Recently I visited Copperfield in Central Queensland, where the Sisters served in the early 1870s and where Mary herself visited in 1875.
All that remains today is a store, a cemetery and a chimney stack, but Copperfield was once a thriving pioneer mining town. What struck me most was the remoteness of the area. The Sisters and the townspeople would have suffered many hardships in this dry, arid land, burnished by a harsh hot climate and lack of regular rainfall. Copperfield is but one example of the many struggles and deprivations that the Sisters and their companions were happy to accept with courage, while selflessly spreading the Word of God to the people in their care.
On September 14, we celebrate the Feast of the Exaltation of the Holy Cross. This ancient feast has been celebrated by Christians in the East and West since the fourth century. It originally marked the dedication of Constantine’s Basilica of the Holy Sepulchre and was followed by the veneration of the wood of the cross, associated with Constantine’s mother, St Helen.
The feast marks the ‘lifting up’ of all humanity to God through the power of the suffering, death and resurrection of Christ. It is of particular significance to followers of St Mary Helen MacKillop, who was so drawn to the selfless love of the suffering Christ that she chose to be known as Mary of the Cross.
Mary often spoke of the courage of the cross, and urged her sisters not to be cowards in the face of the crosses they were called to endure. In this she led by example. Her life was marked by suffering – sickness, death, excommunication, exile and many misunderstandings; and yet she not only embraced the cross but took on further hardship to support the Sisters.
It is hard to imagine the personal cost and discomfort, not to mention danger, of travelling in the 19th century to such remote places as Copperfield and the many other outback towns across the vast continent. While Mary often spoke of the many crosses in her life and those of her Sisters, she was always willing to join her suffering to the cross of Christ. Mary did not give in to suffering and hardship but ‘lifted up’ her life to Jesus in love, and invited her Sisters and friends to do likewise.
The image of Mary the mother of God and the faithful and vigilant women standing at the foot of the cross of Christ crucified could well have included that other Mary, Mary of the Cross MacKillop and her Sisters who came after her. Today we, too, are invited to take up our cross with courage. Whatever the cross might look like – failing health, difficult ministry situations, the loss of family members and friends or just the daily grind of life – we too can ‘lift up’ our hearts in hope, love and faithfulness. We pray with the church,
Carmel Pilcher rsj