Mary MacKillop may have dedicated her life to the Catholic Church, but she still received the ultimate punishment. Yes, in 1871 Bishop Laurence Bonaventure Sheil – who helmed the church’s Adelaide operations – made the decision to excommunicate the nun, effectively severing her ties to the religious institution that had been her bedrock for more than two decades. And for years, no one knew what MacKillop did to elicit such a shocking response from Sheil.
Such a dismissal seemed astonishing, too – especially considering how much MacKillop had done for the church and the community. After becoming a nun at 24, she had opened a school in South Australia in order to teach underprivileged children. And from there, she and the other nuns in her order made service to the poor their mission, with the group traveling the country to make that duty a reality.
Yet the Catholic Church would one day come back to accept MacKillop in a big way. Indeed, in 2010 Pope Benedict XVI oversaw her canonization, with MacKillop thus ascending to become Saint Mary of the Cross. But how was someone who came to reach sainthood ever seen as a candidate for excommunication in the first place?
Well, in the same year as MacKillop’s canonization, a documentary was released that professed to know why she had lost her standing within the Catholic Church. In particular, the film claimed that the nun had uncovered a secret about her church. And when she had tried to do something about it, all hell had broken loose.
Way before MacKillop was cast out of the church, however, she had come into the world as the first child of Alexander and Flora on January 15, 1842. Ultimately, the Melbourne-born baby girl would have seven siblings. And although her parents had initially seen some personal good fortune after they had moved to Australia from Scotland, MacKillop and her brothers and sisters would end up being raised in poverty.
Owing to her situation, then, MacKillop started working early on to help her family. At 14, for instance, she got a job as a clerk in a Melbourne stationery shop. Then her aunt and uncle, Alexander and Margaret Cameron, offered their niece a position as governess. It was intended that MacKillop would teach the couple’s children at their home in Penola, South Australia.
MacKillop accepted the job, with the role being the first in a long line of charitable positions that the young woman would hold. And while as a governess she naturally taught her cousins, she also made a point to include other children living on the Cameron family’s estate in her lessons.
Then, after two years with the Camerons, MacKillop accepted a new position in 1862. This time, she’d teach at a school in Portland, Victoria. But that gig didn’t last for long. In 1864, you see, MacKillop set out on her own to open a girls’ boarding school, which she would ultimately call the Bay View House Seminary for Young Ladies. The institution endures, too, although today it operates under the name of Bayview College.
But MacKillop always felt a call from a higher power to dedicate her life to the church. In fact, her own father had once studied to become a priest in Rome, and he had educated her throughout the years. And while at first MacKillop thought she too would have to trek to Europe to carve out the life she wanted, she finally found a priest with similar ideals closer to home.
MacKillop had met Father Julian Tenison-Woods while working as a governess at her aunt and uncle’s estate. And as Woods had long worried about the state of education in South Australia, in 1866 he decided to do something about it. Specifically, he invited MacKillop, along with her sisters Annie and Lexie, to help him open a Catholic school in Penola.
Once she had accepted the job, then, MacKillop became not only the school’s co-founder but also its director of education. And while the institution had humble beginnings – MacKillop and other staff members gave lessons from a stable that had been renovated by the future nun’s brother – soon its cohort grew to include more than 50 children.
At the same time that she opened the school, however, MacKillop also decided to dedicate herself to the church. Indeed, she had long dreamt of living such a life – thanks in part to the influence of her father. And given that religious background, it made sense that the young teacher chose to go that way.
So, in the same year that MacKillop accepted the position at Woods’ school, she gave her life to the Catholic Church; other women around her – including her sister Lexie – made the same pledge. MacKillop thus adopted the name Sister Mary of the Cross and started donning a religious habit.
And it was only a matter of time before the nuns came up with a name for themselves: the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart. They subsequently moved into a home together on Grote Street in Adelaide. In time, the women also founded their own school – on this occasion at the request of Bishop Sheil.
But Sheil wanted the Sisters of St. Joseph to do more than just open an educational establishment. More specifically, he wanted them to also dedicate their institution to tutoring the area’s poor children. And the women obliged, thus giving their community of nuns a clearer purpose. MacKillop and Woods would go on to hone their mission in a Rule of Life statement that they devised together.
According to the Rule of Life, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart would live lives in poverty and without personal belongings. Instead, they would be led by their faith that God would give them what they needed. In turn, though, they had to be open to traveling to the places where people had need of them.
Then, within a year, the sisterhood gained ten new members, with all going on to don simple religious habits sewn from brown cloth. And both that signature garment and the homage to St. Joseph in their collective name earned the women an informal moniker: the Brown Joeys.
Regardless of what people called them, though, the Sisters of St. Joseph provided an invaluable service to South Australia. Just two years after they had opened their first school in October 1867, they had greatly expanded. At that time, more than 70 nuns worked at 21 different schools in Adelaide and beyond.
In fact, serving the poor would take MacKillop and the rest of the St. Joseph’s sisters to many of Australia’s most rural areas. The women wouldn’t just trek out there to instruct the children, either; instead, they often moved into the communities and lived among those who needed their help.
Nor, it seems, did the Sisters of St. Joseph work merely as teachers. A number devoted themselves to helping wherever it was needed, including in an orphanage and by caring for neglected children. The nuns also looked after the elderly poor, those with incurable illnesses and girls in danger.
Then, in 1869 MacKillop and her Josephites trekked to Brisbane, Australia, to set up a new faction of their organization there. Two years later, they would also establish a similar outpost in Port Augusta, South Australia. And by 1871 the religious order had a considerable influence across the nation, with 130 women working at more than 40 different schools and organizations throughout the country.
But it would all come crashing down for MacKillop. Bishop Sheil, who had asked the nun to start the new school, eventually departed the diocese. And as he hadn’t set up a leadership system while in charge, this left his fellow clergy to disagree about who now stood where.
Still, during his tenure, Sheil had at least put Woods into the role of director of Catholic education. And when Woods started having issues with other members of the church, they in turn attempted to discredit him and the Sisters of St. Joseph. As a consequence, rumors started to spread about MacKillop and what she did behind closed doors.
For one thing, people said that MacKillop had a problem with alcohol. Others knew, though, that the nun drank on doctor’s orders. Her dysmenorrhea, or menstrual cramps, caused so much pain that she’d spend days at a time in bed, and a medical professional had recommended booze to soothe the discomfort.
With this in mind, it may make sense what happened next: in 1871 the church excommunicated MacKillop at the behest of Sheil. But the reason for her firing from her post may have had nothing to do with her supposed drinking or her colleague’s tense relationship with the rest of the clergy.
You see, according to the ABC show Compass, MacKillop and other Josephites had reportedly uncovered some upsetting information about a priest in the South Australian city of Adelaide. As they heard it, the Kapunda parish’s Father Keating had allegedly abused children with whom he had come into contact through his post. And it seems that the women couldn’t ignore such drastic accusations.
So, MacKillop and the other Josephites shared what they had heard with Woods. He then took the information to the Vicar General, who took swift action against Keating by dispatching him back to his home country of Ireland. Despite the seriousness of the allegations, though, the disgraced priest continued to serve the church when in Europe.
And it seems that some members of the clergy didn’t appreciate MacKillop sounding the alarm. A priest named Father Horan who had worked alongside Keating in Adelaide even promised to exact revenge against the nun for revealing the alleged abuse to the rest of the church.
On Compass, Father Paul Gardiner explained why he thought the church had decided to give MacKillop the cold shoulder. He said, “The story of the excommunication amounts to this: that some priests had been uncovered for being involved in the sexual abuse of children.”
Gardiner also gave his version of how events had gone down, saying, “The nuns told [Woods], and he told the Vicar General, who was in charge at the time. and he took severe action. And Father Horan, one of these priests, was so angry with this that he swore vengeance… against Woods by getting at the Josephites and destroying them.”
According to Gardiner, Horan made this vision a reality by speaking directly to Sheil. In particular, the priest persuaded Sheil to switch up the rules that the Josephites lived by. However, MacKillop refused to submit to the new order – and as a consequence, the church excommunicated her.
Gardiner believed, though, that Sheil hadn’t wanted to do such a thing to MacKillop. Instead, the priest alleged, other clergymen had pulled the wool over the bishop’s eyes. Gardiner explained of Sheil, “He was a puppet being manipulated by malicious priests. This sounds terrible, but it’s true.”
This claim at least seems to be corroborated by Sheil’s later actions. Within five months of excommunicating MacKillop, the bishop had become seriously ill. And as he lay dying, Sheil made a final request: MacKillop should be absolved of the crimes with which she had been charged. In addition, he told those surrounding him to welcome the former nun back to the Josephites.
Others who believe this side of the story include the Sisters of St. Joseph themselves. Members of the religious order have said in a statement that the aforementioned events were “comprehensively documented.” Plus, they wrote, “There were several factors that led to this painful period for Mary and the sisters.”
And, naturally, the period after excommunication may have been difficult for MacKillop. For one thing, the schools that had defined her career closed after all of the drama between the Josephites and the church. Yes, while no one ever disbanded the Josephites, the schools that provided their focus and livelihood were shuttered instead.
Meanwhile, MacKillop herself could no longer speak to anyone involved with the sisterhood or with the church in general. So, a Jewish family took her in, as did Jesuit priests who later provided her shelter. Those sisters who stuck with the Josephites also swapped their signature brown habits for darker-hued ones – earning them the subsequent nickname of the “Black Joeys.”
But as previously mentioned, MacKillop’s punishment didn’t last forever. Instead, Sheil reversed his decision as he lay on his deathbed and completely absolved MacKillop of the charges against her on February 21, 1872. Later, an episcopal commission cleared her name entirely – thus exonerating her of the excommunication.
Once back in the fold, MacKillop continued to serve the communities that needed her most. In 1873 she trekked to Rome and got papal approval for the Josephites. Two years after that, she became superior general of the group. And, with time, her community of nuns – all dedicated to bettering the cities in which they lived – grew.
In 1909, however, MacKillop passed away at a Josephite convent in Sydney, Australia. And a century after her death, the Archbishop of Adelaide, Philip Wilson, issued a public apology for the famous nun’s excommunication. He said, “I apologize to the sisters… for what happened to them in the context of the excommunication when… community life was interrupted. [They] were virtually thrown out on the streets, and… this was a terrible thing.”
But the most important step in exonerating MacKillop – and solidifying her incredible legacy – was her canonization. The proceedings actually began back in 1926, but they stalled during a decades-long investigation into the nun’s writings. Once again, though, MacKillop passed the tests in front of her, and she became a saint in January 1995. It was an achievement that she had more than earned for a life spent doing the right thing – no matter how hard that sometimes proved to be.