The desire Mary had for religious life, combined with her response to the needs of the poor bush children of Penola, resulted in her founding a new form of religious life.

Champion of the Poor

With her formal teaching qualifications under her belt, January 1866 saw Mary and her Sisters, Annie and Lexie, journey to Penola in South Australia to run a school that espoused Father Woods and Mary MacKillop’s vision. This school was open to anyone who wished to learn and was revolutionary as it accepted and educated, without distinction, both those with means to pay for an education and those without.

Thanks to Mary’s brother John, a carpenter by trade, the school was relocated in March from the cottage in which they resided, to a local stable. This was perhaps a fitting beginning for a school that would be an important model of Catholic education.

Woman of Justice

Mary’s school offered all students the opportunity to learn basic life skills. The first 33 pupils, along with those who would follow, learnt how to write a letter and add up a grocery bill, as well as studying religion and hymns, amongst other things, all in the hope that they would be able to use their education to improve their situation in life.

One time the Governor even deigned to send his grandson to Mary’s school; however, it was requested that the grandson be separated from the other children by means of a privacy screen. Mary would not agree to this in her egalitarian school, despite class segregation being commonplace at the time, and hence the Governor’s grandson never did receive the instruction of Australia’s First Saint.

Mary’s school offered all students the opportunity to learn. Her egalitarian school would not permit class segregation, not even for the Governer’s grandson

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

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

Upon establishing the school, Mary moved to publicly declare her intention to become a nun and serve God. On 19th March 1866, the feast of St Joseph, a 24-year-old Mary wore a black dress and signed off as ‘Mary, Sister of St Joseph’ for the first time. And on 15th August 1867, in a tiny chapel in Grote Street, Adelaide, Mary MacKillop officially took vows and became Mary of the Cross.

When I parted with you, I little imagined that I could so soon have the happiness of being allowed to make my Profession, Mary wrote to her mother on 21st August 1867. Yet, after all, thanks to the goodness of God and Father Woods’ kindness, I have been permitted to take the holy life.

By 8th December 1869, the day when Mary took her final vows, there were 72 Sisters and 21 schools operating around Australia, not to mention the outreach services, accommodation centres, orphanages and aged care centres.

On 15th August 1867, Mary MacKillop officially took her vows and became Mary of the Cross devoting herself to help

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

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

As a young nun - the first Australian to set up an order and the first Australian nun to go outside the cities and minister to Australia’s poor, rural and working class - Mary looked to Father Woods for guidance. He was her mentor and spiritual guide during these founding years. It was, in fact, Father Woods who encouraged Mary to become ‘Mary of the Cross’. 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.

The Cross is my portion – it is also my sweet rest and support, Mary once wrote.

Mary viewed crosses as blessings in disguise, an opportunity to learn and grow. And grow she did... as did the Order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph.

The Sisters set out to provide a basic education for the children of the poor. Within two years there were 127 Nuns running 17 institutions

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

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

After a meeting of Australian bishops, Bishop James Quinn invited the Sisters of Saint Joseph to Queensland. So in December 1869, Mary and a group of Sisters set off for Brisbane.

It was her year in Brisbane and the obstacles she overcame there that cemented Mary as a leader and marked her ‘coming of age’.

The challenges Mary experienced in Brisbane, foremost from within the Church, threatened the Order’s Constitution. This was the rule that dictated what they stood for; these were the guidelines that enabled the Sisters to stay focused on those in need.

If the Sisters were to survive with their holy purpose intact, Mary would have to develop her inner strength and an awareness of Church politics. And survive, they did.

A Friend Indeed

By August 1871, the Sisters had not only survived, they had thrived. Over one hundred and twenty women had taken vows and become Sisters of Saint Joseph. Being only 23 years old on average and being sent away to any part of Colonial Australia that had need of their services, the Sisters had to be tough - just like the native flora and fauna.

[The Order] was supported by the Sisters begging, Sister Mechtilde remembered. Sometimes, on these begging expeditions, the Sisters had to suffer severe insults, but, generally speaking, they were well received by the people.

Mary was very aware of the demands of religious life in Colonial Australia and took it upon herself to know each Sister’s name and to write to them regularly. Despite, or perhaps because of, the challenges in her life, Mary was a true friend and confidante to every Sister.

Mary was aware of the demands of religious life in Colonial Australia and would travel for days to visit and support her Sisters

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

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

1871 saw Mary depart Brisbane and return to Adelaide, via Melbourne, Geelong and Portland. Word on her travels, combined with Father Woods’ concerning letters, led to a growing fear that all was not well in Adelaide.

Mary arrived back in Adelaide to be greeted by a collection of Sisters that were feeling dejected and unsupported, and a mentor who was on the brink of a breakdown. Father Woods’ claims that two Sisters were mystics had led some Sisters and several priests to believe that Father Woods was incapable of leading the Sisters. As head Sister, it was left to Mary to deal with the repercussions of Father Woods’ claims; however, by this time discontented priests were starting to result in a displeased Bishop Sheil.