Outback nun becomes Australia's first saint

It's a chant usually reserved for sporting heroes, but the Australian pilgrims gathered in St Peter's Square could not help themselves. "Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi!" they yelled, as a 19th-century outback nun with a rebellious streak was canonised by the Pope yesterday, becoming the country's first saint.

Similar scenes of elation were seen at the Sydney chapel where Mary MacKillop lies buried, at festivities in Melbourne, where she was born, and in the South Australian town of Penola, where she opened her first school in a disused stable.

The daughter of Scottish immigrants, St Mary founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, and devoted her life to helping the poor, the sick and the disadvantaged, mainly through education. Unusually for a saint, she was also briefly excommunicated – for exposing a paedophile priest, more than a century before the Roman Catholic Church became engulfed in child sex-abuse scandals.

Tens of thousands of Australians travelled to Rome to attend yesterday's Mass, where Pope Benedict XVI canonised MacKillop and five other saints: two from Italy, one from Spain, one from Canada and one from Poland. All have been credited by the Vatican with performing two miracles.

MacKillop – now Saint Mary MacKillop of the Cross – is said to have healed two women with terminal cancer. But the usually sceptical and secular Australian media have uncovered other "miraculous" recoveries attributed to her intercession. Indeed, the country has been gripped by "Mary-mania", a part-religious, part-nationalist, part-media frenzy, in the lead-up to yesterday's ceremony.

A café in Penola has been serving up "Mary MacScallops", and images of the nun have been projected nightly on to the pylons of the Sydney Harbour Bridge. A musical about her life has been playing to packed houses, and MacKillop merchandise – including mugs, key rings and bumper stickers – has been flying off the shelves of a museum near her tomb.

In Rome, the Australian pilgrims cheered and waved flags and balloons as the Pope praised their compatriot for her "courageous and saintly example of zeal, perseverance and prayer".

Born in 1842, St Mary – an independent-minded woman who regularly clashed with the Church hierarchy – was only 24 when she founded her religious order. By the time of her death in 1909, she led 750 nuns who ran a network of schools, orphanages, clinics and refuges. Today the work of the Sisters of St Joseph extends to Thailand, Brazil, Peru and Uganda.

Pope Benedict praised St Mary for the way "she dedicated herself as a young woman to the education of the poor in the difficult and demanding terrain of rural Australia". He did not mention her role in exposing the sexual abuse of a boy by an Irish priest, which – according to documents recently uncovered in Australia – was one reason she was banished from the Church for four months in 1871.

Some Church activists have called on the Vatican to declare her the patron saint of victims of priestly child abuse. One prominent Catholic commentator, the Rev James Martin, wrote recently in an American Jesuit journal that "only recently has the Church begun to see whistleblowers as necessary – and holy".

Although only one-quarter of Australians are Catholic, many others – even some atheists – have swelled with national pride thanks to MacKillop's canonisation. "True blue saint" declared The Sunday Telegraph, on the front of an eight-page supplement. Many Australians spent yesterday evening watching live broadcasts of the Vatican ceremony at home or gathered at sites such as Sydney's St Mary's Cathedral to follow it on giant screens.

In recent weeks, a Mary MacKillop stamp has been issued, a gold coin has been minted and a pop song ("In Mary's Hands", by Mike Brady) has been released. She has had a park, a rose and an electoral district named after her. Her fans have been following her on Facebook and Twitter, where the Josephite Sisters post her musings.

St Mary, who cared for Aboriginal children in South Australia, is also revered by indigenous Australians, many of whom are Catholic. Red, black and yellow Aboriginal flags were among those waved in St Peter's Square.

Vicki Clark, the co-ordinator of Melbourne's Aboriginal Catholic Ministry, led a group of indigenous Catholics to Rome. "Mary's really the spirit and the soul of many of us," she said. "She's been walking on our country for a long time."

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