Australia gets its first saint - and she's a rebel

Pope approves nun who cured cancer patients and is now on Twitter

It has taken nearly a century, but Australia is to get its first saint at last: Mary MacKillop, a 19th-century nun who spent her life helping impoverished children, and whose rebellious streak saw her briefly excommunicated from the Catholic Church.

A teacher and social reformer, MacKillop founded a religious order at 24, and by the time of her death led 750 nuns who ran 117 schools, as well as orphanages, clinics and refuges for the needy. The work of her order, the Sisters of St Joseph, now extends to Thailand, Brazil, Peru and Uganda.

Her canonisation had been widely anticipated after the Vatican credited her with a second miracle last December: the healing in 1993 of 66-year-old Kathleen Evans, who had been diagnosed with incurable lung and brain cancer. The first, declared in 1961, involved the curing of a woman with terminal leukaemia, who, like Ms Evans, had prayed to MacKillop.

After a meeting of cardinals at the Vatican yesterday, Pope Benedict XVI announced that she will be canonised on 17 October. The announcement was welcomed by members of her order, and by Australian Catholics, some of whom prayed yesterday at her tomb in Sydney.

MacKillop's pioneering work included setting up schools in remote inland areas, educating women and helping the poor and the destitute. Her congregation broke with tradition by drawing its members from the working classes, allowing its nuns to move around openly in public places, and refusing to allow local priests to manage its affairs.

Her clashes with the Church, and her egalitarian approach to her work, have led to her being called the "people's saint". She challenged orthodox thinking within the male-dominated Church, and in 1871 she was excommunicated for four months for alleged insubordination.

Nowadays MacKillop – credited with helping to spread Roman Catholicism in Australia and New Zealand – has a Facebook page, and an order member, Sister Annette Arnold, posts tweets on her behalf.

Born in Melbourne to poor Scottish immigrants in 1842, MacKillop opened the first St Joseph's School in a disused stable in the town of Penola, in South Australia. She died in 1909 and passed the first stage to sainthood in 1995 when she was beatified by Pope John Paul II.

Ms Evans said last month that she had prayed constantly to MacKillop and worn a relic containing a piece of her clothing after being told she had only months to live. Ten months later, doctors informed her that her tumours had disappeared. Her medical records, she said, were closely scrutinised: "There were quite a few that examined me, but I didn't have any treatment, so there was no explanation." Ms Evans added: "I do believe in miracles."

Sister Maria Casey, of the Sisters of St Joseph, who was in Rome for yesterday's announcement, said: "Today it has been recognised that a woman can become a saint in the Australian environment, with all its complexities and challenges."

After being welcomed back into the Church and exonerated of wrongdoing, MacKillop sought the approval of Pope Pius IX to continue with her work. The campaign to have her canonised began in 1926, with the first official application made for her beatification in 1961.

Holy tweets : St Mary on the web

*1:34PM 31 December: Happy New Year. I think 2010 will be a BIG one for us all ... remember today. Gratitude is the memory of the heart.

*5:03AM 15 January: My birthday today ... if I were still on earth I would be 168 years old! God is good and has done wonders!

*1:4(12A)M 31 January: Let no obstacle deter us from proceeding with courage.

*12:53AM 1 February: and perplexities form part of my life but I am learning to look upon them as God wishes and so am happy.

*10:23AM 3 February: I will have a brand new website VERY soon ... keep posted for its launch!

*11:39 PM 18 February: Pray that God's holy will be done, whether it be in accordance with our wishes or not.

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