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Mary MacKillop - a very Australian saint

Nick Bryant | 15:25 UK time, Saturday, 16 October 2010

Mary Mackillop

Three iconic Australian females have dominated the news this week: the legendary opera singer Dame Joan Sutherland, Azaria Chamberlain - the ten-week old baby whose disappearance from a campsite in the shadow of Uluru in August, 1980 has preyed on the national consciousness for three decades, and whose death now looks like it will become the subject of a fourth coronial inquest - and Sister Mary MacKillop, who will be canonised at the Vatican on Sunday, and become Australia's first ever saint.

I have written a longer story about Mary MacKillop , but the question raised in the first paragraph is worth opening up for comment.

"Feisty, anti-authoritarian, a lover of the bush, a friend of Aborigines and a champion of a "fair go" for the needy. Were Australians to come up with the qualities they most wanted in their first saint, many would find themselves describing Sister Mary MacKillop."

You could add to that the fact that she was born in Melbourne, died in Sydney, and worked for so much of her life in South Australia, which gives her even more national appeal. Then there is the fact that, like such a large proportion of the Australian population then and now, she was the daughter of immigrants. Her parents came from Scotland.

In her temperament, character traits and upbringing, Mary MacKillop is so quintessentially Australian. As Tom Dusevic of The Australian notes: "Mary MacKillop is the vernacular saint for a people who deify the battler, are democratic, tilt against authority and are yet traditional."

The Vatican has credited Mary MacKillop, who is believed by many Catholics to have miraculous healing powers, with two miracles. This has prompted at least one prominent atheist to pointedly ask why she has used her gifts so sparingly. Elsewhere, however, Mary MacKillop has been getting a near universally good press. Even outside of Australia's five million-strong Catholic community, she commands enormous respect and affection.

What I have found most interesting in the run-up to her canonisation is to see both the defenders of the Roman Catholic Church and its fiercest critics try to appropriate her memory. Mary MacKillop was briefly excommunicated from the church in part because of her role in uncovering a priest accused of child sex abuse, a part of her story that has been seized upon by the main Australian victims group, Broken Rites. They want Mary MacKillop to be viewed as the patron saint of child sex abuse victims around the world.

In her death and canonization, Mary MacKillop has become a curiously malleable figure: a longtime symbol of hope for the infirmed, a newfound symbol of justice for the abused and a more universal symbol of the kind of values which so many Australians have long cherished and continue to hold dear.

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