On Friday 22 September 1871, Mary MacKillop was excommunicated by Bishop Sheil of Adelaide for alleged insubordination. This is the most famous part of the Mary MacKillop story, one with which everyone is familiar. Perhaps a less familiar aspect of the story, however, is a potential reason why she ended up being excommunicated.

In the lead up to MacKillop’s canonisation in 2010 the ABC published a story claiming that her excommunication was related to the uncovering of sexual abuse in Kapunda, Adelaide.

Indeed, while Bishop Sheil was attending the First Vatican Council (1869–70), there were reports in Kapunda that one of the priests of the Order of St Francis, one Fr Patrick Keating, had been accused of sexual offences in the Confessional. The Sisters of St Joseph discovered this and immediately reported the accusations to their superior, Fr Julian Tenison Woods, who reported it to the Vicar General, who then promptly had Fr Keating removed and returned to Ireland.

The problem remained, however, with Keating’s superior, Fr Charles Horan. According to the testimony given in 1872 by then-Director of the Sisters, Fr Joseph Tappeiner, this incident was ‘the beginning of the hatred of Fr Horan for Fr Woods and the Sisters.’

Fr Paul Gardiner SJ, who was the Postulator for the Cause of Mary MacKillop’s Canonisation, told the ABC that there was evidence Horan ‘swore vengeance’ against Fr Woods by ‘getting at the Josephites and destroying them.’

In February 1871, in fact, a letter was sent to the Bishop signed by eleven priests complaining about supposed problems with the Sisters. These problems included that ‘ignorant girls’ were ‘constantly admitted into the community of the Sisters of St Joseph’; that most members of the Sisters were ‘utterly useless for educational purposes’ and that a ‘host of uneducated and ignorant Sisters’ would be an ‘unbearable onus’ on the priests and the population; that in letting the Sisters continue there is being withheld a higher ‘class of education that should place them on par with their fellow colonists’; and that the Sisters would establish communities without the knowledge of local priests. One of the eleven priests who signed this letter was Fr Charles Horan.

Somehow Fr Horan wound up working alongside Bishop Sheil and manipulated him into bringing about changes to the Sisters’ Rule of Life. These changes would involve the order having no central superior, but each community being under the rule of their local priest and the bishop. What this amounted to was an attempt to disband and destroy the order.

Mary MacKillop was away in New South Wales at the time of these changes being made and she began to receive letters urging her to come back home. She did so and wrote to the bishop, begging him not to alter their Rule. If he was committed to it, she simply said that she would leave the order. This was interpreted by Horan and the bishop as “insubordination” and she was subsequently excommunicated. As well as this, the Sisters were evicted from the Franklin Street convent. Around fifty more Sisters were released from their vows because they refused to accept the changes.

Back then, of course, what this inevitably meant was that many of them were thrown out onto the street, penniless and with nowhere to go.

On 21 February 1872, nine days before his death, Bishop Sheil lifted the excommunication, realising his actions had been the result of bad advice and manipulation.

Little is known about Fr Horan after this whole affair. In 1873 he was recalled by his order back to Ireland, but he evidently spent time in the United States of America for a period of about fifteen years before once again returning to Ireland. In Limerick, in the year 1900, he died.

Even though some eighteen months separates the events, the prejudice Fr Horan held against Fr Woods and the Josephites Sisters certainly seems to indicate that Mary MacKillop’s excommunication was the result of their initial courageous reporting.

‘God will carry you safely through every struggle.’ –St Mary of the Cross MacKillop

The feast of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop is celebrated on 8 August.

Image: CNS