Sister Mary: Rumblings

October 13, 2010

Image Credit

A remarkable wooden statue of Sister Mary MacKillop located right in the centre of Brisbane at St. Stephen’s Chapel. It is carved from one huge tree and stands approximately 3-4 metres in height. One of the hands of the statue is missing because some yobbo knocked it off. (Translation for Non-Aussies: an individual of low intelligence swiped it.)

Sister Mary, later to become Mother Mary, was briefly tossed out of the Catholic Church in 1871, when she was 29, and her order shut down, officially for insubordination after she refused to allow the Catholic hierarchy to take over her self-governing order of Josephites. But there may also have been a more sinister reason behind the move.

The excommunication came soon after members of her order of nuns reported a pedophile priest. The order discovered that children were being sexually abused by Father Patrick Keating in Kapunda Parish, northeast of Adelaide in South Australia. After being reported, Keating was sent back to Ireland, where he continued to serve. 

A friend of Keating’s, Father Charles Horan, swore revenge on Sister Mary. She was excommunicated after Horan became assistant to Adelaide’s Bishop Laurence Shiel.  Father Paul Gardiner, the man in charge of the MacKillop canonisation process for 25 years, says Bishop Shiel was “a puppet being manipulated by malicious priests”.

“This sounds terrible, but it’s true”, Father Gardiner says.

Marie Foale, Sister Mary’s biographer and a leader of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart – the order formed by MacKillop – says the independent Josephites were “a great threat” to the bishops. “They were Australian, they were independent thinkers, they went out among the people. They worked among the poor; they didn’t care about the rich. So they (the priests and bishops) just didn’t know how to handle them”.

After the excommunication, Sister Mary and many of her nuns were thrown on to the streets. Help came from an unlikely admirer – a wealthy Jew named Emanuel Solomon, who let MacKillop and the sisters stay in several of his houses.

Bishop Shiel, on his deathbed, five months later, absolved the punishment and restored Sister Mary to the sisterhood. “It was just an absolute disaster from every point of view”, says the present Catholic Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson. “It was a disaster for Mary and the sisters. It was a disaster for the church. It was a disaster for the bishop and everyone else involved because it was such a bad reflection on the church of the time”.

Extrapolated from “Fight to the Finish for battlers’ saint” by Faithworks writer,Bryan Patterson; article published Sunday Herald Sun, October 10, 2010.


Image Credit: Shannon Rogers

Location: St Francis Xavier’s Cathedral, Adelaide.  Mary MacKillop Plaza.  This life sized statue, so beautifully sculpted by Judith Rolevink, depicts Mary MacKillop in full stride with a child in each hand; an Aboriginal boy on one side and a young girl on the other.

Trial and Triumph

from the 1965 book Dauntless Daughter of Desires

by Sister M. Peter

It was St. Teresa, whom Crawshaw so aptly termed “undaunted daughter of desires,” who remarked wryly that it was small wonder the Lord had so few friends, seeing how He treated them!  It is, indeed, well-known that the path of holiness is a rough and thorny one – and that of Founders and Foundresses has always proved particularly so.

Sister Mary had more than her fair share of bitter opposition. Some of this came from the dislike of the more conservative of the clergy for this new, untraditional religious congregation. More came because of Father Woods’ inability to handle financial affairs and his reputation for involving himself and others in impractical schemes. At one stage the Bishop of Adelaide, Dr. Sheil, was so influenced by reports circulated about the Sisters that he actually excommunicated Sister Mary and disbanded the Adelaide Sisters. This tragic mistake was rectified within a few months, however, and once again the Sisters continued their work. (Read more: Broken Rites Australia)

 Image Credit

Whatever the growing opposition, this work had certainly been blessed by God, for within a few years there were almost a hundred Sisters teaching 2,460 children in 45 schools, and carrying on many other charitable and apostolic works as well. In view of this growth Sister Mary was advised to go to Rome to ask for approval for her Congregation and to submit the Rule for expert examination.

With characteristic courage she set out for Rome. She was alone, practically penniless, and had neither influential friends nor a knowledge of foreign languages. However, her gentleness, sincerity and warmth soon won her friends in Rome. When she found that she would have to wait almost a year whilst matters were under consideration, she spent much of the time visiting schools in Europe and Great Britain, and in interesting people in the work.

By the end of 1875 Rome had given approval – indeed warm praise – to the new Sisterhood, but had greatly changed the Rule to make it more in keeping with the special work of the Sisters of St. Joseph.

Rome or Bust

Image Credit: Courageous MacKillop 

Following article from The Southern Cross 1 April 2009

Adelaide Archbishop Philip Wilson has made a public apology over the wrongful excommunication of Mary MacKillop in 1871. The Southern Cross newspaper reports that the apology occurred at the blessing and dedication of the Blessed Mary MacKillop statue and plaza in Victoria Square on 22 March 2009.

 Archbishop Wilson stressed the apology was a follow up to the regret expressed by the dying Bishop Sheil when he revoked his excommunication of Mary in 1872.

 He said he was ‘profoundly ashamed of the Church’s actions in driving the Sisters out into the streets’. ‘This statue will stand as a sign of our affection and as an act of reparation for what happened so long ago’, he said.

 The Jesuits have their own place in the Mary MacKillop story. When the excommunication took place, the Jesuits at Norwood realised the act was invalid and gave MacKillop shelter, allowing her to receive the Eucharist even though she could not publicly attend church.

 Adelaide Jesuit Bishop Greg O’Kelly said the Jesuits in South Australia were great supporters of Mary MacKillop during all the troubles, both before and after the excommunication. ‘All those early Jesuits knew Mary Mackillop quite well, and wrote highly about her work and the work of all her sisters.’

 Sister Marion Gambin, Leader of the South Australian Province of the Sisters of St Joseph, said the apology was unexpected and humbling.

 ‘I was touched by the fact that Mary walked around here, between the Cathedral and the west end of the city…holiness is something that was around not just in the 18th century in another hemisphere’,
Archbishop Wilson said. ‘Mary showed that holiness is possible along our own streets; she was a living example of holiness and sainthood through her love of human life intersecting our lives in this city.’




  1. I’ve enjoyed your series of posts about Sister Mary MacKillop, who I hadn’t heard of before. Is there any move by the Catholic Church to canonize her now? Would seem to be fitting.

  2. Oh, and I love all the statues and illustrations of Sister Mary too.

  3. Stay tuned to this channel…..something wonderful is about to happen!

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