Honouring Australia’s first saint

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Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop was a progressive and outstanding educator, establishing the first St Joseph’s School in a converted stable in Penola, South Australia, where a free education was provided to children from the area. Photo: File Photo
Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop was a progressive and outstanding educator, establishing the first St Joseph’s School in a converted stable in Penola, South Australia, where a free education was provided to children from the area. Photo: File Photo

By Judith Thomas

As a great reformer in Catholic education, it’s particularly fitting that Sydney Catholic Schools honours Mary MacKillop on her feast day.

Sydney Catholic Schools (SCS) is celebrating the feast day of our favourite Josephite, Saint Mary MacKillop, on Sunday 8 August by revisiting lessons learned at a 2021 ‘Lunch and Learn’ dedicated to our only Aussie saint.

The May Lunch and Learn information session for SCS staff was hosted by Dominique Farah, from SCS’ Mission and Identity team, and included two guest speakers: Sister Jan Barnett and Karen Oxley, from the Josephite Justice Network – an arm of the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart keeping alive the Josephite tradition through service to others.

“Mary’s mission is our [SCS’] mission; to know and love Christ through learning” – Dominique Farah

SCS staff learned that Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop was a progressive and outstanding educator, establishing the first St Joseph’s School in a converted stable in Penola, South Australia, where a free education was provided to children from the area.

Interestingly, Saint Mary was an early proponent of authentic learning, or real-world problem-solving, as she believed rote learning without oral instruction was useless and that children needed to understand what they learned.

She supported this principle by having experiential learning opportunities, such as feasts, bush picnics and games, and encouraged parents to participate in their children’s education.

Saint Mary ensured all students were treated as equal, regardless of wealth, social position or race, with every child as special as the other – a tenet of both the Josephite Sisters, of which she was one, and of Sydney Catholic Schools.

Saint Mary ensured all students were treated as equal, regardless of wealth, social position or race, with every child as special as the other. Image: Paul Newton
Saint Mary ensured all students were treated as equal, regardless of wealth, social position or race, with every child as special as the other. Image: Paul Newton

“Never see a need without doing something about it” – Saint Mary MacKillop

Today, we have nine Sydney Catholic Schools with Mary MacKillop’s namesake and nine schools named after her favourite saint, St Joseph.

Born on St Joseph’s feast day in 1842 to Scottish immigrant parents in Melbourne, Mary said her life as a child “was one of sorrow… [because] the principal care of a very large family fell upon me.”

“Find happiness in making others happy” – Saint Mary MacKillop

She would grow up to co-found the first order of nuns in Australia, the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, with Catholic priest Julian Edmund Tenison-Woods in 1866.

Current Josephite Justice Network volunteer, Karen Oxley, said the Josephite Sisters would go out in the field following wallaby tracks so they could educate the poorest of the poor.

Students of Mary MacKillop Catholic College, a girls’ secondary school. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli
Students of Mary MacKillop Catholic College, a girls’ secondary school. PHOTO: Giovanni Portelli

“It’s a privilege to have been a part of the Josephite nuns… they may no longer be in schools, but they are embedded in our society” – Karen Oxley

Nowadays Josephites for Justice students are active in SCS schools, addressing topical issues such as climate change.

Following the example of Saint Mary caring for society’s most needy, Sister Barnett said: We must acknowledge First Nations People and refugees and ask the question, ‘What are we doing as Australians?’

“We must be aware of what is being asked of us” – Sister Jan Barnett

FIVE SAYINGS OF SAINT MARY OF THE CROSS MACKILLOP

  1. There where you are, you will find God
  2. Make allowances for those who do not see as you do
  3. How truly wonderful are God’s ways
  4. Work on with constancy and courage
  5. With God on our side, what need we fear