A Mary MacKillop Walk group pausing to remember Doctor John Benson at his Memorial in Kensington, Adelaide SA.
Mary MacKillop Museum visitors pondering the stories of the Barr Smiths and Emanuel Solomon.

Recently, the staff and volunteers of Mary MacKillop Museum in Adelaide were delighted to welcome a busload of interstate pilgrims, one of whom, after spending quite some time in the museum, was hungry for ‘the more’.

At the end of the pilgrimage, he stayed on in Adelaide and returned to the museum for another visit. He also registered for a guided experience of the local Mary MacKillop Walk. Through all of this, he made a discovery about Mary. He was ‘blown away’ when he ‘joined the dots’, and discovered just how inclusive she was and how connected she was with people, both within and beyond the Catholic community of her time.

Mary MacKillop Museum acknowledges these ‘Friends and Generous Supporters’ of the Sisters of Saint Joseph. The museum features some significant early benefactors (not Catholics) who have been selected to represent the countless people who, since 1866, have supported the Sisters, not just practically, but spiritually and emotionally.

Joanna and Robert Barr Smith were early South Australian settlers. They were wealthy people who gave generously to others.

Joanna, a Presbyterian, was to become one of Mary MacKillop’s dearest friends – her soul-mate. Joanna wrote:

…Oh, my dear friend, I wish I could see you again, or hear your voice… Living or dying, my beloved friend, I am ever the same to you and am proud to look back over nearly forty years of unbroken friendship. My husband and I send dearest love.Joanna Barr Smith

The Sisters had financial worries for many years. The Barr Smiths kept giving! Through their generosity, the Sisters were able to keep their Kensington convent in the centre of Adelaide. The Barr Smiths paid for Mary MacKillop’s tomb in in North Sydney ‘as a final gift for an ever-dear friend’.

Emanuel Solomon was born in England. His family was Jewish. As a teenager, he and his brother Vaiben were wrongly accused of stealing. Their punishment was cruel: transportation to New South Wales in an over-crowded, disease-ridden prison ship. 

Like all convicts, they were treated harshly. Emanuel received 50 lashes of the cat-‘o-nine tails. After he had served his sentence, he reinvented himself, moving to South Australia where he became a successful, wealthy businessman, a politician, and one of the founders of the Adelaide Jewish community. South Australia did not welcome former convicts, so he never revealed his past. Even his children did not know his story.

Emanuel generously supported those who helped the poor and disadvantaged. He admired Mary MacKillop and her Sisters for their work among the poorest of the poor. So he helped them whenever he could.

The Sisters’ convent became overcrowded in 1868. Emanuel loaned them a large house, rent free. He came to their rescue again after Mary was wrongfully excommunicated in 1871. Fifty Sisters, evicted from their convents, were homeless. Emanuel provided accommodation for them.

Mary expressed her gratitude for both Emanuel and his Jewish friends’ generosity. “The kindness of the Jewish community has been remarkable…” (1903)

The Kensington-Norwood Mary MacKillop Walk features yet another friend and benefactor of Mary and the Sisters.

John Benson was  a doctor, a Protestant and a Freemason. A loved member of the Adelaide community, he was particularly dear to the Josephites. Famously kind, he often provided free services to the poor, including the Sisters. Mary often called upon his generosity.

The evening before he died in 1877, a throng of local citizens held a vigil outside his home. Mary, who was with him at his deathbed, wrote:

I feel his death more than words can express… He has left very little provision for his wife and children; his too-generous heart never having allowed him to save.Mary MacKillop

After his premature death, Mary was able to repay John Benson’s kindness. To honour him, the Sisters raised funds for both a permanent monument and to support the impoverished Benson family. Mrs Benson said to Mary, “He told me you would be kind”. And she was, providing free education for all the Benson children.

Our 2022 pilgrim loved his encounter with these benefactors – and his discovery about Mary MacKillop, a woman ahead of her time who can be a role-model for all of us. Although living in an era of extreme religious bigotry, she never discriminated. Her friends weren’t just Catholics.

Regardless of their background or creed, she educated poor children and cared for adults in need. And, when women won the right to vote, she reminded the Sisters that the best candidate may not necessarily be a Catholic!

Mary was a big thinker. She was ecumenical even before the word came into vogue – and her connection with Emanuel Solomon and the Adelaide Jewish community can also inspire us to find ways of working together with those from other faith backgrounds to build bridges that can make a real difference in our part of this fractured world.

Mary Ryan rsj
CentreWest Region