The Visibility of One Catholic Sister

October 9, 2010 at 1:04 pm | Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment
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What with all the attention being paid lately to the beatification of Cardinal Newman, it’s possible that another event,  the canonization of Mary MacKillop, founder of the Josephite Sisters of Australia, will fly entirely under the radar. Of course, MacKillop is an Australian, you might say; why would her canonization be a big deal? Truth is, Catholic sisters have been flying under the radar since slightly after the creation of the world. In an article about Catholic schools that appears in a recent issue of America, Archbishop Dolan of New York manages not to include the phrase “Catholic sisters” once in 2000 words. His praise for the American bishops who established the parochial school system is, on the other hand, hard to miss.  

Mary MacKillop was a Scots immigrant who grew up in a fairly dysfunctional family and, at the age of twenty five, organized a small group of women into what would become the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a congregation devoted to caring for and educating the poor. At the time of her death in 1909, 750 women had entered the Institute, and they operated twelve institutions that housed over 1000 people, and 117 schools with 12, 409 pupils.

You may be thinking that there’s nothing very remarkable about this, and indeed, many 19th century foundresses of Catholic orders did something similar. And, alas, neither was there anything remarkable about what the webpage about MacKillop’s canonization calls the “Challenge” of her life,  her struggles with various Autralian bishops determined to divide the Josephites into diocesan congregations subject to the bishops’ own control. Archbishop “Daggar John” Hughes of New York did much the same to the Sisters of Charity, forcing the New York group to separate from the wider congregation based in Emmitsburg which was founded by St. Elizabeth Seton. But Mary MacKillop was actually excommunicated for her resistance to the bishop of Adelaide. Later, during a visit to Rome, Pope Pius IX even referred to MacKillop as “the excommunicated one.”  And, like other foundresses, MacKillop chose to withdraw her sisters from a number of dioceses rather than allow them to come under the control of the diocesan ordinary. It was a long hard struggle on her part to get the Josephites recognized as a canonical congregation reporting to the motherhouse in Sydney, but MacKillop hung in there.

In all of this, what’s striking about Mary MacKillop is the extraordinarily Christian tone she manages to maintain, praying for her oppressors and urging her sisters again and again to do the same.  Of that excommunication, MacKillop wrote,  “When I was ordered to kneel before the Bishop, I felt lonely and bewildered. …I do not know how long I knelt there facing the Bishop and four priests with all my Sisters standing around. I know they were there but I saw no one…I shall never forget the sensation of the calm beautiful presence of God.”

Lest you think this nothing more than evidence of battered woman syndrome or some such, imagine being able to feel the presence of God when you’re being treated this badly. Eventually the bishop did, in fact, revoke the excommunication, and MacKillop lived to see later Australian bishops invite her sisters back into the dioceses from which they fled. And through it all, MacKillop urged her sisters to love, assuring them that with “humility, charity and truth” on their part, all would be well.  What would it mean if progressive Catholics today could respond with the kind of love MacKillop manifested  in the face of various maddening acts by the hierarchy and the Vatican? Maybe we too would be worthy of canonization someday.

Mary MacKillop will be canonized on October 17 in Rome.

PS. Truth in advertising requires me to add that the latest issue of America in fact moves Mary MacKillop above the radar big time, with an editorial about her. What I find interesting is that the Australian webpage I consulted says nothing about MacKillop’s excommunication being, in part at least, “out of revenge for her order’s part in pointing to a case of abuse by an Australian priest,” as the editors of America put it. Thanks to them for sharing that extremely timely fact before I published this blog.


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  1. I was educated by the Sisters of St Joseph in Blayney NSW back in the 60’s. I was not a catholic then. Through them I found the church intriguing but that was before all the changes. Today, I see the sister no longer wear habits instead wear makeup and jewellery etc. The order is dying out because no one is joining it. But what is sad that once when you saw a nun on the street, she was not only recognised immediately by the habit she wore but as many protestant once told me their presence was not only a reminder of what they were but also a reminder of Gods presence on earth. Now that is all gone due to the secular lifestyle adopted by many priests and religious orders of nuns to a point where you could bump into one and not know who they are. For thousands of us, it is very sad.


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