First photograph of the new Convent and Chapel in Kensington 1876. Sisters of Saint Joseph SA Archives.

Mary MacKillop was a prolific letter writer to her Sisters as they spread across Australia and New Zealand. She provided encouragement, practical and spiritual advice. Her letter dated 13 November 1883 was a very personal one to the Sisters in South Australia.

What were the circumstances which led to her leaving Adelaide at short notice?

  • Attitudes of the clergy
  • Difficulties in communication

Mary MacKillop had been excommunicated on 21 September 1871, supposedly for disobedience to a command of Bishop Sheil. The ban was lifted on 24 February 1872, just before the Bishop’s death. The next Bishop was Christopher Reynolds who had very little formal training before being ordained a priest and then a bishop in 1873.

Bishop Reynolds had grave concerns about financial debts in the diocese. He was fearful that he would end up responsible for any debts of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. Despite the approval by Rome of central government, Bishop Reynolds tried to force the Sisters to obey diocesan structure – including that he would be the one who decided where Sisters would be sent.

The Second General Chapter of the Sisters had been held in the Kensington Chapel from 19-23 July 1881. Bishop Reynolds presided. During this Chapter there was an election for Superior General. Mary thought her time in leadership was at an end as the new approved Constitutions stated that the leader could only serve two consecutive terms. She had been the leader since the group commenced in 1866 and was looking forward to quieter days ahead. Her objections were overruled by Bishop Reynolds and Fr Tappeiner who stated that her term of office was only counted from 1875 when the new Constitutions were received.

In July 1883, Bishop Reynolds announced he would hold an Apostolic Commission to have formal interviews (under oaths of secrecy for life) with the Sisters focusing on allegations that Mary MacKillop was an alcoholic and to identify if the Sisters could pay their debts, especially on the Kensington Convent. By October 1883, he had summarised his findings and issued instructions about the role of individual Sisters and that the Convents were to be like enclosed European models. He did not seem to accept that he had no authority to act on governance matters for the Sisters.

Difficulties in communication

At this time the only communication was face to face or by letters. We are fortunate that we have so many of the letters to and from Mary MacKillop. Her practice was to get copies of her letters made by hand and then posted to the Sisters.

It was on 15 November 1883 that Mary wrote from Kensington to the Sisters that, “Circumstances call me to Sydney…” An extract of her letter continues…:

My dearest Sisters,

My letter this time will give you great surprise but not greater than I feel myself at the news I have to give you. Circumstances call me to Sydney. Sr Bernard (Walsh) says that, if I go for one week, they will be satisfied, but I have reason to think that I shall be longer than that away. In any case you will soon know more than I am at liberty to mention now. 

Meanwhile I leave you in God’s keeping and, as Sr Calasanctius (Howley) had to go away, Sr Monica (Phillips) took her place as Assistant.). Knowing the love and veneration in which you hold Sr Monica, I am glad that it is so. As Sister Collette (Carolan) has also to come with me for the present, Sister Mary de Sales (Tobin) will be Little Sister. Later this may be changed.

Now, my own loved ones, there is more that I would like to tell you, but for the interests of charity and peace ’tis better not. The Institute is passing through a severe trial, but with humility and charity and truth on the part of its members, all will in the end be well. Have patience, my own loved children. Pray, pray humbly with confidence and fear nothing. Our good God is proving His work…

A few amongst us may have to suffer more than others, but this suffering will be joyfully welcomed in view of the good results. Later you will understand my words and then you will not disappoint the Mother who has and will always love you.

More than ever try now to be united, love and help one another, bear with little defects…

God bless you all. Have courage, pray earnestly, and ask our glorious Patron to help your Mother General to do what is right and best for all. Once more, God bless you all.

Your fond Mother in JMJ
Mary of the Cross


On 16 November she wrote to Bishop Reynolds, “The instructions in your last letter surprised me but I submit. All is, I hope for the best.”

Sr Sheila McCreanor