Reflection on Mary MacKillop

Reflecting on Mary MacKillop’s eventful life there is a realisation that she lived a type of nomadic existence.

Her grounded spiritual approach to life enabled her to travel to establish new foundations and to meet the needs of the sisters and the needs of the times. Her journeys took her to many parts of the continent by many means of transport. As a woman of this era she imbibed a remarkable knowledge of the land and the conditions that ordinary Australians endured.

Her journeys were always taken in the spirit of Joseph. Joseph experienced many journeys into the unknown. We think of his life as being hidden and silent, yet he was a strong man of his time seeped in faith and spirituality as he protectively and courageously took on this special role. We are grateful for his witness of the Incarnation, for ensuring a safe return to Nazareth, for searching for Jesus, for teaching his child and for preparing Jesus for the enormous ministry he was about to embark on. Pope Francis reminds us:

Yet God acts through events and people. Joseph was the man chosen by God to guide the beginnings of the history of redemption. He was the true “miracle” by which God saves the child and his mother. God acted by trusting in Joseph’s creative courage.Pope Francis, Patris Corde
Mary Cresp rsj expresses this remarkable influence with the following:
Mary MacKillop drew from Bethlehem-Joseph’s inability to provide out of his own resources for those he loved, a consciousness of our dependence on ‘Diving Providence’. This was a mark of her spirituality that permeated her whole life. Mary Cresp rsj, In the Spirit of Joseph, p.249
Further to this, the author goes on to speak about Mary MacKillop as witnessed by Australians.

…Many writers, artists and other social commentators, Christian or not, acknowledged that Josephite spirituality illustrates the earthy spirit of Australia.Mary Cresp rsj, In the Spirit of Joseph, p.251


  • Mary MacKillop drew great strength from St Joseph. Our foundress, leaning on the words of scripture reminds us to Go to Joseph? Perhaps St Joseph has an inspiration of us today.
  • Mary MacKillop was known for travelling the land. An image is often used of a woman with sleeves rolled up. Let her walk with you in your work and daily chores; call on her ecological stance that she shared with Julian and Joseph.
  • Through the intercession of Mary MacKillop and St Joseph ask for the courage you need to face whatever may come.

Michele Shipperley rsj


Image: Our Lady of Lourdes Church Parish Logo – Dorothy Woodward rsj, 2015.

Reflection on Mary MacKillop

In his Apostolic Letter With a Father’s Heart (Patris Corde) Pope Francis has proclaimed this year as the Year of St Joseph.

Tomb of Mary MacKillop located in North Sydney, New South Wales

In writing, Francis describes St Joseph as a beloved father, a tender and loving father, an obedient father, an accepting father, a father who is creatively courageous, a working father, a father in the shadows.”

Mary MacKillop must be rejoicing and acclaiming Pope Francis from her Godly surroundings on such a profoundly wise and appropriate declaration of our patron St Joseph!

Julian Tenison Woods, our co-founder’s experience whilst in France with the Sisters of St. Joseph of Le Puy inspired him to want sisters with the same spirit of humility and the desire to live a life of service among the ordinary people. It was not possible to bring these religious to South Australia, so Julian and Mary agreed that the new order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart would imbibe a similar spirit calling on the example of St Joseph.

In a letter in March 1893, Mary wrote to the sisters about St Joseph’s hidden, humble life of St Joseph.

This humility is something wonderfully beautiful in itself. My sisters this was a ‘quiet humility’ … grounded on submission to the adorable will of God. It was a humility of heart, not of words … a silent, not a noisy humility.Mary MacKillop, March 1893

Mary urged each sister to demonstrate her gratitude by ministering with a generous, faithful spirit. She writes about St Joseph:

Guard the spirit of charity, the spirit of charity so dear to him … let us try to prove ourselves grateful children by closely imitating his hidden virtues, particularly his wondrous humility and obedience. In every difficulty, whether in school or convent, apply to him with confidence and you will never be disappointed. … In St Joseph’s Care I Leave You. Mary MacKillop, 1873

Pope Francis reminds us in his Apostolic Letter of this self-giving, hidden, humble man.

Joseph found happiness not in mere self-sacrifice but in self-gift. In him, we never see frustration but only trust. His patient silence was the prelude to concrete expressions of trust. The logic of love is always the logic of freedom, and Joseph knew how to love with extraordinary freedom. He never made himself the centre of things. He did not think of himself, but focused instead on the lives of Mary and Jesus.Pope Francis, Patris Corde


  • Mary had a strong devotion to St Joseph. She drew strength from his silent protection and his profound trust in the will of God. Pope Francis hails Joseph as being ‘creatively courageous” and a champion of families. Intercede with Joseph asking for protection, trust and courage.
  • What are you longing for in family life right now and how could Joseph help you?
  • Joseph believed in his calling. He gave himself totally to the challenge of raising Jesus despite all odds.  How can you draw on his example?

Michele Shipperley rsj

The Racetrack’s Appeal

Mary’s Beatification Mass Remembered.

Mary’s Beatification stirred the hearts and minds of all Australians. As a first for this nation, everyone had to learn what beatification was all about. At the time I remember hearing of people talking about Mary’s beautification. That sounded so funny at the time and highlighted the need to understand further what beatification was all about. While there was no need for any further beautification of Mary, beatification gave her the title of Blessed and named and claimed her as a holy one, whose living of the Gospel, provided great inspiration and hope for all Australians and beyond.

I remember well, sitting high up in the stands at Randwick Racecourse watching the dozens of buses drive in to drop off the thousands of people who gathered to celebrate Mary. It was wonderful that we her Sisters, sat where we liked that day. We were all there as one, honouring and celebrating our Aussie sister. Such excitement amid the mud and slush.

I think Mary MacKillop would have been tickled pink that her Beatification Mass was held at a racecourse. After all, she was a horse woman and a true-blue Aussie. From her living in country places, Mary would have known well the significance of racecourse gatherings. Such events providing the opportunity to reconnect, network, to play, to dress up, to celebrate and to back a winner.

On 19 January 1995, Randwick Racecourse provided thousands of ordinary Aussies with a similar opportunity – everyone was there to back a winner, our Mary. On that day we acknowledged one ordinary Aussie woman’s holiness. A holiness grown and developed in her living her everyday life – her very ordinary Australian life and through some extremely tough times. She was and remains a true witness to God’s everyday invitations to her to choose life in all situations. This sparked great hope for all that day at the racetrack. The inspiration she gave assured us that in following her example we too could live lives of holiness. A holiness, not borne of great piety, but one emerging from finding and knowing God in the ordinary of everyday life.

I recall a time years later, when gathered with visitors from overseas around Mary’s tomb, when one visitor thought that the humble little chapel where Mary was buried, was not good enough for a saint and suggested we should build a Basilica for her. We all agreed that Mary would certainly not want that, and neither would we. She knew her God well in the groundedness of the ordinary – the classroom, the kitchen sink, the saddle of a horse, difficult family discussions, exclusion by those in authority and the ‘racetracks’ of life.

While she is held high as an exemplary model of Gospel living, she no doubt will accompany us on our journey as we remember her words:

There where you are you will find God. Mary MacKillop 1871

Annette Arnold rsj

Pope John Paul II to Australia for the Beatification of Mary MacKillop during Mass at Randwick, 19/1/1995. [L’Osservatore Romano Citta’ Del Vaticano, Servizio Fotografico, (Fotocronista A Mari)].

Mary MacKillop’s Birthday (15 January)

Beginnings are important. They often act as a prologue, as it were, to the meaning of what follows.

Earliest known portrait of Mary MacKillop

Over past weeks we have pondered the meaning of Jesus’ life as described in the infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke. Right from the beginning, we are told, the birth of Jesus would demonstrate the Good News he would be for the poor; his coming would bring light to the nations and show the world the true path to peace. In the midst of suffering and hardship, the message that God is present with us enables us to find hope, no matter how dense the darkness.

So what of the birth of Mary MacKillop? This child who would prove to be pioneer in so many aspects of Australian religious and social history was born of migrant parents in the pioneer settlement of Melbourne on 15 January 1842. Her father, Alexander, had arrived from Scotland barely four years before, and had married another migrant, Flora McDonald, on 14 July 1840. At first, the family’s prospects looked good, but through a series of unfortunate happenings, Alexander soon lost his favourable social and financial standing, ‘due to a combination of his character, his lack of business sense and the fact that there were a lot of smarter people around.’[1] Nevertheless, Alexander was an intelligent, educated man, passionate for the rights of all, no matter what their background. It can be attributed to his foundational influence that his daughter, Mary, would later be instrumental in assuring in Australia and beyond the right of every child to an education. Her belief in a classless society would bring her grief, as it did her father, yet since it was based on an understanding of the God-given dignity of every human being, it was integrated into her whole way of life, her growth into sanctity.

Mary’s mother, Flora, was likewise a precursor of what her daughter would be. While she was pregnant, a priest had lent her a relic of the Holy Cross to wear until her child was born. ‘My name in religion is Mary of the Cross’, Mary would write to her in 1867. ‘No name could be dearer to me, so I must endeavour, not to deserve it – for I cannot – but at least I must try not to disgrace it.’[2] Having borne the cross in different sufferings throughout her life, Mary would, in our time, be acclaimed as ‘St Mary of the Cross MacKillop’.

It was to Flora, too, that Mary looked for an example of trust in God’s Providence and the search for God’s will. These would become the prominent aspects of Mary’s spirituality. ‘Dearest Mama’, she wrote, ‘you ever taught me to look up to and depend on Divine Providence in every trouble.’[3] In another letter she reminds her mother: ‘You used to tell me to love the Will of God – and to submit to it in all things. Your words still often ring in my ears and I bless God that they were my Mother’s words to me.’[4] …

Please continue reading below (from paragraph 5):

Mary MacKillop’s Birthday (PDF)

Mary Cresp rsj


[1] Paul Gardiner, An Extraordinary Australian, Mary MacKillop, E. J. Dwyer, Sydney, 1993: p.15.
[2] Mary MacKillop, Letter to Flora, 21 August 1867, St Joseph’s Congregational Archives, North Sydney.
[3] Ibid.
[4] Mary MacKillop, Letter to Flora, 14 September 1869, St Joseph’s Congregational Archives, North Sydney.

Reflection on Mary MacKillop

The Queensland Sisters of Saint Joseph were honoured to have Bishop E. J. Cuskelly as chaplain.

Frank Fletcher MSC in one of his memorial lectures likens Cuskelly’s spirituality to the description by E.E. Cummings:

Here is the deepest secret nobody knows (here is the root of the root and the bud of the bud, and the sky of the sky of a tree called life, which grows higher than soul can hope or mind can hide) and this is the wonder that is keeping the stars apart. I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart). E. E. Cummings

Bishop Cuskelly shared his spirituality with Mary MacKillop’s and fostered her saintliness in his preaching and in his writings.[1]

Mary MacKillop is the saint of reconciliation whom we all need.  She excused and she forgave. Of a priest who had been the main cause of her excommunication and had told lies about her. She wrote: 

I forgive all who had any part in these matters, and so do we all. Letter Book, MacKillop to the Sisters, Dec 1880
Painting of Mary MacKillop by Therese Quinn rsj

To some of the Sisters who had spoken untruths about her, she wrote: “I excuse and with all a mother’s heart I forgive.  And I freely forgive and wish to forget, so I do entreat you my dearly loved ones, to forgive from your heart any sister that has pained you.” [2]

Cuskelly recounts a story from Mary’s teaching days at Portland where a school headmaster, Mr Cusack, came to the school. When the Inspector arrived to examine the classes, Mr Cusack poached the children from Mary’s and Annie’s classes and took credit for the well taught pupils while they were given the poorer students.  By cheating, he prompted his class by giving answers behind the Inspector’s back.  Mary’s father spoke loudly and strongly about these actions. Annie lost her job and Mary was blamed for what went wrong. All this took its toll on Mary. She was deeply hurt, was distrusted by some and it caused upset to the MacKillop family.  Eventually Cusack lost his job and attributed blame to Mary. Again Mary was reconciliatory.

Mary Cresp’s sequel to this story demonstrates the depths of Mary’s forgiving heart and saintly life. When we read that Mary recognized an old acquaintance at Circular Quay, we are immediately engaged. However, when we discover that this dirty, alcoholic tramp was the schoolmaster whose cheating had led to Mary’s disgrace at Portland, the Gospel begins to unfold. For this man Mary sold her watch so that she could get him a suit of clothes and care. [3]

Let us reflect:

  • Mary MacKillop models a forgiving heart. Consider times you have been wrongly blamed, deeply embarrassed or hurt, or even lost friends or family because of a situation.
  • What small gesture could heal a long time hurt?
  • Often we suffer because of pride and an expectation on the ‘other’ to make the first move.  In what small way can we emulate Mary?

Michele Shipperley rsj


[1] Mary MacKillop – A Spiritual Model for All
[2] Ibid.
[3] Mary Cresp, Reflections on Beatification, 25 Jan 1995


In the Footsteps of Mary MacKillop

For the past twenty-five years, the Sisters of Saint Joseph have invited people to participate in the ‘Australian National Pilgrimage: In the Footsteps of Mary MacKillop.’

Unfortunately they have not been able to offer this opportunity of journeying with Mary in 2020.

Mary reminds us that ‘We are but travellers here.’

You are invited to read and reflect on the following article ‘St Mary MacKillop – The Pilgrim’, written by Mary Cresp rsj.

The theme of journey was never far from the thoughts of Mary MacKillop.

As the words printed around her tomb remind us, she saw life as a journey. Remember we are but travellers here, she said. The many journeys that made up her life were both actual and metaphorical. Perhaps one expressed the other. From the time Mary was a little girl moving from one relative to another to when, in her last years, she was confined to a wheelchair, she was still ‘on her way’ towards that intimacy with God that ‘heaven’ represents.

When we go on a pilgrimage, we have to ‘let go’ of the certainties of life as it has been. We have to be open to receive the unknown and to receive the hospitality of others. Mary MacKillop’s attitude to God was like that. She learnt to be open at all times to what God wanted to do in her – she called that ‘doing God’s Will’. It meant letting go of personal hopes and ambitions, entrusting them into God’s hands. With gratitude she accepted the hospitality of others – when she was vulnerable, as she was during her journeys overseas. Our journey, too, has involved a letting go that will continue into old age and finally at death, when we enter into our final journey. During our Mary MacKillop pilgrimage we can join with her as, following her footsteps, we open ourselves to receive with gratitude God’s bounty in the hospitality of others.

A pilgrim has to ‘live into the now’. Because we can’t guarantee what lies around the corner, we have to learn what it means to live life fully where we are. Don’t be troubled about the future of the Institute, Mary MacKillop said, I am not. He whose work it is will take care of it. The Gospel of her feast proclaims Jesus’ words: Do not worry about tomorrow … today’s trouble is enough for today. (Mt. 6:34) Being alive to the moment meant that Mary was alert to the needs of her time. The aspect of God’s love characteristic of the charism given her was compassion – God feeling with us in the situation of our lives. Being with another is part of being a pilgrim.

Even if travelling alone, a pilgrim is never independent. We meet others along the way, we depend on them for food and lodging, we are invited to listen to the stories of the people we encounter. In this way we learn of a God who is ever present and who, Mary knew, walks with us each step of the journey…

Continue reading Mary Cresp’s article here (PDF)

Reflection on Mary MacKillop

Mary MacKillop could be remembered as a great journalist in her day.

Mary MacKillop’s journals and her letters have left us a plethora of stories of herself, her family, and the early days of the colony when she was such a vital part of the community. She created images of her journeys and her compassion for the poor; we learn of her belief in the importance of education; we imbibe her sense of mission and deep spirituality.

Mary’s diaries give us a great insight into the highs and lows of her life. We learn of her illness, her loneliness, her courage and zeal.  From one of her diary entries we feel her pain and sadness as she expresses her emotions in these words:

Cried myself to sleep. Was so weary of the struggle and felt so utterly alone … offered my weary heart’s trials to my God with the wish that he could do his will and do with me what he pleased.

Mary and the early sisters used to beg to make ends meet. Throughout these stories of seeking out food, we see her compassion for the sick and the downtrodden.  She shared the little they had and sometimes gave her own meal to someone in need. While Mary was a prolific writer, many of her companions left these stories for us by recounting the events that inspired them or humoured them.  One such event is the arrival by Mary with a suckling pig to surprise Sr Patrick.  Mary notes in her diary – Great amusement over poor piggy.

Mary was a progressive woman and even after she suffered a stroke, communication was an important part of her life.  She acquired a typewriter and continued to connect with sisters and family.  She continued sending spiritual and inspirational messages until the year of her death 1909.  In January of that year she gives a heartfelt message to all of us “Do not be afraid.  Love one another”.  Her final words were a blessing – ‘God bless you all.”

We can only dream of what Mary would achieve if she enjoyed the technology that we are gifted with.  We can see her speaking via Video or Webinar.  Imagine the texts and the calls as well as the personal visits!  However, gratefully and generously Mary utilized every possibility available to her, such was her insight into the power of the word and the necessity for connection and networking.  We thank her for her amazing contribution to society and the congregation so dear to her heart.


  • Our current way of living offers a smorgasbord of technology. Mary MacKillop fostered personal connections in a limited way.  How are we using our devices to remember our family members and friends particularly those suffering illness or hardship?
  • Humour and surprise were important to Mary MacKillop. How can we bring joy to others in everyday life in simple ways?
  • Let us be grateful for the gift of Mary.

Michele Shipperley rsj

Canonisation of St Mary MacKillop

In Search of a Miracle.

A significant requirement for a canonisation is the attribution of a miracle to the intercession of the person to be canonised. Saint Mary of the Cross was beatified by Pope John Paul II at Randwick Racecourse on 19 January, 1995. She was, by that proclamation, a saint for Australia. The next step was to seek her canonisation, a step that would recognise her as a saint for the universal church. This process required proof of her intercession by the recognition of another miracle which was needed to take place after the beatification.

In 2001 I was appointed vice-postulator to Fr Paul Gardiner sj who was the Postulator since 1984. One of the tasks was to find a cure that would meet the stringent requirements to be considered for study as a miracle. Sr Claire Burgess and her assistants worked assiduously responding to requests for prayer for those in need. Claire had mountains of papers outlining remarkable cures but, for one reason or another, none met all the documentary requirements until one crossed her desk in 2005 relating to an extraordinary cure of Mrs Kathleen Evans. I visited Kath and her husband, Barry, at their home on 17 October, 2005. Barry as well as Kath’s doctors had kept copies of her medical records and were willing to share them. They were invaluable to the study for the miracle.

After my visit to Kath and Barry I wondered why I had not seen this case before. I was in bed and had a lightbulb moment – I realised that the cure had occurred after the Decree of Beatification was promulgated but before the ceremony was held. I got out of bed and called an official, Monsignor Robert Sarno, whom we had met some years previously as students from Ottawa visiting the Causes of Saints Dicastery. He informed me that the Bishop of Maitland – Newcastle was the person to write to the Prefect of the Causes of Saints asking for a dispensation of time. I drafted the letter which was duly sent by the Bishop early November and we looked forward to a good Christmas gift – the granting of the requested dispensation. It had not arrived by November 2007.

Mary MacKillop was a great believer in the Providence of God and Providence played a big part in the journey to canonisation. On 7 November, 2007 I was asked to attend lunch at Mary MacKillop Place with a group of overseas reporters preparing for World Youth Day 2008. One of the reporters asked how the Cause was progressing. I told him in rather strong terms of our disappointment with the non-reply from Rome to the request. When I finished, he informed me he was a close friend of the Prefect and he would visit him on his return. I was a bit mortified to say the least but thrilled (as were all who were waiting) to receive news of the requested dispensation in January 2008.

Thus, began the final two-year journey, a journey that had begun in 1925 when the Cause of Mary’s canonisation opened. Kathleen’s cure was declared a miracle through the intercession of Mary on 19 December, 2009. Mary of the Cross MacKillop was canonised in Rome, the first canonised saint for Australia and a saint for the universal Church, on 17 October, 2010 exactly five years to the day from my first meeting with Kathleen Evans.  Kathleen (with Barry at her side) engaged in a wonderful ministry of making Mary MacKillop known and enjoyed good health for 23 more years – a wonderful miracle indeed.

Sr Maria Casey rsj