Woman MacKillop, Mary Helen

Educator and Religious Sister
Alternative Names
  • St Mary of the Cross

Written by Shurlee Swain, Australian Catholic University

Mary MacKillop was born in the Melbourne suburb of Fitzroy in 1842, the eldest of eight children of impoverished immigrant Alexander Mckillop and his wife Flora. Educated both by her father and in private schools, she worked successively as a shop-girl, governess, teacher and boarding-house proprietor before, under the influence of Father Julian Tenison Woods, founding the Sisters of St Joseph in Penola, South Australia, in 1866. The goal of the order was to provide education for poor children. Despite conflict with the church hierarchy in its early years, by 1900 the sisters had spread throughout the eastern colonies conducting schools and charitable institutions for women and children.

MacKillop's correspondence shows her as a woman confidently in control of her organisation. She regularly visited her convents in Australia and New Zealand and knew each of the sisters (Sydney Morning Herald, 10 August 1909). A believer in issuing clear instructions which left no room for doubt as to her intentions, she wrote that 'it is well in dealing with some souls not to give them that loophole' (McCreanor, 288). Although she urged obedience on her sisters, she was able to resist requests from the church hierarchy which we she felt would have caused the order to overextend itself, arguing 'we must look before us, do what we do well and refuse undertaking too much' (McCreanor, 292).

Following a stroke in 1902, MacKillop lived as an invalid, but her mental faculties remained acute. She continued in her role as Congregational Leader despite her declining health, but left much of the responsibility to her assistant, Sr La Merci Mahony. She welcomed the advent of women's suffrage, telling members of her community that it was their duty to vote, but that they should 'get advice from some leading man ... or from the priest' before deciding who to vote for (McCreanor, 359).

MacKillop died in Sydney in 1909. A campaign for her canonisation, which commenced shortly after her death, saw her named as Australia's first saint in 2010.

Published Resources


  • Gardiner, Paul, Mary MacKillop: An Extraordinary Australian, authorised biography, E.J. Dwyer, Sydney, New South Wales, 1994. Details

Edited Books

  • McCreanor, Sheila (ed.), Mary MacKillop on Mission to her Last Breath: Correspondence about the foundations of the Sisters of St Joseph in Aotearoa New Zealand and Mary's final years 1881-1909, Sisters of St Joseph, Sydney, New South Wales, 2009. Details

Journal Articles

  • Pilcher, Carmel, 'A Precedent for the World: Mary MacKillop at Randwick', Women-Church, vol. 18, 1995, pp. 41 - 43. Details

Newspaper Articles

Online Resources