St Mary MacKillop was born two blocks from St Patrick’s Cathedral on Brunswick St in 1842, the first of eight children. The family was always poor, and Mary was, from a young age, involved in the support of the family. That being said, she had a relatively happy upbringing, living in a household of great love. Her Catholic faith, deeply fostered in the family, was crucial to her from the beginning.

From a young age, Mary was acutely moved by the lack of education, medical care and social services amongst the Catholic poor she saw around her. She dreamed of establishing a group of religious women who would be free to go wherever there was a need. Education of poor children became her primary focus, and she opened her first school, in a stable, at Penola SA, in January 1866. She was only 24 years old. Mary made her religious vows in Adelaide in 1867, taking the name Mary of the Cross. This was the beginnings of the Congregation of the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. By 1869, two years later, some 60 sisters had joined with her.

The Josephites were unlike other structures for religious women, going into places others would not. Herein lies the source of much of the difficulties that beset Mary for many years, especially with the hierarchy of the Church. It was in the crosses she bore that the heroic and saintly qualities of Mary really came through. She never failed to respect and pray for those who treated her harshly, and encouraged her sisters to do the same. And she never tired of her care for the poor. Tenacious and determined, yet kind and forgiving. These were the particular characteristics of Mary.

Saints are made in the lives they live; not by some natural gift or talent. Mary’s life was centered on God. As she once wrote: ‘I want with all my heart to be what God wants me to be’. It was faith which motivated her service. ‘Faith’, she said ‘is the first essential if we are to cope’ with life’s difficulties.

Mary’s emphasis on knowing and doing the will of God pervades all her writings. As she often wrote: ‘The will of God is to me a very dear book, and I never tire of reading it.’ But how did she know what God’s will for her was? The answer is prayer. Mary came to know God’s will for her through a life of constant prayer.

Interestingly, the content of her prayer was very simple. She would offer up her “Holy Communions”, her “Rosaries”, her “adorations”, her “devotions” for the sake of others in a very simple piety. This is really interesting in our time when the old devotions of the Rosary and visits to the Blessed Sacrament are no longer the daily bread of people’s prayer. (Though our young people and migrant families are taking a renewed path of popular piety.) We have a saint who found a devotional way of praying the path to sanctity.

This simplicity led Mary to a profound understanding of the mind and heart of God, what she so marvellously called “her dear book”. It was in reading the book of God’s loving will for her, that Mary learnt to live a life of forgiveness and remarkable kindness. As she would say: ‘Believe in the whisperings of God in your heart. Believe in him. Believe in the power of the Spirit of love.’ (1868)

St Mary of the Cross MacKillop, pray for us.