Mary MacKillop (second row) with Sisters of Saint Joseph and Postulants in Temuka, South Canterbury on 10 January 1895. SOSJ ANZ Archives.

Mary MacKillop’s first visit in Aotearoa New Zealand began from her arrival on 25 January 1894 and concluded on 8 March 1895.

The itinerary of Mary’s visit, ascertained from correspondence compiled by Sister Anne Marie Power, shows that some places were visited more than once.

Twenty-eight years on from the founding of the Congregation in 1866, Mary visited the Sisters in Aotearoa New Zealand. This was a visitation of the Sisters, many of whom had been sent from Adelaide and Sydney by Mary at the request of the bishops in New Zealand for teaching staff. The Sisters were in regular communication with Mary by letters and they were encouraged to write often. It must have brought great joy to see her again in person.

Surrey Hills, renamed Grey Lynn in 1900, was her starting point and she spent six days there from 25 January until 31 January 1894. She visited Surrey Hills again a year later on 12 February 1895.

Mary wrote to Sister Annette Henschke on 31 January 1894:

This is a lovely place, Auckland is, in a way prettier than Sydney. This convent is so nicely situated and the Sisters are so well and happy. We have another house at Remuera about three miles out – a beautiful place and our own, and this is also.

By 16 July 1894, Mary was in Meeanee and wrote to Sister Calasanctius Howley:

I like New Zealand very much and have been so well here. I believe that another year in Sydney with its cares and annoyances would have nearly killed me…

Mary went from Surrey Hills to Matata on 8 February 1894 to 14 February 1894 and again on 8 and 9 August 1894. On 8 August 1894, Mary wrote to Sister Calasanctius Howley:

From the community room and balcony, we have a lovely view. From where I sit writing this, there is a view of the ocean and several small islands – one being ‘White Island’ which contains an active volcano, which is smoking away at present at a great rate. Looking towards the South-East there is a range of hills – can hardly call them mountains. Between the Convent and the sea, just about five minutes’ walk from here, there is a freshwater creek running parallel with it and only separated from it by a sandy ridge, not many yards wide. This is a lovely day and everything looks bright and beautiful.

The Province main house at that time was in Temuka. The Sisters in the South Island gathered there for retreats. The photo taken near the end of her first visit, at Temuka on 10 January 1895, includes the Sisters resident in the South Island at that time. There are three postulants in the photo as the order was growing. Sister Raymond Smyth was the Provincial of New Zealand and Sister Bonaventure Mahony was appointed Provincial of New Zealand the following year 1896. Both are pictured.

For Mary during this visit, in addition to great distance and poor transport, poor health was a major problem. Yet she must have known of the appreciation of the Sisters to have her with them.

Extracts from Mary’s diary during the final months of her First Visit bear out her great struggle with poor health:

16. Did not feel well – but had conference with each Sister.
17. Was very ill all day but coped with Sisters coming off retreat.
31. Still ill and very miserable over all the disappointments and consequences to the Sisters.

1. Too ill to go to St Benedict’s for Mass.
7. Felt very ill all day but went as planned to Surrey Hills.          
9. Was ill all day.

From Auckland, Mary left for the South Island on 9 February 1895 by steamer. This travelled down the coast, putting in at Gisborne, Napier (where her sister Annie joined her), Wellington, then on to Lyttleton. Here the express (train) was caught to Waimate, arriving there on 23 February 1895. Mary does not mention ill health.

25. Not well enough to fast for communion. Felt ill all day but visited school.
27. Felt very ill all day – had to go to bed early- but went to bank and to visit people.

1. Left for Temuka – was not well.
4. Left for Christchurch after Mass – thence to Rangiora.
5. Was driven to Kaiapoi enroute to Christchurch. Stayed at Mission Convent.
6. Left for Wellington – rough passage.
7. Arrived in Wellington – walked to visit three people, accompanied by Annie.
8. Sailed for Sydney arriving on 13. Trip described as ‘terribly rough’. Was in bed on 9 and 10, able to get up on 11, describes 12 as ‘a nice day’.

Mary writes about being ill on eight days (in her diary) not counting the return to Sydney. She had been present at school concerts and displays in Temuka, Rangiora, Kerrytown and Waimate. She had visited Fairlie, Dunedin, Invercargill and Palmerston North.

Mary visited the Sisters in Temuka, Kerrytown, Waimate and Rangiora in the South Island. In the North Island, she visited the Sisters at Meeanee, Matata and the three convents in Auckland, Surrey Hills, Remuera and St Benedict’s.

Her personal fortitude is to be greatly admired when one considers the pioneering transport conditions of the late 19th century. Mary travelled extensively and made sure that she spent quality time with each Sister. Her kindness to children in the schools became legendary and she was renowned for giving out lollies to children. Her willingness to listen and her sense of humour were well remembered. Nell writing to Sister Inez Fitzgerald wrote of her memory of her as a “merry little nun” when she visited her class.

Colleen Dempsey rsj

Original Convent in Middleton Road, Remuera, 1892. SOSJ ANZ Archives.
Convent of Mercy, Palmerston North, 1910. SOSJ ANZ Archives.
Meeanee Convent and School, 1894. SOSJ ANZ Archives.


Rev. Paul Gardiner SJ Positio.
Sister Anne Marie Power, The New Zealand Story.
Archives of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart (SOSJ), Aotearoa New Zealand (ANZ) Region.