For my last days in Australia I stayed at Mary MacKillop Place in north Sydney, on the opposite side of the Harbour Bridge from the Opera House. Mother Mary MacKillop, Australia’s first saint, moved here in 1884 to open her order’s novitiate in a simple cottage, and here she died in 1909, aged 67.

A chapel was built in her memory and when she was beatified in 1995 she was given a shrine here. Cottage and chapel are surrounded by gardens in which gardenia and rosemary bushes still flower in the warmth of a Sydney autumn, but they are now overshadowed by skyscrapers. Nevertheless, the compound remains a little oasis within easy reach of the heart of that beautiful city.

Mary MacKillop was the daughter of Scottish immigrant parents. Her father had spent six years at the Scots College in Rome and it is not clear why he left formation for the priesthood. He was what the Victorians called “improvident” (there are hints of problems with gambling). But he did manage to provide his oldest daughter with an exceptional schooling and a conviction about the value of education.

At 18, Mary left Melbourne to work as a governess in a town in South Australia called Penola. There she met a man who was to be instrumental with her in the founding of her order: Fr Julian Woods. He would prove over the years to be both mentor and tormentor. He was the pastor of Penola but his parish covered 22,000 square miles. The museum at MacKillop Place contains his travelling altar and Mass kit; during his extensive journeys, when he wasn’t pursuing his passion for studying the natural world, he would ponder the need for some way of providing education for poor children. When Mary confided in him her sense of a call to religious life, combined with a passion for educating the disadvantaged, they set up the first Catholic school in a stable building at Penola.

Mary and two of her blood sisters opened the school on St Joseph’s feast day in 1866. Mary adopted a plain black dress as a sign of her dedication to doing God’s work and within months they had a rudimentary Rule. Mary moved to Adelaide the following year to establish the Josephite order’s first proper convent. Within five years there would be 120 Sisters staffing 27 schools.

She took the religious name Sister Mary of the Cross, and it was well chosen: the success of her educational vision is remarkable, but the story of the opposition she had to battle is appalling. Fr Woods, having been a great supporter, fell under the malign influence of two of the early Sisters who claimed they were visionaries. He came to rely on their putative visions and locutions, and later his own, for the direction of the order, refusing to accept that they were malicious towards their superior. Some of the clergy spread calumnies against the Sisters. Given the phenomenal early growth, it may be that there were some unsuitable candidates admitted.

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