retreat and put on a religious Habit before plunging into the work. On July 2 they opened a school with sixty pupils, and within a few months the number had risen to more than two hundred as word spread around that these new Sisters taught very well and did not charge fees. They were content with the few pence that could be given, or with gifts of eggs or vegetables from those who could spare them.

Not only were most of the pupil’s parents too poor to afford any fees; often they could not even clothe their children. So Sister Mary simply went out and begged clothing for them. Adelaide watched and wondered. Nuns who worked among the poor and even begged for them were something quite new – scandalously new – revolutionary even. Maybe they were not nuns at all?

Image Credit: Ask Sister Mary Martha: Life is tough. But Nuns are tougher

The Work Expands

The Sisters of St. Joseph did not long confine their attention to teaching the children of the poor. As more generous young women came to join them, they were able to take on other work. The poor and sick were visited in their homes; children were gathered in off the streets, fed and sheltered; a Providence for old ladies was taken over; the gaols were visited (to the consternation of the warders!) and a Refuge for unmarried mothers and prostitutes established. And all the time more and more requests were coming in for schools to be opened so that an increasing number of Catholic children could benefit from free education and the refining influence of the Sisters.

There was no doubt, at least, that the poor of Adelaide took the new Sisterhood to their hearts. They saw in them generous young women, full of the love of God, and willing to serve Her poor at whatever cost to their own comfort and feelings. They knew that the Sisters barely had enough to exist on, and they bought the poorest of food, slept on straw, had convents bare of all except absolute essentials. They knew that the Sisters were ready to tramp the streets, begging for food, clothing, furniture even, for those destitute ones for whome they cared, that they accepted whatever was given with a smile and word of gratitude. So they cared little that these new Sisters were very different from the Religious who came from Europe, and who lived in large Convents behind high walls. They accepted and loved them for what they were.

Sister's room, Schoolhouse, Penola, SA

As their numbers grew, the Sisters opened more and more schools, not only in Adelaide, but in places in South Australia as far distant as Port Lincoln and Maitland. They were ready to go wherever the pioneers went, and share all their hardships and privations. By coach and steamer, by rail and by butty, they followed the settlers or miners into the outback.

Dust, flies and heat, loneliness, hunger, inconvenience, privations – whatever the early settlers knew and endured, the Sisters shared. Their Convents were no better than the shanties of the miners, sometimes they were only one or two rooms of hessian lined with calico.

A privation more keenly felt was that of Mass and the Sacraments, for often the settlements were so isolated that a priest could seldom visit them. However, the Sisters were there to keep the Faith alive not for their own spiritual consolation, so every Sunday they gathered the people and children together and prayed with them and gave instruction. Bravely and quietly they went on with their teaching and other works of mercy, and their presence must have brought new hope and courage to the hard-pressed women of the outback.

The Wimmera, 1864, by Polixeni Papapetrou

Image Credit: Junk for Code

Sister Mary visted her Sisters in these scattered outposts as often as she could, thinking nothing of the dreary, tiring journeys entailed. Her visits meant renewed zeal and enthusiasm and deeper confidence in God. Soon the bishops of other dioceses and colonies implored the Sisters to work with them. In 1869 they were invited to Queensland, and Sister Mary set out for Brisbane with several Sisters. No funds had been provided for the journey so they had, literally, to beg their passage from colony to colony.

This caused some scandal among those who overlooked the humility, the courage and self-forgetfulness entailed, and they were too ready to make unfair comparisons with Religious they had known in Home Countries. These critis did not realise that this was a unique Religious Congregation, one formed and fitted for the needs of the times, and one in complete harmony with the democratic spirit that was, even then, developing in Australia. They did not realise either that this new Congregation was, above all, suited to the task of bringing the knowledge and love of God to the poor and ignorant of the city slums and to the children of the distant outback.

Extracts: 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

Further Reading: Mother Mary of the Cross: Her personality, her Spirit


Image Credit: JollySwagmanBackpackers

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