Mary MacKillop and the Clergy of Australia and New Zealand - Then and Now

Mary MacKillop and the Clergy of Australia and New Zealand - Then and Now
A paper given by Fr Peter Brock to the National Meeting of Diocesan Directors of Clergy Life and Ministry

In this talk I frequently cite An Extraordinary Australian - Mary MacKillop by Paul Gardiner, the Australian Jesuit who was postulator for the cause. Page numbers cited are from that book, unless otherwise indicated.


I have found it very challenging over the last few months to reflect on Mary MacKillop and the lessons that her life may still hold for us, particularly in our roles as ordained ministers.

Some of these lessons are to be found in her attitude to the clergy of her day. In this area she was often heroically loyal and generous. Other lessons are to be learnt in a negative way, as we reflect on the way that some bishops and priests she dealt with fell far short of the ideals that could be expected of them.

As I recount some incidents from Mary's life, you might find yourself asking how would you have reacted in such circumstances. You might also find yourself thinking: "I know a priest or bishop like that".

Let me begin with two incidents from Mary's life. The first is recounted by one of the earliest Josephites, Sr Annette.

"There was in Adelaide a man named Fagan condemned to death for murder. Dr Reynolds [the Bishop of Adelaide] and the priests went to see him but he was like a lion and had to be chained down. He was just like a wild animal. Mother Mary and Sister Felicitas went to see him. The warders told them not to go in. They went in and prayed and Mother was so affected that the tears poured down her face. This so moved him that he knelt down and prayed with them. At the beginning he was abrupt with Mother but he calmed down and became gentle as a lamb. Mother prepared him for Confession and Father Williams heard his Confession and in the morning Mother went again with Sister Felicitas and he was without chains, and received Holy Communion between the two of them. Mother Mary wished to ascend the scaffold with him but this was not allowed. Father Williams however did". (pp 241-2)

The second incident occurred in 1886, just after Mary's brother Donald had been ordained a Jesuit priest in Wales.

Mary's mother, Flora, set out [by sea from Melbourne] for Sydney to help with the bazaar [at North Sydney], but she never arrived. On May 30 her ship was wrecked not far off the coast near Eden in southern NSW, with the loss of sixty lives. Flora was one of the victims. A few weeks later [Mary] wrote to Donald:

"My dearest Brother, how can I write. You must ere this have heard from Adelaide of our sad, terrible loss. Everything was too bewildering at first, then the efforts to recover the dear remains, the funeral, and then came the reaction. Between all, you, for whom my heart ached, have been seemingly neglected by me. But don't think so, dear Donald. Our darling unselfish Mother true to her character to the last, has gone to receive her well-earned reward.

"I cannot now attempt to describe the dismay with which I heard the sad news. It was too terrible to be true, but its truth was too soon proved. Fortunately John was here and he went down. He found the dear remains awaiting him. Hers was the only body picked up by the pilot boat, and the only body found anywhere without being injured by either rocks or the sharks. The scapular she had so loved was on her neck. How it remained on seems miraculous, and is I believe. John says she looked as if she were asleep". (p. 360)

I have begun with these two stories because they show some aspects of Mary's relationship with priests and bishops. In the cell of the condemned man, Mary's presence, her compassion and her prayers enabled the bishop and priests to exercise their pastoral and sacramental ministry. It seems clear that Mr Fagan would not have received the sacraments without her intervention.

And her letter to Donald reminds us that Mary had a brother a priest. Many of us have sisters, brothers, and other close relatives, who love and support us in our life and ministry. Mary's letter shows, among other things, her affection and concern for her brother.

As we know, Mary's relationships with the clergy were not all so fruitful or affectionate. Indeed, I think that today's priests and bishops will often wince as they read her story.

The first priest to have a significant place in Mary's life was Fr Julian Tenison Woods. He was an Englishman working in the Adelaide Diocese, an energetic, idealistic, pious man who was also a keen botanist/geologist/naturalist. He was Mary's spiritual director, he wrote the first Rule of the Congregation, and Mary always thought of him as the founder and indeed "Father" of the Congregation. After he died she wrote a short biography of him, extolling his many good qualities.

Yet he refused to have anything to do with her for the last fifteen years of his life, and agreed only reluctantly to let her come to visit him on his deathbed. He had parted company with her when she stood solidly by the Constitutions which, in the main, he himself had written, and which Rome had approved, for the Congregation to have a central governance beyond the confines of a single diocese. Julian on the other hand supported the Bishops of Bathurst, Maitland, Goulburn and other places who sought to have the Sisters under their diocesan control, leading to what became the "Black Josephites", rather than Mary's "Brown Josephites". We can get some idea of Julian Tenison Woods from his own words:

  • "God always spares me the pain of doubt" (p. 89), and
  • "I have not been wrong in one single thing" (p. 116).

Mary also had great difficulties with several bishops.

Bishop Sheil of Adelaide excommunicated her. In mitigation it can be pleaded that he was, in today's terms, not dealing well with his abuse of alcohol. In regard to Mary he was badly advised, surrounded as he was by ambitious and querulous priests. A month after the excommunication Mary writes about this to Julian Tenison Woods:

"I now know for certain that Father Horan denies the substance of the conversation we had the night before I was excommunicated. It was with a keen pang of sorrow and shame that I heard from the Kapunda Sisters that he had positively denied the conversation we had, and made it out to them that I had simply refused to obey the bishop ... Father, it is hard to think a priest could tell a lie and in such grave matter". (p. 106)

Yet Mary would not criticise Bishop Sheil. She wrote to her mother in Melbourne:

"The holiest and best priests say I have only done my duty, and that our poor, dear old Bishop has made a terrible mistake". (ibid)

And on the wall of the museum downstairs you can read the words of a letter she sent to the Sisters the day after the excommunication. They may be among the most challenging ecclesial words written in Australia:

"If we cannot agree to what our poor dear old Bishop requires, at least be humble in the way we refuse". Mary MacKillop, 21/9/1871

Two other bishops, the brothers Matthew Quinn (Bathurst) and James Quinn (Brisbane) gave Mary more occasions to reflect on her religious name - Mother Mary of the Cross. Here is Paul Gardiner on James Quinn of Brisbane:

"Astonishingly diverse assessments have been made of [his] character. On his death, the chief local politician said of him ‘There was not in this or any of the colonies a more enlightened or cultured scholar or a more perfect gentleman'. Another admirer spoke of his grace and ease of movement, his high and noble qualities of head and heart, his mind as judicial in its decisions as it was statesmanlike in the breadth of its views, his courtly address, his grace of manner, his savoir-faire, which all ‘would have gained him the hat of the Cardinal Secretary of State, or that of the Cardinal Secretary of the Propaganda'.

"On the other hand, those who saw a different aspect of James Quinn used a litany of abuse to describe him: a scandal, a deceiver and swindler, devious to the point of dishonesty, full of mercantile spirit and utterly indifferent to religion, arbitrary, a bully, revengeful, tyrannical and unjust, a seemingly impervious autocrat, pathologically unbalanced". (p. 208)

Bishop Quinn expressed his views on the ability of Mary and the Sisters to draw up the Statutes of their Congregation:

"The formation of such a Rule is hardly woman's work, and I cannot venture that your Meeting of Sisters will accomplish it". (p. 177)

Quinn's attacks on Mary could also get personal. Gardiner lists some of the barbs:

"She was accused by Dr James Quinn of being young, sentimental, colonial (that is, born in Australia), of non-Irish stock, female, the daughter of a bankrupt colonial [ex-] seminarian, a former excommunicate, a strong personality, obstinate, ambitious, based [in] Adelaide and controlled from there, influenced by the Jesuits, a friend of Archbishop Vaughan". (p. 229)

Commenting on the word "young", Gardiner remarks dryly:

"She was thirty-three at the time [that ‘being young'] was supposed to be a significant charge against her. It was the age at death of Alexander the Great, of Catherine of Siena, and indeed of Jesus Christ". (ibid)

Just as Mary had encountered in Adelaide a Fr Charles Horan whom she found to be a liar, so too she had a bad experience in Brisbane with a Fr Andrew Horan. He also happened to be a nephew of Bishop Quinn. Of him she wrote:

"I am sorry to say that his Reverence spoke of our Sisters in such a way that I should have been quite justified in recalling them at once". When the nuns had asked for the proceeds of a concert organised by a Mrs Constable and got Horan's hard words instead of money, Mary wrote [to Bishop Reynolds in Adelaide]: "I am sorry to say that I think them capable of endeavouring to injure us in every way. They are fearfully bitter, and can abuse well". (p. 223)

This brings us back to Adelaide, and to Bishop Sheil's successor there, Bishop (later Archbishop) Reynolds. If Sheil was an alcoholic, Reynolds was an extreme wowser. He was also not very bright. This is how Paul Gardiner describes him:

[His] "scholastic background was minimal. There is every reason to think Reynolds would have maintained his uncomplicated reputation as a good priest if he had remained a parish pastor. There can be little doubt that Reynolds honestly did not expect to be the next bishop. His lack of ambition was probably based on self-knowledge, and there is no reason to suggest that his distress at the appointment was feigned. Although he was a good and zealous man, Reynolds was not a success as head of the diocese of Adelaide. Not only was he devoid of any business sense and even average ability to manage money, but in the realm of the spiritual and personal he was unable to handle anything but normal and regular situations". (p. 267)

Mary was, as usual, more charitable in describing him in a letter to Rev Dr Campbell, Rector of the Scots College in Rome. Or, in other words, this is how a saint describes someone who is not very bright:

"He is a good, holy, hardworking Bishop, but not what many would call a clever man". (p. 222)

As a priest, and in his early years as bishop, Reynolds had been a supporter of Mary. Later, however, Reynolds banned her from Adelaide. Among other reasons, he believed an accusation that Mary was intemperate with drink. Mary suffered from acute pain and illness associated with her monthly periods, a disease known today as dysmenorrhoea. She took the brandy that doctors prescribed for her, never touching the bottle herself, and taking only what she was administered by the Sister Infirmarian. This, however, was more than enough for Archbishop Reynolds.

Things in Adelaide went from bad to worse for the Sisters. After Mary had been banished, Sr Patricia met with the priest who bore the impressive title of ‘Archdeacon', to discuss some matters of serious concern. She told him that it had lately been very discouraging to see so many of the Sisters going into the grave without a Requiem Mass after so many years of hard labour. She wrote to Mary to report the conversation:

"I then spoke of poor Sister Magdalen who was buried a day or two before with apparently as little sympathy from the Ecclesiastics of the Diocese as if it had been a duck that had died at the bottom of the yard". (p. 307)

And I'm afraid to say that not all the nutters were on this side of the Tasman. Mary visited the Sisters in New Zealand, and wrote back to Australia about the troubles the Sisters had had with a priest in Palmerston. He was, she said:

"a queer man, and it is well that they got away from him as they did". (p. 392)

However, while in New Zealand, she witnessed a scene which resonates with modern concerns. She attended Vespers and Benediction with the Maori community in Matata, and wrote home about it.

"The Maoris sing the Vespers through themselves in their own language, but the Litany and hymns for Benediction they sing in Latin. The Vespers were originally taught to the Maoris by Bishop Pompallier about 70 years ago, and the old Maoris of that time in their turn taught their children. This is an important thing to remember, as they were a long time without Priests, for, between wars and changes in the Auckland diocese, the poor Maoris had little to remind them of their religion."  (p. 397)

She was also a very modern woman in her attitude to women's suffrage. Remember that women in New Zealand and Australia were among the first in the world to be allowed to vote (though voting was not compulsory). Mary said that the Sisters "were to make sure they registered to vote. If they needed advice they could get it from anywhere they chose, but they should keep their voting secret. Then a warning: ‘Every so-called Catholic is not the best man'."  (p. 474)

So, what lessons can we take today from the life of this strong (even tough), saintly Australian woman?

Her life reminds us that heroic holiness is the ideal and benchmark for everything in the church. What is the point of being involved in the life of the church unless it is an attempt to walk this path?

We are reminded that heroic holiness is often found in the weak, the young, the women, the outsiders. And, just as truly, it is sometimes lacking in those of positions of leadership and responsibility in the church.

It shocked me when I read that the priests of Adelaide would not celebrate a Requiem Mass for the funeral of a Religious Sister. But is it only an extreme example of a temptation that all of us clergy have experienced at some time - "he's not worthy of my time", "she doesn't deserve the church's blessing", "those people are against me, so I won't minister to them"?

I believe that Mary is also a model for how we must respond to those in authority, especially in those faith-testing situations when we believe that they are acting in a way that is contrary to what is best.

Mary would state her case clearly and simply when dealing with the person himself or herself (whether priest, bishop or her own Mother General during the years when she was not in charge of the Congregation). If necessary, she would give her side of a dispute honestly and fully to higher authorities - the metropolitan archbishop, or Roman congregations.

She would act with courtesy and forbearance to all, even those who did her much harm, and she would insist that the Sisters act in the same way. She hated public controversy and scandal, or anything that could bring the status or authority of priests or bishops into disrepute.

I think Mary is also a great model for how we can pray, especially for those of us diocesan priests who often lament that we do not pray enough, or well enough.

"I do not spend much time in prayer, but God's presence seems to follow me everywhere and make everything I do or wish to do a prayer. I love to write in the oratory, for then I feel so near Jesus and give Him all my thoughts and what I am going to do; and I love at night to sleep where I can see the lamp burning and the Tabernacle behind it; and yet all the while I do not pray, only feel near God, and my mind working and my mind resting to please him". quoted in Australian Catholics, Edmund Campion, p. 49

However, the peak spiritual experience of her life was one that is perhaps unique among the Saints and Blesseds, in that she was formally and canonically excommunicated. Listen again to how she described that experience:

"I really felt like one in a dream. I seemed not to realize the presence of the Bishop and priests; I know I did not see them; but I felt, oh, such a love for their office, a love, a sort of reverence for the very sentence which I then knew was being in full force passed upon me. I do not know how to describe the feeling, but I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. The sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God I shall never forget". (Gardiner, p. 105)

I believe there is something profoundly radical in Mary's statement that the closest she had ever felt to God was when the solemn authority of the church, an authority which she respected and revered, was casting her out of the church.

She experienced the "calm beautiful presence of God" even outside the church. She experienced the truth that God is bigger than the church. She gives us a language in which we can speak to those many people today, particularly young people, who are living outside the church, or at least outside the sacramental life of the church, but who experience in their lives the "calm, beautiful presence of God". We can be inspired to talk to them, not in our language, but in theirs, about the God they know and have experienced. Each of us will be called to follow Mary to some margins, some frontiers of our society, to share with the people there our love of God.

When Cardinal Moran visited Mary here in North Sydney for the last time, he said "I consider I have this day assisted at the deathbed of a saint".  (p. 479)

At her beatification ceremony in Sydney in 1995 Pope John Paul II said that "the holiness demanded by the Gospel is as Australian as she was Australian".

Mary MacKillop shows us what's really important in life, in ministry, in service. May she continue to challenge and encourage us on our journey.


Peter Brock, North Sydney, 9 June 2004

  • Paul Gardiner SJ, An Extraordinary Australian - Mary MacKillop (Alexandria: E.J. Dwyer, 1994)
  • Edmund Campion Australian Catholics (Ringwood:Viking-Penguin, 1987)
  • Created: 26 September 2008
  • Modified: 23 April 2009
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