Mary MacKillop, c. 1869. Image in public domain.

Mary MacKillop at Adderton

Today is the the Feast Day of Saint Mary of the Cross (MacKillop), who, like Catherine McAuley, devoted her life to the causes of poverty and education. To celebrate Mary MacKillop’s life and achievements, today we share an insight into Mary’s connection to the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation, and her time spent in Queensland in the 1870s. 

When Mary MacKillop arrived in Brisbane with six Sisters of Saint Joseph on 31 December 1869, she spent her first two weeks in Queensland residing at the All Hallows’ Convent. The 27-year old MacKillop had been invited to Brisbane by Bishop James Quinn to establish the Josephite order in Queensland. At that time, the Sisters of Mercy were the only religious order delivering education in the State. Bishop Quinn hoped that his invitation to the Sisters of Saint Joseph, and then to the Christian Brothers in the mid-1870s, would assist in the expansion of the State’s Catholic education system.

The Sisters at All Hallows’ Convent, then led by Mother Mary Bridget Conlan, welcomed the seven Josephite Sisters, despite the fact that MacKillop and Conlan did not share a personal rapport. MacKillop found Conlan to be ‘cold and aloof’. In her history of the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane, Sr Mary Xaverius O’Donoghue notes that the lack of friendship between these two leaders was ‘a pity’, since both women were facing a time of critical change in the development of Queensland Catholic Education.

By the time Mary MacKillop arrived in Brisbane at the beginning of 1870, the Sisters of Mercy had nearly ten years of experience dealing with Bishop Quinn’s leadership style. Quinn believed that the Mercy order should be under his control, and he and the Brisbane Congregation’s founder, Mother Vincent Whitty, disagreed over how the State’s Catholic schools should be run. In 1865, Bishop Quinn demoted Whitty from the position of Reverend Mother.

Mary MacKillop faced similar struggles during her ten years in Queensland. From their base in Kangaroo Point, the Sisters of St Joseph established 14 schools and an orphanage in the State, but their progress was disrupted by Quinn and MacKillop’s disagreements over matters of governance and autonomy. Bishop Quinn wanted all religious orders in his diocese to be under his jurisdiction, while Mackillop felt strongly that the Josephite Sisters throughout Australia should be managed centrally from Sydney. She refused to submit to his demands for control of her order and, in 1879, withdrew the Sisters of St Joseph from Queensland at the Bishop’s request. In 1880, the Sisters of Mercy took over teaching responsibilities at St Joseph’s School at Kangaroo Point.

The Sisters of St Joseph eventually returned to Queensland in 1900, nine years before Mary MacKillop’s death.  In a letter to the order Mary wrote, ‘I am glad to think the Sisters will be back in dear old Queensland, once more’.

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