We celebrate the birth of Australia’s first canonised saint and co-founder of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, Mary MacKillop, who was born on 15 January 1842.
Mary MacKillop’s whole life, almost from the time of her conception to her death, was overshadowed by the Cross. Father Geoghegan, priest at St. Francis’ Catholic Church, Melbourne, gave her mother Flora a relic of the Cross said to have been found by Helen, mother of the Emperor Constantine, to wear until her child was born. She would have explained to her daughter the significance of the Cross she had worn day by day during her pregnancy.
Mary MacKillop’s baptismal name was Maria Helen, given to her on 28 January 1842. She was named after her paternal grandmother, Helen MacKillop. The name Helen would have pleased Flora who would have had in mind Helen of the Cross. Even in her name the Cross was implicated. The name she took for herself when she entered religious life was Mary of the Cross.
By the time she was five, Mary had experienced tragedy twice. Her beloved grandfather, her mother’s father Donald McDonald, drowned when he fell into the Darebin Creek during a thunderstorm. Six months later, her little brother Alick died. These were harrowing experiences for a little child, who would have shared her mother’s grief. They were intimations of the Cross she would be called to bear.
Mary said of her childhood, “My life as a child was one of sorrows, my home when I had it, a most unhappy one”. Home to a child is their world, providing security, happiness, and a place to return to where there is love. But there was the shadow of the Cross hanging over her young life, preparing her for difficulties ahead. The MacKillops were constantly short of money. Alexander struggled to provide. Early in their marriage, he was declared bankrupt. The family often lived with relatives, fitting in as best they could.
Out of this unhappiness there developed a person who was to say:
Mary needed her cross. How many of us resent our crosses? She welcomed hers as her share in the sufferings of Christ, and she had plenty in her life.
Mary has been called “a saint of reconciliation for all the world” (Bishop Cuskelly). Neither as a child nor an adult did Mary MacKillop ever harbour bad feelings. She was a reconciler, accepting her cross, whether it was bad health, misunderstanding or the unwelcome death of loved ones.
To be a saint of reconciliation is to open one’s heart to the world, as Mary of the Cross did, and to know that God would heal every wound.
Margaret Paton rsj