PENOLA, Australia — Mary MacKillop’s path to sainthood included an unlikely hurdle: excommunication.
As a young nun, Sister Mary — canonized as Australia’s first saint Sunday at the Vatican and now known as St. Mary of the Cross — was briefly dismissed from the Catholic Church in a clash with high clergy in 1871.
A catalyst for the censure strikes a familiar note: Her order exposed a pedophile priest. The scandal came to the forefront in a recent documentary.
The nun did not report the abuse, but as co-founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, she was the scapegoat, the Rev. Paul Gardiner said. Priests were “annoyed that somebody had uncovered it ... and being so angry, the destruction of the Josephites was decided on,” said Father Gardiner of the Mary Mac Killop Penola Center, a historic site.
The exposure of the priest was one of many factors that led to her excommunication, the Sisters of St. Joseph said. She and 47 other nuns were thrown onto the streets, relying on charity. Five months later, the bishop revoked his ruling, restoring her to her order and paving the way for her decades of work educating the poor.
Sister Mary grew up in poverty, the first of eight children. By 16, she was the breadwinner; at 18, she moved from Melbourne to tiny Penola to become governess for her cousins.
In Penola, she began teaching, inviting the poor and Aborigines to attend classes in a stable. In 1867, she began teaching in a stone schoolhouse, which still stands at the state historic site.
That year, she took her vows. She co-founded her order to serve the poor, the sick, and the disadvantaged.
“Her teaching, her life, and devotion to God started here,” said Michael Black, 70. His ancestors settled in Penola in 1857, and he said some were taught by her.
Sister Mary traveled extensively in Australia and New Zealand, setting up schools and expanding her order, known as the “Brown Joeys,” for the color of their habits and the term for a baby kangaroo. Today, 850 Josephite nuns are in seven countries.
After her 1909 death, requests for blessings in her name prompted supporters to begin pushing for sainthood.
Five other people were canonized Sunday, including two Italians and one each from Canada, Poland, and Spain.