Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Mary MacKillop - a tough, smart saint

Mary MacKillop - Australia's first saint.
One does not need to be a Catholic to be thrilled to bits with this news.
Its symbology is more far-reaching.
Mary MacKillop long has been hailed for the exceptional woman she was - but this recognition has been largely from and within the religious world she avowed.
She was a nun who created her own order, using the Catholic system as a way of spreading not just the word of God but the word itself - literacy.
Her brown-clad Josephites, affectionately known as Brown Joeys, opened and ran schools wherever they went. They provided an education for the downtrodden and repressed of the time - girls.

Mary MacKillop was a feminist - way before the word was coined.

Among her wonderful nuns were women for whom life had been harsh, for whom other opportunities may never have arrived, among them women of the street. One could say that she saved them or made them - just as she saved and made all those girls who otherwise would never have had the emancipation of education.

Her schools are still outstanding and progressive.

They are, of course, Catholic schools,  but they accept Muslim and Buddhists and Secular students. In Mary's spirit, they are without prejudice.

With all this erudition there is one wild irony in the years and years of waiting for Mary MacKillop's Sainthood.
The highly patriarchal old Church of Rome, which once excommunicated Mary MacKillop for her fiesty disobedience - has rules, absurd archaic canonical rules. It decrees that, to be a saint, one must have performed miracles.
Miracles must be directly related to the act of prayer to the saint-to-be. They must involve cures of the incurable. They must be accompanied by medical "proof".
This sort of thinking seems incongruous when set against the principles of enlightenment Mary MacKillop represents.

Well, I think so. The fact that Australia has had to wait for decades until a woman emerged with the claim that praying to Mother Mary had cured her cancer is to oddly sideline the wonderful works and meaning of Mary MacKillop.
The woman in question clearly thinks this, too. She has refused to be identified saying that she does not want her cure to detract from the Saint herself and her pioneering work. One likes this woman.

I love Mary MacKillop.
Just as my late father, Max Harris, did.
He campaigned through the national media for recognition of Mary MacKillop as the brilliant pioneer educator that she was. He was a boy raised in the South East of South Australia, near Penola where Mary MacKillop's work with her mentor, priest and scientist Father Julian Tenison Woods all began. Penola is where Mary's first school was - a lovely wee town which is about to boom with tourism.
Max had an immense respect for early female achievers. He read all there was to read about Mary MacKillop and he cited her as one of the great (then) unknown Australians while doing his utmost to ensure that she was not just known but properly celebrated. He adored her spirit and her legacy and used his high media profile to champion her.

The Josephite nuns, an order of particularly interesting and intelligent women, were quick to take note and make themselves known to Max and so the bond became formed between the poet/columnist campaigner and the women who today represent the work and ethos of Mary MacKillop.
Those nuns were to give Max extraordinary comfort and support through his years of illness and, after his death, they were to tuck him under their eternal wing. Hence, his ashes are interred beneath a memorial rock between Mary MacKillop College and the Josephite Nunnery. The Mary MacKillop Centre museum is right there, too.

Max recognised Mary MacKillop's religion - and also the battle she had with that religion's patriarchy to do her work. She had to take on those fusty old Bishops. They excommunicated her. She had to live in hiding and plead to do her wonderful work. She succeeded and her work went on - away from Penola and Adelaide where it all began - across the country. Mary suffered Dysmenorrhea for which she needed analgesic nips of brandy. One always hoped it was St Agnes brandy, a saintly cure if ever one there was. But Mary was in no way airy fairy. She lived a tough life and she was a fighter. She worked truly and humbly for the benefit of others - for girls and education, for Aboriginal children and their cultural displacement, for the poor and their needs and for the sick and aged and their comfort.

Religion or no religion, one could not fail to recognise the extraordinary qualities of this wonderful woman. Her work was 19th Century but it remains vital and contemporary. She was a true pioneer. She is a role model for us all. And, as my late father so perfectly put it all those years ago, she is:



Anonymous said...

I love Mary Mackillop as well... years ago she came to me in a dream and I have always held a special place in my heart for her. I am not religious but I have unwavering faith in the universe. Thank you for the reminder of how special she is to me. Bless.

iNdi@na said...

mmm. Mother Mary declared a Saint and five minutes later Penola [regarded as her "home" town] flattened by a cyclone [a meteorological phenomenon uncommon in those parts]
food for thought