Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Just because someone's excommunicated doesn't mean she's the bad guy

Today is the memorial of Blessed Mary MacKillop, one of that exclusive club of excommunicated saints. Yes, sometimes the Good Guys run afoul of their badly mistaken bishops or a particularly foul glob of church-politics....

picture of Blessed Mary MacKillop

Mary was the eldest child of poor Scottish immigrants to Australia, but she was well-educated, mostly by her father who had been a seminarian back in Scotland. To help support her family, she became a schoolteacher, teaching in the local state school and also running a small private school in the family home. She couldn't answer her call to religious life because her family needed her income. But eventually, a scandal caused by a corrupt school board official gave her an excuse to leave her teaching job in the state school without alienating her family.

Mary moved to a town called Penola; there she met a supportive priest and opened a free Catholic school for the poor. This school was the beginnings of the first religious order in Australia, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, with a community charism to educate poor children in remote areas. Her order grew, and soon had 17 free Catholic schools under her care.

Her independence, her preferential care for the poor, and her insistence on the human rights of the Aborigines aggravated her bishop, who ordered her to turn over the order and the schools to him so he could turn them into proper tuition-paying schools for the deserving well-to-do. She couldn't do that, and was excommunicated in 1871. Mary prayed and patiently put up with the situation, refusing to let it separate her from God or God's beloved poor. About a year and a half later, the bishop repented, apologized, and restored her to communion.

Mary spent the rest of her life travelling from house to house of her growing community, working for the education of the poor and the rights of the Aboriginal people, until her death in 1909.

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