FAITH MATTERS: A strong woman

When Bishop Bill convoked the Diocesan Synod on the Feast of Saint Mary MacKillop we knew that we would turn to her through this period for her patronage, prayers and support.

This year the annual Diocesan Way of the Cross will include reflections of St Mary of the Cross MacKillop. As we look at the life of Mary MacKillop, we see a woman who persevered in the journey of faith despite the suffering that she endured. There are times when Mary comes close to despair, yet she finds strength and meaning in the cross of Jesus.

Given that this week we celebrate International Women’s Day it is only fitting that we honour and pay tribute to Australia's only saint, proudly a woman, St Mary of the Cross MacKillop.

Mary MacKillop had a deep compassion for her fellow man and woman and her life revolved around promoting the dignity of the human person, providing options for the poor to break the poverty cycle; helping, educating and caring for those in need with love and faith in God at the core of her existence.

When writing to the authorities in Rome she states, ‘It is an Australian who writes this’. These words speak of a new, large harsh land, but one she was proud of and one she had high expectations of and one she could personally connect with.

Many new Australians had to learn to cope with living on the land and everything that it brought with it, including droughts, flooding rains and a harsh lonely land, especially those on farms or small country towns. They had to learn to not just cope, but also reinvent if something went wrong, to take a risk, gamble and just give it a go. If failure resulted, a strength would appear to try and try again.

Mary possessed these Australian characteristics. She had to learn to cope not only with the environmental conditions, traveling extensively to assist those living in poverty in remote areas to be educated and cared for. Mary took risks, many of these were simply risky because she was female in a male-dominated religion. The concept of central government for the Josephite’s and not being controlled by various Bishops made sense for Mary’s vision and mission, but was a risky concept which was not favoured by some of the clergy. This vision took Mary to Rome which she did in disguise to ask for approval from the Pope. She possessed an unfailing determination to seek justice and went to long lengths to achieve this. The conditions that Mary was exposed to and the actions she took act as a foundation and platform for her spirituality which was far from something she only internalised, but rather lived and moulded her to be a servant leader.

Mary approached Australian society with a Social Darwinistic stance; she could see the importance of education to make young people fit for survival in the harsh realities of a new land.

Mary could see the vital importance of a quality teaching and a learning framework that was accessible to everyone, especially those who had a weaker chance of survival. Thus, her main objective for the Order was to supply education to the children of poor, working-class Catholics scattered throughout the bush and less privileged city areas.

Father Julian Tension-Woods the co-founder of the Josephites and Director of Education, encouraged Mary to adopt the scheme developed in England in 1846 by Sir James Kay Shuttleworth.

Shuttleworth’s methods were based on the German- Swiss educator Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s devised a theory and method of instruction based on the natural development of the child. Pestalozzi’s teachers ended up becoming facilitators or guides who would steer the learning process of his or her students. This can be seen in the Josephite’s monitoring system which encouraged students to be assistants to the sisters in various roles.

What Pestalozzi tried most of all to do was to get children to use their senses and their minds, to look carefully, to count, to observe, to think over what they had seen and be able to answer questions, because they had observed carefully and reasoned clearly. In other words, they were taught to be logical and rational thinkers. One the biggest influences, apart from Pestalozzi’s concern for the poor children, was encouragement of hands-on activities for visual learners, so that education should not only be about knowing, it is also about knowing how to be and knowing what to do; much like Mary’s education system for teaching students of the next generation, skills for life.

Mary’s spirituality of compassion, was within her from an early age and comes to the forefront through her drive to establish a school system for all children, especially the poor who would not otherwise be able to access education.

The curriculum was precisely set out for all year groups contained reading, writing, spelling, parse and simple sums. Each year group advanced over the years to include the rudiments of geography, history, algebra, geometry, mensuration, natural philosophy, book-keeping, drawing and vocal music and girls were taught needlework. To achieve her end, Mary drew up a timetable with Catholic foundations to be practiced every day. Each day was different for the students and Mary discouraged and advised strongly against rote learning techniques. The methodologies were incorporated to engage students in the curriculum. For example, viva voce and reading aloud, provided students opportunities to practice skills they would use in life.

Mary encouraged the sisters to develop a compassionate approach to their students by developing positive relationships with family and school and to treat all students the same, fee or non- fee paying. Mary, herself, made the effort to be present at as many of the schools as possible. She made it her concern to view the student’s record of achievements and encouraged the sisters to be role models, first to arrive and last to leave.

With her foundations deeply rooted in liberation theology she rose to the challenge of the cries from the poor and oppressed and tried to ‘never see a need without doing something about it’ to lessen the gap between the rich and poor. Mary MacKillop’s agenda was practical action for change; she lived out her faith in a way that had to make a difference.

As a practical mystic she firmly believed that a teacher could make a real difference to the end story, regardless of its beginnings and she never forgot that the most fundamental feature of all successful teaching was in the degree of care, compassion and inclusiveness extended to the students.

It is no wonder that Mary’s educational system incorporated elements from Europe, as in a young country it was necessary to look to more developed cultures and take what was successful in their practise, while adapting them to a different environment. Mary, like Pestalozzi and Shuttleworth, placed emphasis on the importance of quality pedagogy which engaged the child and taught them knowledge, skills and understanding of the foundations of education, which provided enough to obtain employment and be a contributing independent citizen. The only issue that arises when comparing the educational movements is the location of where it is being delivered. The remoteness and harshness of the Australian landscape presented a range of obstacle which were not present abroad. The methodology developed through her thorough education system provided dignity and worth to all regardless of circumstances or location. This reveals Mary MacKillop’s spirituality was based on compassion and liberation for all, through putting faith into action which was at the heart of her life and work. Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop is one strong and determined woman who we owe much respect for, without her courage Australia would not be the same country as it is today.

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