In 1867, 24-year-old Mary MacKillop became the first professed sister and the first mother superior of a new order, the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart; she took the name Mother Mary of the Cross. Within a year, 30 Australian women had joined her. By 1869 there were 127 Sisters of St. Joseph operating 17 schools or other charitable institutions. And at the motherhouse three dozen novices were preparing to take their vows.

Quest for independence 

In the history of the religious orders of the Catholic Church we find many such success stories, but the Sisters of St. Joseph were different. Mother Mary and the order’s co-founder, Father Julian Tenison-Wood, a charismatic, imaginative priest of the Diocese of Adelaide, in Australia, wrote the sisters’ Rule of Life, which called for the independence of the sisters from local bishops; the nuns were to be governed by their mother superior, and if an issue could not be resolved within the order they would appeal to Rome.  

Such independence of action was virtually unheard of for nuns or laywomen in 19th-century society. A nun was expected to submit to the authority of her bishop just as a laywoman was expected to submit to authority of her husband or father. 

But the independence of the sisters was not really the point, from Mother Mary and Father Tenison-Wood’s perspective. Between 1850 and 1860 the population of Australia had tripled, and many of the immigrants were poor, illiterate, unskilled laborers. There were not enough hospitals to care for the sick, enough schools to educate the children, enough charitable institutions to shelter orphans and the elderly. The Sisters of St. Joseph would address all of these needs.

Excommunication 

Initially the bishop of Adelaide, Laurence Shiel, had given his approval to the new order, but by 1871 he had second thoughts. “Every convent will be under the control of the local pastor,” he wrote to Mother Mary. “No authority to appeal to except myself. There will be no Sister Guardian, no head but myself.” Sister Mary wrote back, “Such an arrangement would be quite opposed to the Rule. I could not in conscience remain under those changes.” 

Acting through an envoy, Bishop Shiel informed Mother Mary that she had been assigned to a distant convent. Mother Mary replied that she would not leave Adelaide until she had personally met with the bishop. 

The day after Mother Mary refused to leave, Bishop Shiel, accompanied by four priests, arrived unexpectedly at the convent and ordered the entire community to assemble. Once the sisters were all gathered together, Bishop Shiel, vested in cope and miter, crosier in his hand, called Mother Mary forward and commanded her to kneel. Then he said, “Sister Mary of the Cross, Superior of the Institute of St. Joseph, on account of your disobedience and rebellion, I pronounce on you the awful sentence of excommunication. You are now Mary MacKillop, free to return to the world, a large portion of the wickedness of which you have, I fear, brought with you into this Institute.” 

The sisters screamed and wept, but Mother Mary remained perfectly calm. Rising from her knees she walked out of the convent. In the days that followed, 47 of the 49 sisters of the Adelaide convent also left. Dressed as laywomen, they found shelter with friends. Meanwhile, sympathetic priests filed an appeal for Mother Mary with Rome. Five months later, as Bishop Sheil lay on his deathbed, he revoked the excommunication. 

(According to a Sept. 29, 2010, Religion News Service report, a new Australian documentary claims that Mother Mary wasn’t excommunicated just for insubordination, but also out of retaliation because she had denounced clergy sex abuse within the diocese, leading some to call her “the patron saint of whistle-blowers.” While the Sisters of St. Joseph said in a statement that the claims are “consistent with” previous accounts, Father Federico Lombardi, Vatican spokesman, told RNS that Mother Mary’s good works were “much more extensive than the fact that she denounced an abuser.”)

A visit to the pope 

To forestall any further conflicts with Australian bishops, Mother Mary went to Rome to secure authorization for her order’s self-government. She was granted a private audience with Blessed Pope Pius IX; the pope’s secretary introduced Mother Mary as she entered as “the excommunicated one” — which got the pope’s attention. By the end of their meeting, he had endorsed the independence of the Sisters of St. Joseph. 

Even with papal support, Mother Mary’s problems did not go away. Bishop Matthew Quinn of Bathurst, Australia, declared, “I will form my own subjects according to the necessities of my own diocese.” His brother, Bishop James Quinn of Brisbane, insisted that the St. Joseph Sisters must answer to him. Mother Mary countered by threatening to withdraw all of her nuns from his diocese. The bishop would not back down, so Mother Mary withdrew her nuns. 

In Adelaide, Bishop Sheil was succeeded by Bishop Christopher Reynolds, who sent priests to observe how the Rule was observed in the convent, interview selected sisters and investigate rumors that Mother Mary was an alcoholic. At the end, the bishop informed Mother Mary that he had received permission from authorities in Rome to ban her from the diocese. “I therefore notify your Maternity to prepare to leave ... as you no longer have the confidence of the sisterhood,” he announced. 

Further troubles 

Mother Mary went to her convent in Sydney, wrote to Rome and learned Bishop Reynolds had not been truthful — he had not received permission to ban her. 

In 1885, the bishops of Australia gathered at their annual meeting. One of the items on the agenda was compelling the Sisters of St. Joseph to submit to the authority of the local bishop. The motion passed by a vote of 14 to 3. Once again Mother Mary wrote to Rome requesting yet another confirmation of the Rule. 

In spite of conflicts with bishops, Mother Mary’s order flourished. At the time of her death there were 750 Sisters of St. Joseph in Australia and New Zealand, operating dozens of charitable institutions, and teaching 12,000 children. 

Thomas J. Craughwell is the author of OSV’s Catholic Cardlinks series and of “Saints Behaving Badly” (Doubleday, $15.95).

Rebellious Saints

St. Clare of Assisi (c. 1194-1253): In the 13th century, all religious orders owned farms, vineyards, mills, something to generate income to support the community. Clare insisted that her nuns must live a life of absolute poverty, relying entirely on gifts and donations. Pope after pope declared that such a rule was too harsh and refused to approve it. For 42 years Clare refused to mitigate the Franciscan ideal. Finally, in 1253, Pope Innocent IV came to Clare’s deathbed to present her personally with his approbation of the rule in all its rigor. 

St. Joan of Arc (1412-1431): At age 16 Joan, a peasant girl, cut her hair in the style of a man, dressed in men’s clothing and led armies into battle. She explained that she was commanded to do so by God, who spoke to her through St. Michael the Archangel, St. Catherine of Alexandria and St. Margaret of Antioch. At the start of her career she had been examined by a panel of churchmen and theologians who declared, “Nothing improper has been found in her, only good, humility, chastity, piety, propriety and simplicity.” Nonetheless, when Joan was captured by her enemies, they used her unconventional behavior against her and burned her as a witch and a heretic. 

St. Camillus de Lellis (1550-1614): A former mercenary, cardsharp and con man, Camillus had placed himself under the spiritual direction of St. Philip Neri. When he told Philip that he planned to open a hospital for the destitute in one of Rome’s worst neighborhoods, Philip objected. Camillus was too immature in the spiritual life, he said; surrounded by so many temptations, he would fall back into his old sins again. But Camillus rejected Philip’s advice. Camillus opened his hospital and did not fall back into a life of sin. Nonetheless, the disagreement broke Camillus and Philip’s friendship.