John is currently the head of campus at Xavier College where Mary MacKillop is immortalised in the name of one of its buildings.
Born in the small NSW town of Trangie, John said his father Bryan, who died five years ago, had often spoken of the importance of the McKillop-Cameron partnership and of the parallels between their NSW story and that of their distant pioneering southern cousins.
This family’s broad connection to the inspirational story of Mary MacKillop was uncovered by Bryan in Robert F McKillop’s book Into the Golden West, which deals mainly with the story of Duncan McKillop, the brother of Mary’s father Alexander, who settled in Buddah.
Duncan, 23, arrived in Australia in 1839 with his Scottish Catholic family (excluding Alexander who had arrived a few years earlier) and married Protestant Ann McKay. They were publicans at the Bush Inn at Summerhill near Bathurst before saving enough money to become successful pastoralists in the Wellington and Dubbo districts.
Alexander meanwhile was living and working in Melbourne where he married fellow Scottish immigrant Flora MacDonald after a ‘whirlwind romance’, according to Robert F McKillop.
The couple had six children, the eldest being Mary, who bore the brunt of Alexander’s failure to provide for his family. She became the ‘bread winner’ by gaining a position as a nursery governess in Richmond during 1856 and ‘sent every penny she earned to her mother’, according to McKillop.
Late in 1859 Mary was offered a position with the stationers and paper merchant, Sands and Kenny in Collins Street, Melbourne.
In the meantime another Scottish Highlands new settler, Alexander (Sandy) Cameron, had moved his family from NSW to Penola in 1848 and his Royal Oak Hotel was doing a roaring trade as immigrants passed through to the Victorian goldfields.
“Under Alexander’s leadership, Penola became a centre for Scottish Highlander Catholics,” writes McKillop.
Fr Julian Tenison Woods was appointed as parish priest of Penola in March 1857 and laid the foundation stone for the town’s small timber St Joseph’s Church the following year.
By 1860 the Cameron family consisted of five daughters and two sons. Although a Catholic school had been established in Penola in 1855, the affluent Cameron family could afford a live-in governess for their children and employed Caroline Kane, who had been Mary MacKillop’s teacher in Melbourne.
When Miss Kane departed for Adelaide, Margaret Cameron asked her niece Mary to take on the role in 1861. She spent only a year there before returning to Melbourne, as the children outgrew the need for a governess, but a defining event was meeting Fr Woods while at Penola.
After a few years as a teacher at the Portland Catholic School in NSW Mary, at the invitation of Fr Woods, returned to Penola in September 1865 to establish a Catholic school.
A second link between the McKillop and Cameron families was forged through the establishment of an extensive property partnership between them which involved the purchase of a number of large sheep stations.
One of the largest properties which fell under the partnership was Buddah Lake Station which had extensive picturesque river frontage along the meandering Macquarie River on the outskirts of Narromine.
John Cameron said Mary MacKillop’s pioneering spirit and unwavering determination had inspired his work as a Catholic educator and his passion for working with students at the margins.
“Mary’s deep commitment to her faith and her vision for education has left a lasting legacy on the way Catholic faith-centred learning communities have been shaped and the way in which they continue to thrive throughout South Australia and beyond,” he said.
“I have always been drawn to Mary’s extensive writings and her inspirational quotes, my favorite being, ‘we must teach more by example than by word’.
“My own lived experience of Catholic education has been a truly transformational one. Each of my four children Antony, Dominic, Amelia and Jacob have all had their lives enriched through their Catholic education.
“My wife Sandra has taught in Catholic schools and I have been blessed to have worked across four different communities in the Catholic sector in both single sex schools as well as metropolitan and regional.”
Footnote: the name MacKillop has been spelt McKillop by some members of the family over the years.
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