From Mary's often troubled and humble beginnings in Melbourne to the establishment of a school in a stable in Penola, her early life showed her great desire to do God's will and help those in need.

Alexander MacKillop

Flora MacDonald arrived in Australia in April 1940 aboard the Glen Huntly in Port Phillip, Victoria, having set out from Scotland the previous year. Together with her mother, Catherine and brother, Donald, they were initially quarantined against an outbreak of typhoid upon arriving in Australia.

Though both Flora and Alexander migrated from Scotland there is no evidence to suggest they had known each other previously to meeting in Australia.

Alexander, who had found work and made a home in Port Phillip, offered his assistance to the newly arrived MacDonald family.

Within three months Alexander and Flora had married on July 14th. In the following April of 1841, Alexander had purchased a small home in Brunswick Street, Fitzoy, Melbourne where their first of eight children, Mary Helen MacKillop was born on 15th January 1842.

Flora MacKillop(nee MacDonald)

Flora MacDonald arrived in Australia in April 1940 aboard the Glen Huntly in Port Phillip, Victoria, having set out from Scotland the previous year. Together with her mother, Catherine and brother, Donald, they were initially quarantined against an outbreak of typhoid upon arriving in Australia. At the age of 14 Alexander went to Scots College in Rome to study for the priesthood. Described as a “gifted student and a spirited debater” he spent six years engaged in study before returning to Scotland for health reasons.

Following this time, Alexander later resumed his religious studies at Blairs near Aberdeen for a period of seventeen months.

Alexander, although an astute student and learned theologian, did not complete his studies but arrived in Australia in January 1838 on the Bounty ship Brilliant seeking a new life in an increasingly prosperous country.

Eldest of eight children

Mary Helen MacKillop was born to Catholic Scottish immigrants on January 15th 1842 in the family home in Brunswick street, Fitzroy - Melbourne.

The MacKillop children experienced an unsettled childhood where the family home was neither happy nor prosperous due to the many failed and flawed business dealings of Mary’s father.

Family Life

As the eldest of eight children, a young Mary increasingly bore the responsibility for her father’s failings as a provider for a large family.

What Alexander MacKillop lacked in business savvy, he made up for in the home education of his own children. Though rarely receiving any formal school-based education, the MacKillop children were well-educated in their faith and school work by their father. In fact, Alexander’s greatest gift to his children would be the education he passed on to them.

Many family homes were sought and lost during Mary’s childhood. A deep sense of hopelessness was always countered by Flora’s sense of providence – the idea that “God will provide” became a staple for Mary and served her well and truly throughout her life.

Though her parents were loving and people of faith, much of the family’s meagre income came via whatever small wage the children were able to bring home. An increasing responsibility fell on Mary as the eldest of the children to assist her family.

Though her parents were loving and people of faith, an increasing responsibilty fell on Mary to provide for the family.

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films
Work in Melbourne

At the age of 14, Mary began work as a clerk for Sands and Kenny Stationers in Melbourne. Much responsibility was awarded to her and she remained there for four years.

With increasing family needs and a fluctuating income, Mary became the primary provider for her needy family. Her father, Alexander’s frequent and long absences from the family home and clear inability to provide for his family, resulted in Mary responding to the family needs.

Moving to Penola

At 18 years of age, Mary moved to the small and private township of Penola in South Australia in 1860 to take up the role of governess to her Aunt Margaret and Uncle Alexander Cameron’s children. Here she was guaranteed an income and the space she dearly sought

Mary not only educated the Cameron’s children but felt an increasing need to educate others, who in poverty, were left to their own devices. Here on the Cameron estate, other children were soon invited to join them. Mary taught those in need. The Catechism and whatever else she could manage became the formula for daily lessons.

Mary’s work on the Cameron estate soon brought her into contact with Fr Julian Woods, a priest at the local Catholic Church in his fourth year at Penola.

In 1860, Mary moved to Penola to work as governess for the Cameron's, where she first came into contact with Fr Julian Woods

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films
Dreams & Desires

Regional Penola was vastly different to the coastal capital of Melbourne where Mary had grown up. However, the community of Penola was one where a young Mary had found friendship and hospitality and was easily able to make a contribution.

Not long after meeting Fr Julian Woods, Mary found in him a Spiritual Director and shared with him her deep desires and dreams to serve the poor in greater ways.

Fr Woods, too, longed to serve better the educational and spiritual needs of the poor and was acutely aware of the ever increasing number of children growing up in the pastoralist areas of the growing colony of Australia.

Towns were emerging in many areas and providing school for children was becoming increasingly problematic. Fr Woods was particularly concerned about the lack of Catholic education in South Australia.

Having travelled in Europe extensively where he had encountered a teaching order of nuns in Le Puy France, he dreamed of an order of nuns in Australia that might join him in his quest to educate the children of poor Catholic families.

Mary, too, had long had an unspoken of desire for religious life, especially one founded on serving the poor. Due to her increasing financial responsibility for her family, Mary had never been free to act on this desire, choosing to provide for her family instead.

Fr Wood’s dream and Mary’s desire would combine in Penola in 1866 to found the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart

Though her parents were loving and people of faith, an increasing responsibilty fell on Mary to provide for the family.

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films
A LETTER FROM MARY MACKILLOP TO JULIAN TENISON WOODS, 13 October 1864

A LETTER FROM MARY MACKILLOP TO JULIAN TENISON WOODS

13 October 1864

My Dear Father Woods,

It is a long time since I heard from you now, and as it seems you are not coming down as soon as we expected, I must write again to you to remind you. Not that I have any news, nor indeed much time, but I am not quite so busy today. I hope you can pay us your promised visit on your return from the Tatiara (I don't know how to spell the word); we all expect you then.
Education in Penola

Over time, Mary and Fr Woods would share their thoughts on the need for education in the Penola area.

Fr Woods remained Mary’s Spiritual Director, advising her on many matters. While Mary was engaged in a teaching position at Portland, Fr Woods invited Mary and her Sisters, Annie and Lexie to come to Penola with a view to opening a Catholic school.

A disused stable would be the site of St Joseph’s school, Penola. With assistance from Mary’s brother, John, the stable would be transformed a little to be of service to the children of the town. John’s labouring would provide financially for the MacKillop family, leaving Mary clear to explore her chosen path. For the first time in Mary’s 24 years of life she was able to give of her life to God in a way she most earnestly desired.

Mary and Fr Woods shared in a vision to provide education for the poor, leading the foundation of a school in a disused stable in Penola.

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films

Video Excerpt taken from the film ‘Mary’ Courtesy of Ronin Films
Act of Substance

On the Feast of St Joseph, 19th March 1866, when Mary appeared in a simple black dress, a very deliberate action on her behalf, it became evident to those around her that this was an act of substance.

Close to this time in 1866, Fr Woods became the secretary to the newly installed Bishop of Adelaide Dr Sheil, and was soon installed as the Director of Education, Chairman of the Board and Inspector of Schools for South Australia.

The magnitude of this work would undoubtedly take Fr Woods away from Penola for good but not before approving the building of a new Catholic school for the town of Penola - St Joseph’s – to be staffed by those of his choosing.

Mary and her siblings Annie and Lexie would be joined by other women and on November 21st, Mary and Lexie discarded their secular garments and dressed as religious postulants.

The Rule

Fr Woods, closer than ever of realising his dream of a religious order of nuns for Australia, composed a set of rules to direct their lives.

This was approved by Bishop Shiel. The rules were:

  1. An emphasis on poverty
  2. A dependence on divine providence
  3. No ownership of personal belongings as God would provide
  4. The Sisters would go wherever they were needed.

And thus, in 1867, Mary MacKillop became the first Sister and Mother Superior of the newly formed order of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. By the end of 1867 ten others had joined the Sisters of St Joseph.

Commitment to God

Mary’s mother, Flora, was unsure of her daughter’s chosen commitment to God in this manner, reflecting on how her husband, Alexander, had been unfulfilled with his past endeavours and exploration into religious life.

Given the time Mary was spending with Fr Woods, Flora also saw increasingly less of her eldest daughter whom she had long viewed as friend and confidant.

For Mary, the family responsibility still weighed heavily on her mind, but Mary’s deep desire to serve God in the poor, that had been suppressed for the sake of the family, was now able to surface and the fulfilment of her dream of devoting her life to God was now a reality.

A LETTER FROM MARY TO HER MOTHER, FLORA MACKILLOP

27 November 1866

My own dear Mamma,

By the time you receive this, you will know all that I have long since wished to tell you, and for which I trust our Heavenly Father has prepared you. Your loving heart will, I fear, be inclined to grieve at this perhaps earlier separation than you expected, but ah! do not indulge the feeling, for does not God honour us all? He has made your life one of many trials that in the midst of such you might serve Him in the manner most pleasing to Him. It was in hardships, poverty and even want that you had to rear your children, but in the bitterest trial and greatest need your confidence in Divine Providence never failed. May that bright confidence now enable you to give your children cheerfully to the service of God Who so highly honours them by giving them a desire for the Religious Life.

Long and earnestly as I have wished to enter Religion, the thought of leaving you, my loved mother, gave me so much pain and anxiety that I had to make it the subject of many Communions. Kind friends, too, prayed for me, and now I am very happy, for I am sure you will not look for any other happiness in this world than that of serving God in any way He pleases. No matter what sacrifices of the will or inclinations we may make, the more and the deeper felt the better, so long as we do God's Will - that is all we want. Oh! how I wish we would only remember that we are but travellers here. With this thought ever in our minds, how easy would the daily trials of life become to us. I do not expect, nor do I desire, earthly happiness for you, but I do desire much in the world to come. 'Tis useless my trying to explain what I feel, but I think God can make us very happy even in this world, that is, when He gives us opportunities of suffering cheerfully for Him. What to worldly eyes appear great crosses should be to us great blessings, and ever prized as such.
A LETTER FROM MARY TO HER MOTHER, FLORA MACKILLOP, 27 November 1866