Australian Saint's roots run to Nova Scotia

  • October 14, 2010
Blessed Mary MacKillopTORONTO - When Blessed Mary MacKillop is canonized Oct. 17 by Pope Benedict XVI, her life and good works will not only be commemorated in her homeland of Australia. Canadian relatives will celebrate the occasion with joy and prayer for a rebellious saint with family ties to Nova Scotia.

At the Holy Redeemer Convent in Sydney, N.S., a special Mass in honour of  Australia’s first saint will be attended by her distant cousin, Sr. Margaret MacKillop, of the Congregation of Notre Dame. MacKillop, 96, says she’s overjoyed to have a saint in the family.

The MacKillop link to Atlantic Canada spans many generations. Sr. Margaret’s paternal nephew, James MacKillop, says the MacKillops were from the devoutly Catholic Lochaber region in Scotland and many of the clan emigrated to Canada to escape religious persecution.

Seventeenth-century Scotland was mainly Calvinist, but there were pockets of Catholic Jacobites, mainly in the Highlands, who sought a return of the Catholic House of Stuart to the throne.

“The local church was attacked and regularly vandalized by Protestants nearby,” said James MacKillop, Mary’s “first cousin, six times removed.”

The Jacobites supported King James VII of Scotland and II of Britain, who fled in 1688 after being deposed by William of Orange. The Catholic MacKillops supported King James and the Jacobite rebellions, leading to persecution, hardship and widescale emigration to Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries, largely to Cape Breton and other areas of Nova Scotia.

James MacKillop, whose parents were born in Cape Breton but moved to Michigan before James was born, discovered his ties to St. Mary MacKillop while reading A Search for Alexander MacKillop, a book about Mary’s father.

Alexander’s branch of the family hadn’t joined the exodus to Canada but remained in Scotland until 1838, when he emigrated to Australia. Mary was born there in 1842. Lineage charts in the book led James to the familial connection and discovery that his distant cousin was on a path to sainthood.

A professor at Syracuse University in New York, James said he wasn’t surprised that Mary, who founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, was to be canonized. “She’s a public figure in Australia,” he said.

He says his Nova Scotian aunt, Sr. Margaret, has recounted the story of visiting Australia about 13 years ago and having people kiss her hand and wanting to speak with her because of her relation to Mary MacKillop.

In academic circles, James MacKillop said Mary is known for her promotion of women’s rights, particularly support for the right of single women to enter the work force.

To some, that made her ahead of her time.

She was briefly excommunicated by a local bishop in 1871 because her Sisters of St. Joseph refused to abandon missionary work in the Australian outback, where they schooled the children of poor farmers, miners and labourers.

She is widely regarded as the mother of Catholic education in Australia.

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