We were in a town aptly called Eden which is well known for its whaling history and, more recently, the bushfires that engulfed it in the summer of 2019/20.
As we approached the chapel we realised it was, in fact, a hall that had been converted into a museum in honour of the life and work of St Mary MacKillop and her Sisters.
We ventured into the lovingly restored building and with no staff or volunteers in sight, made our entry donation by credit card on the tap-and-go facility (a sign of the times).
Coming from Adelaide and having been closely involved in the canonisation of Australia’s first saint, I thought I was well versed in the Mary MacKillop story.
But watching a video produced by local parishioners, I quickly realised there was a lot that I didn’t know about Mary’s life and, in particular, her relationship with her mother, Flora.
It is well documented that Mary’s father, Scottish-born Alexander MacKillop, had an inglorious business career with a series of failed enterprises forcing Mary, the eldest of eight children, to provide for the family by working as a governess in Penola.
Alexander’s misadventures, which included travelling to New Zealand in search of gold (unsuccessfully), also placed a heavy burden on his wife who was frequently required to rely on the generosity of others to feed and clothe her family.
Flora’s life was marred by tragedy. Her father drowned in a tributary of the Yarra River in 1847 and six months later her baby son Alexander died. She saw four of her other children die as young adults.
Her close relationship with Mary is evident in the letters they frequently exchanged, and Flora would sometimes stay at one of the convents Mary established and meet the Sisters at the wharf when they came to Melbourne.
Such was her unconditional love for her daughter that she decided to take a steamer, the Ly-ee-moon, from Melbourne to Sydney to help Mary run a bazaar to raise funds for the Sisters’ works.
On May 30 1886, the steamer ran aground, broke up and sank off Green Cape. Of the 86 passengers and crew on board, 71 died and most of the remains were not able to be found due to the treacherous, shark-infested waters. But Flora’s largely unmarked body was recovered and taken to Eden where the local women cared for her corpse before it was taken to Sydney.
As the museum video explained, she was laid out in a room at the local hotel and the only item on her was a scapular.
Coincidentally, an online article appeared amongst my emails on May 17, the feast day of St Simon Stock who wore the brown scapular as part of the Carmelite habit. The article explained that today the scapular is worn by Carmelites and non-Carmelite Catholics around the world as a sign of ‘receiving Mary as a mother and asking for her intercessory prayers’.
Flora’s devotion to Mary, the mother of Jesus, no doubt gave her great comfort during the difficult times of her life. Like Mary, she demonstrated great faith, courage and self-sacrifice as she encouraged her daughter to put her trust in God.
The deep impact of Flora’s death on Mary MacKillop is evident in her words and actions. Not only did she establish a school and convent in Eden to show her appreciation to the people who cared for her mother’s body, she also wrote:
‘I had so yearned to see her again and all the sisters were planning to make her visit a bright and happy one. Poor dear long-suffering Mamma.’ (An Extraordinary Woman: Mary MacKillop Paul Gardiner)
If you ever happen to be passing through Eden, be sure to call in to the museum. Closer to home, you can learn more about the heroic and inspirational stories of Flora, St Mary MacKillop, her followers and supporters by visiting the Mary MacKillop Museum at Kensington (marymackillopadelaide.org.au)Jump to next article