Mary Helen MacKillop (1842-1909), known in life as Mother Mary of the Cross, was born on 15 January 1842 in Fitzroy, Melbourne, the eldest of eight children of Alexander McKillop and his wife Flora, née McDonald.
Her parents had migrated from the Lochaber area in Inverness-shire and married soon after they reached Melbourne. After a prosperous start the family became impoverished.
Mary was educated at private schools but chiefly by her father who had studied for the priesthood at Rome.
To help her family Mary became in turn a shopgirl, a governess, and at Portland a teacher in the Catholic Denominational School and proprietress of a small boarding school for girls.
As she grew to womanhood Mary was probably influenced by an early friend of the family, Father Patrick Geoghegan, and began to yearn for a strictly penitential form of religious life.
Concluding she would have to go to Europe to execute her plan, she placed herself under the direction of Father Julian Tenison-Woods who, as parish priest of Penola in South Australia sometimes visiting Melbourne and Portland, wanted to found a religious society, ‘
The Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart’; they were to live in poverty and dedicate themselves to educating poor children.
With Mary its first member and Superior the society was founded at Penola on 19 March 1866 with the approval of Bishop Laurence Sheil.
By then she was spelling her surname MacKillop. The Sisterhood spread to Adelaide and other parts of South Australia, and increased rapidly in membership but ran into difficulties.
Tenison-Woods had become director of Catholic schools and conflicted with some of the clergy over educational matters.
One priest with influence over the bishop declared publicly he would ruin the director through the Sisterhood.
The result was that Mary was excommunicated by Bishop Sheil on 22 September 1871 for alleged insubordination; most of the schools were closed and the Sisterhood almost disbanded.
The excommunication was removed on 21 February 1872 by order of the bishop nine days before he died.