Sister Mary MacKillop
Penola is one of the oldest towns in south-east South Australia, some 5 hours drive from Adelaide. Although the population is tiny (1,400), the town has become famous for its association with Mary MacKillop (1842-1909), a nun who in 1866 established Australia's first school to cater for all children, regardless of their family's income or religion.
Why does Penola in particular celebrate the MacKillop connection and not Melbourne (where Mary was born and raised), Portland (where she worked as a teacher) or Sydney (where she died)? Penola was the place where Mary, in conjunction with Father Julian Tenison Woods (1832–89), founded the Josephites in 1866, the first religious order to be established by an Australian. Father Woods wanted the Sisters of St Joseph to teach in rural Catholic schools.
A new stone building, St Joseph’s schoolhouse, was commissioned in 1866 by Father Woods. He had arranged a building loan through a local bank with parishioners putting their own names on the loan. One local parent designed the building; tenders were called; and a local builder got the nod. Too soon Father Woods had to leave Penola for the state capital, to become the inaugural Director-General of Catholic Education in Adelaide. Mary MacKillop remained to oversee the building programme.
In December 1869, MacKillop and several other nuns travelled to Brisbane to establish the order in Queensland. The Josephite Congregation expanded rapidly and, by 1871, 130 nuns were working in more than 40 schools and charitable institutions in both states (South Australia and Queensland). In 1872, Mary travelled to Rome to have the Sisters of St Joseph officially approved. While in Europe, Mary visited many schools; she was keen to study their teaching techniques.
When the new St Joseph's School opened in Penola 1936, the old schoolhouse became a parish hall. In 1989, following a lengthy restoration process, it was rededicated as the Woods-MacKillop Schoolhouse by Archbishop Faulkner.
Brendan Shanahan suggested that the Josephites appealed to Australians because they were pragmatic. The Josephites were a specifically Australian response to specifically Australian conditions. They moved independently, free of the bishops in distant Adelaide, and were given a fair bit of personal flexibility. It is no surprise to the Josephites that Sister Mary MacKillop was beatified by Pope John Paul II in 1995. Last year (2010) she was canonised by the Vatican, making her the first Australian to be declared a saint – St Mary of the Cross.
Although this post has been about Penola (in South Australia), I need to mention another important site. Since 1995 there has been a hotel called Mary MacKillop Place in North Sydney (in New South Wales) where guests can walk the journey of her life in the Museum and celebrate Mass in the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel. The chapel itself is quite historic since it was built in 1913 in memory of the nun who had died in 1909 in the nearby Josephite convent of North Sydney.
The chapel’s stained glass windows were installed in the Memorial Chapel in 1913 in memory of Father Julian Tenison Woods, co-founder of the Sisters of St Joseph. Mary's remains were placed in the tomb next to the altar in 1993.