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A feminist's view of Mary MacKillop


Jo Ann Kay McNamara's Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two MillenniaI wonder how she would feel, Sister Mary of the Cross, had she been told before she died that the Church would make her a saint 101 years later. Perhaps, like another activist candidate for sainthood, the late US advocate for the poor and founder of The Catholic Worker, Dorothy Day, she might have said: 'Don't call me a saint. I don't want to be dismissed so easily.'

On 1 September 2010 Fr Peter Hosking SJ wrote in the Australian Jesuits publication Province Express that Mary Mackillop 'revered priests and respected authority', and that though 'Mary and her Sisters suffered persecution, [it was] not from enemies or from the church, but from certain bishops and some priests'.

But these men exercised the Church's authority, and excommunication meant more then than being marginalised by rogues, misogynists or weaklings.

Such history of women religious in the institutional Christian church as there is (because women's religious contributions were often not considered important enough to be formally documented; for a discomfiting review see Jo Ann Kay McNamara's Sisters in Arms: Catholic Nuns Through Two Millennia) makes for infuriating reading.

Despite the intimacy of powerful, generous women with the living Jesus — according to the gospels, written by men — men's control over Christian women's religious lives has grown vastly.

Women with missions, such as Teresa of Avila, were required to be genuinely humble in deferring to (or subtly avoiding the thrust of) the will and instructions of ambitious priests set over them, who might be quick to doubt their relationship with and understanding of the will of God for them, or to take custody of the fruits of their spirituality (Teresa of Avila's confessor even cut a finger from her corpse).

But they knew, these women, that games were being played: even the 'little flower' Therese of Lisieux prayed, a little disingenuously, for the frailty and (to a 21st century woman's eye) silliness of some of the priests in charge of them.

Despite the social and intellectual advances of the last 60 years, when women superiors of religious orders in the United States sought, as they were directed, to rejuvenate their communities and governance, the very mention of their traditional subjection to absolute authority, and of women's participation as equals within the church, saw them slapped down (as MacKillop had been) for insubordination.

Worse, after a public plea to John Paul II during his 1979 visit to the US, by the then President of the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, five different women members were publicly humiliated by Vatican officials four years later, when they were forbidden to carry consecrated bread and wine to an assembly of male and female superiors, as agreed. Such 'petty' but cruel injustices should not be forgotten.

To a woman who, like me, was raised in the Spartan spirituality of Presbyterianism, MacKillop's canonisation is a conundrum. If the life of an authoritative, strong-willed and independent educator and helper of Australia's isolated poor was so exemplary as to be a model to others in 2010, why did she and her sisters suffer so badly during her lifetime at the hands of the Church that wants to praise her now?

MacKillop was excommunicated in 1871 for 'insubordination'. Her sisters were not permitted to continue their work of teaching poor children of the cities and remote regions, or even resume residence and the habits of their order, until the following year. They suffered greatly.

Why? Much has been made about MacKillop's possibly being victimised because of some role in 'outing' a pedophile priest. MacKillop herself, writing the history of her order, just said that 'much must be passed over' of this time.

That she fell into disfavour is undoubted. Remarkably little has been said about the failure of her long-time collaborator, Fr Julian Tennison Woods, to come to her support. Justifiably more has been said about the compassion and wisdom of the Jesuits of Saint Ignatius Norwood in South Australia who gave her refuge and sacramental ease during this time.

But her treatment then, as an immigrant woman who founded the first Australian religious order for women, should make modern Christian women wonder about their role in the Church today.

What would MacKillop have made of this? By all accounts this was a passionate woman who forged lasting friendships with other outsiders — her great friend, Joanna Barr-Smith, was a Presbyterian; one of her more generous donors, Emmanuel Solomon, was Jewish — and with political leaders, such as the South Australian governor who sent his son to be educated by her; but made Catholic religious men profoundly uncomfortable.

She was neither pretty, nor small, nor meek, nor malleable. She, like Day, believed in social justice and, whether or not she would ever have used a term such as 'feminist', the equality of persons.

Perhaps she might have agreed with Virginia Woolf, 'The history of men's opposition to women's emancipation is more interesting perhaps than the story of that emancipation itself.' Or even: 'Women have served all these centuries as looking glasses possessing the power of reflecting the figure of man at twice its natural size.'

Hail Mary MacKillop: a wonderful model of Australian courage to be herself. 

Moira RaynerMoira Rayner is a barrister and writer. She is a former Equal Opportunity and HREOC Commissioner. She is principal of Moira Rayner and Associates. 

Topic tags: moira rayner, mary mackillop, virginia woolf, feminist, josephites



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Existing comments

I find a lot of the comments about Mary McKillop dubious. If she is a model because she had the "courage to be herself", then all it would seem to qualify her for is to join the ranks of a wide variety of self-assertive people who might be and often are in sum very unattractive persons. And was emancipation in her mind-set anyway? There might be many ways to characterise Mary McKillop's personality and motives - but the key thing I’d have thought relevant to any notion of sainthood is simply, was she holy? Forget controversial claims of wonder-working: did she have a peace-inducing positive effect on people and did she have spiritual insight when alive? Whether she achieved anything seems beside the point. Otherwise she might just as well be in the same category as those included in annual honour lists.

I suppose the Vatican files on her contain material indicating her "holiness" but this is not filtering to the public. Instead we have the extremes of promoting her as a posthumous miracle medium or some kind of Aussie celebrity about whom we’re supposed to feel jingoistic! The one thing we can be sure of, is if she was a true saint she’d hate all this hoopla and the most respectful thing we could do is cease it forthwith. There’ve been people across all cultures whose character, wisdom or virtue impresses, but we don't make them demi-gods or appropriate them as mascots to our own causes, whatever these are.

Stephen Kellett | 11 October 2010  

Moira - Thank you for an insightful and much appreciated article. Just one little "correction" - Mary was not an "immigrant woman" but was born here in Australia.

May we continue to learn from this "Aussie sheila" as Paul Collins (I think) called her.

Noela Blackmore | 11 October 2010  

Ms Rayner's Presbyterian petticoat is rather too much on show here. Her knowledge of the Catholic Church's understanding of the sacrament of holy orders, church governance, the religious life, ascetical theology and the cult of the saints is very defective.

Her implied aside that there are not many histories of 'women religious in the institutional church' is very revealing. Besides the one book which she says she has read, there are hundreds of scholarly monographs on the history of religious life among Catholic women in all ages. If she thinks it is the lot of female religious to be oppressed, she should take time out to read the lives Catherine of Siena, Mechtilde of Magdeburg, Nano Nagle, Hildegard of Bingen, Teresa of Avila, Catherine McAuley, Edith Stein....the list goes on.

Ms Rayner lacks any sense of the warp and woof of history and how historical perspective emerges with the passage of time. Her simplistic, paranoid, androphobic account of McKillop overlooks the complexity of the divisions and crises within South Australian Catholicism in the second half of the the 1860s and the first half of the 1870s and thus demonises the clerical players. One of the most misunderstood figures in the drama is Bishop Laurence Sheil who, like all of us, including Mary, had his struggles and defects. At the time of the excommunication he was going through a nervous breakdown.

If there is one thing of which we can be sure, St Mary of the Cross would have disowned any suggestion that she was 'a wonderful model of Australian courage to be herself'. What she was really on about was the courage to seek union with Another and do His will.

If Ms Rayner is looking for evidence of sexism within Christianity, she should dip into her own John Knox's "Trumpet Blast against the Monstrous Regiment of Women".

Sylvester | 11 October 2010  

Phew! What passion is ignited by even writing about Mary MacKillop. The jingoism gets up my nose too, but that's us not Mary. What is "holy" and do you have to be, to be a saint? The unpleasant truth is that women have been treated badly by men in the church. Why is it so difficult to admit this? So much ducking and weaving. If compassion and understanding are supposed to be the Church's business, why does it go missing? I would love to hear more about Mary's spiritual insights too. Some of her reactions seem to have been distinctly odd, but if she really did have endometriosis then she done good in difficult circumstances. There is much we don't know, nevertheless her efforts were extraordinary - just try organising a little school picnic let alone a whole order from scratch with jobs to be done and kids to be taught over many years. There is an implication that Bishop Sheil is being hardly done by. Unfortunately it is hard to put all these actions into proper context given the social constructs 100 years ago. There may be reasons for behaviour. Even so Mary MacKillop was badly treated. Thanks Moira

Ann Long | 11 October 2010  

"Much has been made about MacKillop's possibly being victimised because of some role in 'outing' a pedophile priest."
I am still puzzled by the negative response to this. Why are some people, including Fr. Paul Gardner, so upset by this revelation. To many it is extremely appropriate that an Australian saint, whose prophetic voice was heard a century ago, be canonised at the same time as the Roman Church reluluctantly admits the universal problem of abuse.

Anne Norman, QLD | 12 October 2010  

Ann, I agree, women have been badly treated by men, both as individuals and as a theological gender, in the church. I agree, many find it difficult to acknowledge this. I agree, compassion and understanding goes missing but it goes missing because we’re all limited and imperfect. I agree, if she worked as hard as she did with endemetriosis, then she showed persistence and courage etc. All that aside, I wish people would stop turning Mary McKillop into a pop star. (I’m resigned to the fact mine is a minority sentiment).

Does a saint have to be holy? I would have said so, if “saint’ means “holy person”, and my point was I think it is something different from charisma, ground-breaking accomplishment, courage in standing up for something or being made an example of or being a victim of oppression or bigotry or prejudice etc. If she was all those things but not holy, then she shouldn’t be canonised.

Stephen Kellett | 12 October 2010  

Ah, Sylvester, I agree with you about John Knox and the many thousands of men, just like him, then and now.

I don't see why you have assumed I have not read the lives of the women saints you mention: Teresa of Avila has long been a personal favourite. I recently added Ignatius of Loyola to my list. I don't discriminate.

Moira | 12 October 2010  

I believe one of the most important things about Mary MacKillop is that she was Australian born. It was because of this and her early experience of moving from place to place that made central government so important for the Josephite order. European born bishops and priests didn't yet understand just what the huge distances in Australia involved.

I think it's sad we make so much of the excommunication which wasn't valid anyway. In later correspondence she always referred to Bishop Sheil as 'the poor old Bishop'.

Margaret McDonald | 12 October 2010  

An excellent article, as one would expect from Moira Rayner.

Two minor comments: Re St Mary, Moira says "as an immigrant woman who founded the first Australian religious order for women.....".

Mary was born in Melbourne and, at the risk of starting a fight between two groups of wonderful women, I thought that the Good Sams were the first Australian religious order for women.

Peter McArdle | 14 October 2010  

Moira - thank you for your article. Readers may like to refer to the writings of medieval writer Christine de Pizan. English historian Colin Jones describes her efforts to counter the prevailing belief in women’s inferiority, particularly their moral inferiority, thus: "Her City of Women was a devasting critique of male misogymy and a disturbing analysis of how much women’s supposed nature had been fashioned by the male, often clerical, imagination. Yet she had few disciples.” In Mary MacKillop, Christine may have found a disciple!

Patricia Russell | 15 October 2010  

Thank you Moira for giving us this perspective on Mary Mackillop's life. It is actually powerful to see that to be saint does not mean to submit to oppression but one can be a rebel, a stirrer, and a saint. I loved it.

Dalal Smiley | 15 October 2010  

I enjoyed reading your article. I know there have been many wonderful and strong women in the Catholic Church throughout history and undoubtedly, Mary MacKillop is one of them.

It deeply saddens me that men still hold the authority and women are excluded from the major roles in our church. I had hoped we would have come much further by 2011.
However, I am truly grateful for strong, charitable and religious women such as our Mary.

They are an inspiration, as many male role models in our church are. I must say though, there are many males in positions of great power in the church who I believe to be damaging to the future life of the Catholic Church.

I hope we will see a more equal contribution from men and women in the church in the future.

Maybe, we need more women like Mary MacKillop.

Cate Miller | 29 May 2011  

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