4. Mary MacKillop Travels Victoria

Mary Wickham rsm

I have in front of me five pages typed up from the 1891 travel diary of Mary MacKillop. Perhaps ‘notes’ or ‘jottings’ would be a better description. Most entries are simply records of people met, details of money spent and donations received. The writer is not so much concerned with personal revelations as with keeping a brief account of activities. Her extensive and hectic schedule had a dual purpose; to visit the children who had been placed in foster homes from the orphanage at Surrey Hills which had been founded the previous year, and to beg for donations to help the Hone’s struggling finances.

It is doubtful whether Mary MacKillop expected her diary to be read one hundred and one years after she wrote it, just as it is doubtful whether we can really appreciate what such a journey meant in the age of horse and buggy and steam-train. In the winter of 1891 Mary and her companion, Sr Margaret Mary, traversed the colony of Victoria. Setting out on July 20, she spent time at Ballarat, Camperdown, Mortlake, Geelong, Maryborough, St Arnaud, Dunnolly, Llanelly, Charter, Korong Vale, Wycheproof, Sandhurst (Bendigo), Pyramid Hill and Echuca. The account ends on August 6.

What is fascinating about this little travelogue is that despite the telegraphic and business-like tone which predominates, there are little flashes of colour here and there, and several extended anecdotes, which reveal a great deal about Mary. Her writing is free of the inevitable reserve one would find in a circular, and is not concerned with the decorum of nineteenth century letter writing. In these few pages Mary MacKillop wrote with a vivid and unadorned immediacy. We gain a fascinating insight into the human being who was a saintly human being. Here, straight off the page, we hear her, and her own words bring her to life.

The Mary MacKillop who made this physically demanding journey was in her fiftieth year, and her health was to deteriorate rapidly in the following years. The second entry in the diary, made in Ballarat, reminds us that she already suffered the vagaries of ill-health, the wary understatement making the reader more conscious of the reality. ‘Did not feel well; was glad of a rest.’ She and her companion spent considerable time at railway stations waiting for connections. Several times she mentions being caught in a heavy shower, and the difficulties involved in getting from place to place. Yet the woman whose bones presumably ached sufficiently for her to comment, ‘we had some very rough driving about Eagle Hawk and Myers Flat’, still had enough of the keen horsewoman of her youth to revel in a contrasting experience, ‘after a splendid drive of sixteen miles with a pair of quick horses, arrived at Mrs Cameron’s.’ There is a zestful glint in her eye there.

Mention of Mrs Cameron leads us to consider some of the people Mary met during her trip. From the pages of the diary one has the overwhelming sense that she loved people – not in some abstract or pious way, but that she was a tremendously sociable person. She was interested in people; she enjoyed a good chat, an entertaining story, a laugh. She was deeply compassionate and considerate. The diary entry of July 28 is an example. Arriving at St Arnaud station they are met by a Mary Gormly. Mary MacKillop writes that this lady is a niece of a Mrs P Jennings, and that she has an elderly mother, ‘a dear old lady’, whose sister is Sr Patrick. A few days later she writes to a Sr Patrick, presumable the same one. There is genuine gladness in her tone that she met both Mrs Gormly and her mother.

Later in the evening Mrs Gormly is responsible for the meal at the presbytery, which was quite a fathering, including four priests. The little asides reveal much about Mary MacKillop: ‘Fr Scanlan was excellent company. He has a most extraordinary manner of laughing.’ The next day it is Fr Scanlan’s driver Jim, ‘a comical character’, who takes them on that earlier mentioned ‘splendid drive’. Excellent company, good humour, these makes the experience a lively one.

Throughout the diary she lists the donations she received on her begging mission. In one place, though, she also records a one shilling expense she incurred for charity at Sandhurst (Bendigo) Railway Station. She came to beg, she did not hesitate to give to a beggar. A shilling and sixpence had purchased tea and sandwiches for her and Sr Margaret Mary during their long wait at the station. One imagines that their long wait was fortunate for the recipient of the shilling.

Mary MacKillop was kind, but she was also, to use the Scots word, canny. She possessed a certain native shrewdness and did not like being taken advantage of, as the following incident makes clear:

Father Costello came to see us off – paid for the cab. Man met us at Wycheproof; drove to the child’s home … then drove back to the station. Though I am sure Fr Costello paid for this cab, the man took two shillings from me when I asked him his fare.

It becomes apparent in reading Mary’s account of her travels just what solidarity there was amongst the Catholic community of early Victoria. It was a Catholic community with a distinctly Celtic identity, and its strength had grown out of its oppressed circumstances in Ireland and Scotland. In the new colony it had had to call on that strength oo, and it had depended on loyalty and sacrifice. Mary MacKillop’s diary mentions the various priests and bishops whom she met. She depended on the hospitality of her Loreto Sisters in Ballarat, the Mercies in Sandhurst, and the homes of lay people in other towns. There is a sense of comradeship and co-operation in the way she writes of all this.

More particularly, though, it is clear that the Australian-born founder of the Sisters of St Joseph was the daughter of Scottish highlanders, and that she knew, loved and felt at home with her own kind – there are Camerons, McGregors, McManuses, McCulloghs, as well as numerous Irish names. It is clear too that to some of these people their guest might be Mother Mary of the Cross, but in this context she was the eldest child of Flora and Alexander MacKillop. Her meeting with Fr Scanlan in St Arnaud seems to imply this:

Fr Scanlan was sorely puzzled about me for a while, not knowing my secular name, but when he understood it remembered me well and was most kind all through. He made many enquiries for friends ….

Of her visit to Dalyenong, the property of Mrs Ewen Cameron she writes:

…the surprise and delight of the old lady were something worth going for. Remained all night, and talked much of old times and friends departed.

One senses it was not only the old lady who experienced delight!

As already indicated, Mary MacKillop was grateful for the kind hospitality offered to her throughout this trip. Such hospitality she cannot repay, but she does respond in practical and meaningful fashion. For instance, their hostess at Maryborough was a Mrs O’Sullivan, who provided a ‘fine dinner’. The diary of several days later reads:

Started at 6.00 am for Llannelly and here we broke the journey to see the invalid mother of Mrs O’Sullivan who had been so kind to us at Maryborough.

This was not a planned or necessary detour: it is the middle of winter, but it is a stop made in kindness to the woman who was no doubt anxious now and then about her mother, too far away to visit frequently.

It may not have been a necessary stopover, but it certainly turns out to be a memorable one, best quoted at length:

Mrs McGregor was delighted and rounded up her husband, a Presbyterian, to see the Scotch nun. Mr Mac and I had a warm discussion upon religion and he promised to study ‘Catholic Belief’ and not remain one day a Presbyterian if he could only believe as we did. He also sincerely promised to pray for light to know the truth. I am sure he means well, and will die a Catholic. His daughter, Ada, played and sang some Scotch music with much spirit. The old man was delighted but surprised to meet a Scotch nun. Miss McGregor accompanied us to Inglewood that afternoon. Her mother gave me 10 shillings regretting it was not more.

The gentle earnestness and humour of her tone here are very endearing. She manages to convey a vivid picture of the household and the dynamic at work between the protagonists: the old lady’s joy; the donation which was probably more than she could afford, and partly given in gratitude for the discussion between the nun and her husband; the daughter’s spirited singing; just the hint of initial reluctance in the fact that the husband has to be ‘rounded up’; the ensuing ‘warm discussion’ and the guest presented to him as the ‘Scotch nun’.

The twice-repeated use of that adjective leads one to wonder whether Mary MacKillop had a Scottish lilt as well as a Scottish name. Interestingly, it is a description she does not reject or even parody. Here is a Mary MacKillop who loves the music and songs of her people; who feels sufficiently at home with these strangers to engage in what is clearly a two-sided ‘warm discussion’, with all the passion and rhetoric that implies. One gets the sense that Mr McGregor here met his match! There is however, no sense of rancour or bigotry: she respects his stance as a response to his own conscience, and the implicit understanding is that he must respect his conscience. Both parties are satisfied by the man’s promise to pray to know the truth. Their discussion, despite its potential divisiveness, seems to lead them to mutual admiration, indeed a fond familiarity: one fancies it is not merely an abbreviation Mary employs in calling the old man ‘Mr Mac’. One has the sense that ‘the Scotch nun’ has found a fond place in the family’s heart, and that Mary MacKillop would not easily forget their either, in what was a chance encounter which grew out of the returning of one woman’s kindness to another.

Several times in the diary, Mary mentions the parish churches she visited. She appears to have definite opinions about what is aesthetically pleasing or otherwise, again not something we might normally associate with her. Her comments seem, though, to be motivated by concern for how the building would enhance or detract from worship, so she is more concerned with devotion that with aesthetics per se. The Mortlake church she succinctly sums up as ‘not very nice’. The Charlton church she describes as ‘a wooden church, very cold, wind blowing up through the flooring boards, but otherwise clean…’ At Maryborough she had a more congenial experience:

Afterwards (Fr Lemire) showed us the Church and all his treasures. Everything in beautiful order, the church so clean, altar so nice …

There are many other comments one could make about the diary and the glimpses it gives of us the woman who will be called Australia’s first saint. What we read of her during that two weeks or so in the winter of 1891 can only affirm her humanity and her holiness. It also strengthens our sense of her as a saint whom we can invoke with trust, confidence and great love, believing that her life as a saint is the fulfilment of all the love of people, kindness, compassion, understanding and humour that she possessed during her life as an Australian of Scottish background.

First published in Madonna magazine.