Mary MacKillop’s caring for the poor encouraged by the liberal strain in Adelaide Protestantism
Dedicated to educating poor children, Mary MacKillop was the first Australian to found a Roman Catholic religious order, in Penola, in 1866.
Although canonised as the first Australian saint in 2010, MacKillop had conflicts with Roman Catholic bishops to the extent of being excommunicated. The Victorian-born MacKillop was working as a governess in South Australia’s south east, when she was encouraged by parish priest Tenison Woods to found an order that eventually became the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart.
Poverty was central to the rule of life for the order that, starting with a school at Yankalilla in 1867, set up schools, orphanages and institutions throughout the Australian colonies.
A two-storey convent for the Josephites was built in Franklin Street (facing Gray Street), Adelaide, in 1869. The ground floor was a school for poor children in the city’s west.
By 1871, Adelaide bishop Laurence Sheil was facing complaints about the order’s members living in the community and begging for money to fund their work. (The Josephites refused government funds.) After MacKillop argued against calls that some members of the order be lay sisters and that each convent should be under a priest’s authority, she was excommunicated by Sheil in the Franklin Street chapel. Fifty other sisters were told to leave the order, and the convent in Franklin Street was transferred to the Dominican sisters.
While she was excommunicated, the wide respect for MacKillop and her nuns is reflected in the support they received from non-Catholics such as the Adelaide Jewish businessman Emanuel Solomon and MacKillop’s close (Presbyterian) friend Joanna Barr Smith.