McKillop, Mary

Date of Birth/Death:


Mary MacKillop was only 27 when she visited Willunga in 1869. She had taken the name of Mary of the Cross after indicating her intention to live the religious life three years previously. The parishioners of Willunga had worked unsuccessfully to establish a Catholic school in the town, but it was with the help of the newly formed Catholic Education Council that the purpose built St Joseph’s Catholic schoolroom was erected and opened in 1868. The Council, whose Director General was Father Julian Tenison Woods, relied on Mary and her small group of Sisters of Saint Joseph to staff the new school. At a time when there were only 10 Sisters of St Joseph in the Institute, Sr Agatha Nolan, Sr John Baptist Fitzgerald and, later, Sr Laurence O’Brien came to Willunga to establish the school. Knowing from her own experience that the nuns’ situation could be trying, Mary was anxious for her sisters in such isolated schools but, as Fr Dowling recollected in 1909, ”they had ever the kind heart of Mother Mary to turn to for encouragement…..Mother Mary told me how anxious she was for the comfort of the sisters, working so hard and bearing so little”(The Advertiser, 1909) Sr Tersa Eichoff’s letter to Mary MacKillop from Willunga in 1881 certainly illustrates their loving sisterhood…”Fr Esser is very sick. I think he has lumbago. Do you know a cure for it?” (Jackson, 1968) Mary told her mother that the events surrounding her excommunication by Bishop Shiel in 1871 ”had made her much older in many things.” She believed that ”they have strengthened me for still weightier cares than I have yet had.” (Modystack 2011) During this 5 month period, the nuns were not allowed to wear their habits. It is not clear whether they continued to teach at the Willunga school or not. As Mary travelled to Willunga in 1872, Father Peter Hughes, the Parish Priest, was sent by Bishop Shiel to meet her and lift this censure of excommunication. He met her at Morphett Vale and absolved her in the Catholic church there. Bishop Shiel died in the Willunga Presbytery a week later, having lived there since early 1871.

In 1882 the school in Willunga closed, and the remaining St Joseph’s children moved to the new Willunga Public School. It is recounted in Willunga even today that, when Mary visited Willunga, she often came by boat to Port Willunga, where people would wait on the steps for her arrival. Her visits to the area would also include a trip to the school at Yankalilla. It is possible that she stayed in the house at 16 St George’s Street, which was bought for the nuns in 1869. Mary MacKillop is the first Australian saint. She is known as Saint Mary of the Cross.


1909 The Advertiser, 8 September, p. 9. , viewed 28 Jan 2024,

Jackson, K, 1986, St Josephs Old School, Willunga 1868-1882

Modystack, W, 2011, Mary MacKillop : a woman before her time 2nd ed. Chatswood, N.S.W. : New Holland, p14.

Julian Tenison Woods, quoted in Gardiner P, 2015, The Life of St Mary of the Cross, Mary MacKillop: 1842- 1909, vol. 1 Carlton: Miegunyah Press, 95.

Bickerton, I J, 2006, Laurance Bonaventure Sheil (1812-01872) Australian Dictionary of Biography

Parry, M E, 2013, Jean Baptiste Francois Pompallier, Thomas Arnold and Julian Edmund Tenison Woods and Their Contribution to the Formation and Development of Catholic Schooling in Australasia, Division of Research and Commercialisation Queensland University of Technology.

Search Our Web Pages