Philippa Toomey tells the
story of an extraordinary woman, and her fortitude in the face of strange and oppressive clergy and bishops
WHY WOULD anyone visit Penola? It is one of those tiny, dusty little towns in South Australia, on the way from Adelaide to Melbourne — one wonders how (and why) anyone lives there. It is a place to be revered, nevertheless, for, here Mother Mary MacKillop and Father Julian Woods started a small school for poor children. It was the beginning of the Josephite Order.
A poster in the town says firmly that Mother Mary will be the first Australian saint, and describes Father Woods, rather cautiously, as "enigmatic and controversial". More information was needed, I decided, as I had never, I regret to say, heard of either of them.
Mary MacKillop: an extraordinary Australian is a huge paperback, the authorised biography by Fr Paul Gardiner SJ, who is a collaborator of Fr Peter Gumpel, a German Jesuit and the Relator for Mary MaKillop's Cause. Running to nearly 500 pages, it absorbed me completely during a 24 hour flight.
Mary MacKillop was one of eight children born to Scottish emigrants to Australia. Alexander MacKillop, her father, had tried his vocation as a priest twice — and was one of those people who cannot settle and prosper. Her mother was the more powerful character. Debt and worry beset the family, and only three chil
dren survived into old age. Mary had the auburn hair and grey eyes of her Scottish ancestry. No one ever forgot the beautiful eyes, and Renoir would have enjoyed painting her.
She began working life as a governess, but on meeting Father Woods, was caught up with him in the admirable aim of providing education for the poorest of the poor children in Australia, beginning in Penola.
Father Julian Woods was more charismatic than enigmatic. A cultivated Englishman, he had interests in natural science, in the country, and conducted a wide correspondence on many subjects. He had joined the Passionist Order at 18, but had been advised to leave for reasons of health. He had a great talent for inspiring devotion to himself — mainly from women — but there was never the slightest hint of scandal. At the same time, he was incapable to taking direction from anyone, be it confessor or Bishop, was set in his own way, and in the end, both disloyal and cruel. He managed to write his autobiography without mentioning Mother Mary by name.
The Institute of St Joseph, as it was first called, was set up because there was no money to educate poor children. The first rule (drawn up by Fr Woods) required free primary education, the sisters to own nothing, including the proviso that no
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property or land should the theirs, no acceptance of state aid. One proviso, which sounds odd today, was that no musical instruments were to be allowed in the teaching of music — this was because a musical instrument was an enormously expensive imported luxury (if you remember the film The Piano)—and was as appropriate as teaching polo to inner city children in our own day. The most important part of the rule (which was to cause immense and almost unending trouble and pain to the Order of St Joseph, as it was to become) was that it should be centrally organised, and therefore independent of local priests or bishops, and not attached to dioceses.
Bishops were, of course, delighted to have a source of free teaching in their areas. First, of course, they wanted control. Fr Woods began to reveal himself as an enthusiast without much sense. Unsuitable women were pressed on Mother Mary as ideal for the purpose. At the same time, as Fr Gardiner points out "Woods had developed the habit of expressing a deep conviction about his own misspent life, frivolity, conceit. overbearing pride, intense self love, abysmal misery, radical wickedness, and total unworthiness to be directing the `Sisters'."
With this went the conviction that the Blessed Virgin protected him and the institute and would not allow him to go wrong. As Morecambe (or perhaps Wise) used to say, there's no answer to that. It was a recipe for disaster, overlooking the virtues of prudence and sheer common sense, which Mother Mary possessed. She was, however, not good at managing such money as the institute had— relying on "The Bank of Providence". Begging, sometimes for food, was constant in their lives. Debt was a constant worry.
In any organisation, large or small, dissent appears, sometimes with malicious gossip and trouble makers. There were factions — those who were for Fr Woods and those who sided with Mother Mary. She always deplored this. He did not.
There was a truly bizarre episode in which she was excommunicated for disobedience by Bishop Sheil, of Adelaide (where the Mother House was). The argument over central control came to boiling point, fanned by an enemy, one Father Charles Horan, who had the bishop's confidence. The sisters had reported a friend and fellow
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priest of Fr Horan's for scandalous conduct, and he had been dismissed, earning Mother Mary his unrelenting hostility. Mother Mary's excommunication was short, rescinded by the bishop on his deathbed. The Franciscans, however, ignored the whole thing and continued to give her Communion. Her charity has to be remarkable — she never complained, but referred in her communications to "our poor dear old bishop, who has made a terrible mistake".
The story of Mother Mary's visit to Rome to get the rule approved is a drama in itself. Travelling in secular clothes, because of the ferocious anticlericalism in Italy at the time, she was to be away for nearly two years — it took her nearly three months to get from Australia to Rome. She made influential and good friends in Rome, and the rule (over which the authorities shook their heads — incoherent, not workable) was rewritten. Much to Mother Mary's distress, the institute was to be allowed to own property — it was pointed out to her that when Bishop Shiel had evicted them, they had literally nowhere to go. The Mother General was to be at least 35, and could continue in office for two periods of six years. Another important proviso was that Fr Woods would cease to be Director. This would cause Fr Woods to break off his relationships, both personal and religious, and spend a great deal of time an energy in attempting to remove sisters from Mother Mary's influence and installing them in his own organisations.
What of Mother Mary herself during this time? She had a disability, modestly unde,scribed in Victorian times, which meant (it seems) that her menstruation was extremely painful and debilitating. The remedy the doctors prescribed was brandy. In later years, the accusation would be made of heavy drinking. Before the coming of the railway, she went huge distances in hot, dry, dusty Australia, the temperature often in the 100s, in coaches, carts, by ship. Mother accusation was that she travelled alone, by night. The strain must have been enormous, and she suffered also from fearful headaches.
The excommunication might have been over, but their troubles were not. There were the Quinn brothers, both bishops, who wanted her nuns and their work but wished to direct them from the diocese. Fearful and enervating journeys to Brisbane (where James Quinn was bishop) and to Balthurst (Matthew Quinn) wore her out. As with all true saints there was a core of steel. Mother Mary could refer to the rule (approved by Rome) and as an ultimate sanction could, with much regret, remove her sisters from the territory.
The problem with Mother Mary was, as Fr Gardiner sums it up, she was considered to be young (she was in her thirties), sentimental (whatever that might mean), disobe dient, obstinate, not good at managing money, a "colonial" ie, an Australian, and worst of all, not Irish. This was a considerable handicap when there was a network of Irish priests and bishops spread all over Australia. For someone who never hit back, who accepted criticism, however unjust, she had a remarkable number of enemies among the clergy.
Elected Mother General, she had yet another awful trial to bear. Bishop Reynolds of Adelaide in South Australia who had supported Mother Mary in the past, now appeared and required to make a Visitation of the institute. He claimed he had the authority of Rome to do this.What ensued was a disgrace. The nuns were sworn to perpetual silence over their evidence (the Pope released them from this a year later). Each was interrogated and told to be sure to mention anything critical of the institute. Favourable evidence was dismissed, on occasion as "not satisfactory". Few records were kept, and the report was not written until a year later, at the insistence of a new archbishop, who was worried by the whole thing.
Bishop Reynolds was, in Mother Mary's cautious words "not what one would call a clever man". He had been in Rome, and Rome had not been impressed. In a violent and almost incoherent letter to Mother Mary, he accuses her of concealing scandalous behaviour, squandering the , money of the institute, tells her
she has lost the prayed at
her sisters, Mother Mary's
accuses her of disobedience, orders her to leave the Mother House in Adelaide for Sydney, and tells her that he himself will appoint a Mother Vicar in Adelaide. He did not dare mention the ridiculous allegation that she drank.
Mother Mary's distressed reply is a masterpiece. She expresses surprise and regret and obeys, adding that many of the sisters have sad misgivings and need support and encouragement. Needless to say, she was later totally exonerated from all accusations. Moreover, Bishop Reynolds had, in fact, lied to her. He had no authority from Rome, or anyone else.
Fortunately, bishops and cardinals who were not Irish were on her side. But there were still troubles. She had been Mother General in fact for 12 years, but had been elected later in that term, so could have continued. But by a political sleight of hand she was not allowed to continue, and Mother Bernard was elected. Possibly it was hoped that relationships with the clergy might improve if Mother Mary was out of the way — for Mother Bernard was Irish.
It was a devastating blow and difficult for everyone. The sisters regarded her as the "real" Mother. Mother Bernard could not hope to emulate Mother Mary, and was apparently unwilling, or unable to take on a huge administrative burden. Mother Mary travelled a great deal, encouraging and supporting the sisters, and spent quite an amount of time in New Zealand where the sisters were newly established. On the unexpected death of Mother Bernard, Mother Mary was re elected Mother General. In 1902 she had a serious stroke, from which she made a partial recovery, and she died, aged 67, in 1909.
In 1925 Archbishop Kelly set up a tribunal of investigation, as a first step towards canonisation. Witnesses were interrogated but in 1931 documents could not be found, and the process was suspended. Bishop Reynolds has a lot to answer for. Further sessions have been held and Pope Paul VI prayed at Mother Mary's tomb during his visit to Australia in 1970, and the Cause was formally introduced in 1973.
Fr Gardiner's introduction details the paper-chase for the relevant documents in Rome Ireland, Great Britain, Australia and New Zealand. Little did the clergy of her time realise that all their misdeeds would reach the light of day a century later. Mother Mary clearly had the patience of a saint. I hope she will not have to wait much longer to be acknowledged as the first of Australia's saints.