She could be the patron saint of people who have some cringing disagreements with their institutional churches. Her father’s financial failures meant the loss of many childhood homes, and constant moving with her 7 siblings. But at least he educated the children. At 14, Mary went to work to help support the family. With two of her sisters, she eventually started a school in a Penole stable. (Cue “Away in a Manger”?)
When in 1867, Mary founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, their school was revolutionary for admitting both paying and non-paying students. She was the first religious sister outside the cities, and first to educate children in far-flung regions. With characteristic humor, the Australians called the nuns the “Brown Joeys,” after the color of their habit.
Then the story gets really interesting. The audacity of the congregation being directed by an elected mother general, rather than the local bishop caused predictable grumbling among Australian hierarchs. Worsening the situation, the sisters lived in the community, not in convents—Mary even consulted a neighbor about the fish she was trying to cook, which crumbled. Not the way nuns did things! When Mary and her sisters reported a priest who’d sexually abused children, the tension with Australian bishops hit a peak: for a time they excommunicated her. (A diorama in Sydney shows the bishop railing at her and kicking her dramatically out on the streets.) The country people supported the sisters, and Mary named those who caused this suffering her “most powerful benefactors.” From a remote corner of the Australian outback, she tapped an insight known to the world’s wisdom traditions: we sometimes learn more from our “enemies” than our friends.
While the bishops’ names are mercifully forgotten, Mary became Australia’s first canonized saint in 2010. The Harbor Bridge in Sydney bore her name in lights, and Australians at the Vatican belted out their raucous Olympic cheer, “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!”
For more about Mary and other creative upstarts, see:
Blessed Among Us: Day by Day with Saintly Witnesses by Robert Ellsberg GUTD.net/BAU for more about the book and a 20% off introductory offer.