The founder of the Religious of St Joseph in Australia and New Zealand, Mary MacKillop, is honoured next month in the church’s liturgical calendar. Sr Sian Owen explores the situation which led Mother Mary MacKillop to establish the order.
Sian Owen rsj
Many of the Catholics arriving in Australia during the mid 19th century were poor and lived away from large urban centres where there were churches or schools.
Two people with a dream, could see a way of organising religious that would make them mobile and accessible to the needs of these catholic communities. One was the daughter of Scottish immigrants.
Mary MacKillop’s family situation meant that she saw first hand that many Australians had little access to formation in faith and struggled to become financially secure. Her dream was to somehow be part of a group that could be present to these struggling families and help to educate their young, even when they lived ‘beyond the black stump’.
While a governess to members of her extended family, Mary met a priest who shared her concerns and believed that she and others like her could make a difference.
Father Julian Tenison Woods became Mary MacKillop’s mentor and spiritual director. In 1866 Mary and companions were professed as the first sisters of this new congregation.
Established Catholics were not sure what to make of the new religious institute Julian and Mary founded. The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart did not seem like other orders of religious women. Often they lived in communities so isolated that they could not attend mass on Sundays let alone every day, their homes were often the spaces that they taught in, the highest authority for the sisters was their superior and not the local priest or bishop.
However, it became apparent that this model did serve the needs of the church. Soon orphanages and refuges joined the schools that the sisters were running. Many young women shared the dream and entered the institute.
New Zealanders also had educational needs. Hearing of the sisters’ work in the Australian outback, Father Fauvel asked Mary MacKillop to send sisters to his parish area of Temuka.
His persistence paid off and in 1883 the first sisters of St Joseph – the brown Josephites as they were nicknamed – arrived in New Zealand. Quickly communities of Josephites spread to other parts of New Zealand.
Mary was to visit New Zealand three times. Travelling from the North to the South visiting sisters in Matata, Remuera, Temuka… While here in 1897 Mary went with sisters to establish a community in Arrowtown and it was in Rotorua during her third visit that she suffered a stroke.
She never fully recovered from this.
Mary died on 8 August 1909 and was beatified in Sydney in 1995 which is why the Church of Australia and New Zealand celebrate her feast day on that date. Through the ministry of her sisters around New Zealand in communities as diverse as Gore, Pangaru and here in Wellington her spirit and dream live on.