Mary MacKillop

Mary McKillop and The Black Dress

Black Dress Cover

The Black Dress: Mary MacKillop’s Early Years won the NSW History Prize for Young People in 2006. The judges comments were:

‘This fictionalised biography presents the early life of educationalist and spiritual leader, Mary MacKillop. In this first person narrative, the subject in old age reflects upon her childhood and adolescence, spent largely in rural Victoria and Melbourne during the period 1845 to 1861.

As the determined and clever eldest child, Mary battles to provide for her mother and siblings when her brilliant but feckless father moves from one disaster to another. Pamela Freeman’s description of an extended Scottish-Australian family provides insight into the lives of the many young settlers who grew up on farms and on the goldfields in mid-nineteenth century Australia . There is also a graphic account of work in a city warehouse.

The story concludes with the young woman’s realisation of her vocation to found a religious order which will offer free education to poor rural children. At this point, Mary disappoints her mother by donning the black dress of the book’s title.

This tough book seeks to reveal experience which would be unfamiliar to many young readers and perhaps uncongenial to some. However, beyond any particular faith issues raised, an understanding of the role played by the Catholic Church in nineteenth century Australia is vital to an understanding of many aspects of social and political history, including the development of the Australian labour movement. As well, Mary provides a role model of an unconventional and fearless young woman.’

The story behind The Black Dress

When I started researching The Black Dress, I knew almost nothing about Mary MacKillop. I’m Catholic, but I was educated by the Mercy Sisters, not the Joeys. In fact, when I was first approached by Sr Kath O’Connor to write a book for kids about Mary MacKillop, I said ‘no thank you, sister’.But Sr Kath is a clever woman, and she asked me if I had been to the museum at North Sydney. I hadn’t, and she invited me to come and see it before I made up my mind. Well, I was raised to be polite to nuns, so I said, ‘All right, Sister,’ and met her to go through the museum.

By the time I came out, I knew I had to write some kind of story about Mary MacKillop. Her life was so extraordinary – she was so extraordinary that I needed to find out more about her. What particularly interested me on that day was her lack of any anger or resentment about being excommunicated. She had spoken of the ‘poor dear Bishop’. I had been reading a book by Aung San Su Kyi, the Burmese fighter for democracy who had been under house arrest for some years, and was struck by how similar Mary MacKillop’s attitude was to Aung San’s attitude towards the military junta who had imprisoned her.

I decided early on that if I were writing for kids, I should concentrate on her childhood, and I found later that that was a lucky choice, because her childhood was extraordinary. Her parents influenced her greatly, and not always in the way you might expect.

Her father, Alexander, had studied for the priesthood and then left before he was ordained because he had a disagreement with the Prior of his order. That was typical. He was a brilliant scholar and a very intelligent man but he was also, well…. a ratbag. A disputatious man, always picking verbal fights and intellectual stoushes with the leading thinkers of his day. He stood up for his convictions and he never backed down and he was always involved in some controversy or other. Mary learnt about integrity and strength of character from him. But he was also the least practical and least conciliating of men. As a result, he was always going bankrupt or being sacked from jobs and Mary and her siblings grew up poor. Very poor. The kind of poor where if her grandfather hadn’t helped out from time to time, they wouldn’t have had enough to eat. Flora, Mary’s mother, was supportive of her husband through thick and thin.

I think Mary learnt about loving and forgiving from her mother. But I think she learnt about the values of compassion and generosity over self-righteousness from her father. I think, without seeing him constantly butting his head against walls that were too big for him, she might have chosen differently at points in her life when controversy surrounded her.

When Mary was nine, her father left the family and went back to Scotland, to take a dying friend home. It was typical of Alexander that he put the claims of a friend over those of his family. He had promised Mr McLaughlin a long time before that he would accompany him to Scotland if need be, and he intended to keep that promise no matter what. He was a man, I think, unable to see any shades of grey in any situation. He financed the trip by a mortgage on the family farm from his brother Peter. He didn’t tell his wife about the mortgage. The mortgage ran for a year. The journey could have been made in nine months or so. He was away seventeen months. Peter foreclosed, and kicked the MacKillop family off the property.

When he came home, you might have expected his wife to be a bit upset, yes? But Flora was an extremely forgiving woman, and Mary’s little brother Donald, was born ten months after Alexander came home.

From the time Mary was 14, she was the main breadwinner for the family, working as a foreman in a shop and factory selling stationery and maps. From there, she went to Penola.

When you’re writing a book about a real person, I believe that you have to keep faith. With your readers, who trust you to tell them the truth, with yourself and your vision of the truth, and most of all with the person, or the people, that you are writing about. When you write about a saint, that’s even harder. We know a lot about what Mary MacKillop thought and much more about what she did once she started the Institute of St Joseph. She was a great letter writer and many of those letters and other records survive.

But we know much less about her childhood, particularly the early days. Much of what we know is based on her sister Annie and her brother Donald’s accounts of their family life. But they were much younger than Mary. She was twelve when Donald was born. Annie was only a toddler when their father left for Scotland and knew very little about what happened during that time. We have some hints from Mary herself. She writes that ‘her home, when she had one, was very unhappy’ but she doesn’t tell us why – was it just poverty, was it family disputes? There was some suspicion that her father drank too much, for example – and later on, Mary herself was accused of drunkeness.

So when I came to write a scene like the one where Peter forecloses – dealing with real people, in a real place, with a meeting we know took place but that’s all we know – I had to make things up. Deciding how much I could ethically make up and how much I had to leave unsaid, how much I could extrapolate and how much I had to just note and leave unexplained, was almost the hardest part of the writing. There are two things in this book that are wholly made up. The first is that, on the day Alexander left for Scotland, there was a terrible bushfire all through the farmland where they lived. That was true. Their farm was spared. That was true. But I have Mary’s best friend Aline Seward’s family burnt out. I made that up. I figured that at least one of the people they knew would have been, and I made it the Sewards so the reader didn’t have to deal with a new set of characters.

The other thing is the reason why Mary was sent to stay with some family friends when she was seven. We don’t know why. There has been speculation by various biographers that the family was so poor at that time that they sent Mary away to ease the burden. But they were very poor many times, and this was the only time one of the children was sent away. That explanation just didn’t ring true to me. It didn’t fit with what I knew of Flora and Alexander as loving parents. But they were very generous and compassionate people, both of them, and it seemed to me more likely that they would send Mary away to help someone else, rather than themselves. The couple she goes to stay with, the L’Estranges, later adopted two daughters, for whom Mary was the governess when she was 14. Adoption, I thought. Infertility. And I made up the idea that Mary was sent to Mrs L’Estrange because she had lost a baby and was depressed. So that she had a child in the house to love and cuddle.

And I made up all the conversations, and most of the thoughts that I attribute to Mary. That was the hardest thing to do. Who was I to pretend to be a saint? What did I know about being holy? It took me a long time, and many, many drafts, before I managed to find a voice for Mary that didn’t sound false. At least to my ears. I can’t guarantee what you’ll think of it. I tried telling it in the third person. I tried telling it from the young Mary’s point of view. None of that worked. It was only when I started telling the story from the older Mary’s viewpoint that the whole thing started to come together. And I think that was because, that way, I could keep faith with what I knew about her. We know much more about how she thought as an adult than as a child. I was surer of how the older Mary talked, and how she approached life.

For example, she’s not an inspiring letter writer. That was hard to deal with, as in my initial research I hoped to use her own words as much as possible. But frankly, she’s pretty boring. But when I looked at her letters more closely, I realised why. She’s not interested in anything but people. She was a great traveller, going all over Australia, New Zealand and Europe. She travelled through some of the most spectacular landscape in the world, but does she describe the mountains in New Zealand? No, she talks about the fact that there are no mattresses for the convent beds and the sisters are sick of eating cabbages. She doesn’t care about the mountains, because they can look after themselves. Her interest, her obsession, is with people in need.

That helped me find her voice. But the thing that helped me most happened very late in the process, very late indeed. I was in Kincumber, where the Sisters had run a home for homeless boys. Mother Mary, as she was then, used to visit and inspect. I found this story about one of the boys:

‘He’d come to us from the streets, starving almost, earning what he could as a crossing-sweeper, keeping the shoes of the well-off clear of horse dung. A few pennies a day, if he was lucky, if the bigger boys didn’t chase him off his corner, or steal his earnings at the end of the day. One of our friendly priests sent him to the Kincumber Orphanage, St Joseph’s, at a time when I was there.

Poor little soul! Sister Aloysius sent him to me that first week. I was standing in the playground, looking down to the mangroves and the bay, relishing the fresh salt air. Mick, his name was, came sidling up to me reluctantly, eyes down, terror in every movement.

‘Sister says I have to tell you…’ he said in a quavering voice. He gulped. ‘I stole a bun from the kitchen.’

God love him! I almost laughed. But I put my arm around him. ‘Were you hungry?’

He nodded. He was twisting his hands together in a combination of misery and fright. That movement alone told of long months of abuse and fear.

‘Well, you go back to Sister and tell her I said to give you another bun.’

His head came up, astonished, and he met my eyes for the first time. I smiled. He grinned and hugged me hard and raced off to Sister Aloysius, leaping as he went. Then I did laugh. That was our job, it seemed to me – to turn hunger and fear and misery into joy.

But that’s another track of memory, and I have more difficult memories to consider.’ (p. 102)

That story became my touchstone for the book. Did what I write have that spirit? The love, the humanity, the sense of humour, the kindness – and the practicality that saw the need, and responded to it? That’s what I tried to keep faith with.

The Sisters of St Joseph

Mary MacKillop and her parish priest, Fr Woods, started the order of nuns known as the Institute of St Joseph because of the extreme need for education, health care and shelter for the poor and homeless.

The Institute of St Joseph started in Adelaide with Mary and three girls; Rose, Josephine and Clare. Another girl, Blanche, had already been working with Mary as a Sister. They were all young. Mary was 26, the others younger. They had no money. They ran a school, an orphanage, a Refuge for homeless people, women running away from domestic violence, or people just out of prison, and a Providence, where people could come for help with food, money or sickness.

Because Mary was determined that no one would be turned away, they lived off charity.

That doesn’t sound too bad: ‘they lived off charity’. What it really meant was that they went out begging in the streets. The money they could collect went to feed and cloth the people in the Refuge and Providence – the nuns came last. Often they’d go to bed hungry, or have to fill up on bread.

As soon as she could, Mother Mary started sending nuns out to small country towns. Sometimes she would go with them to get them set up. They went in twos and threes – and that was a huge change, because up until then nuns had lived in large communities.

We all know what happened next – the Sisters of St Joseph are the biggest order of nuns in Australia. There are very few country towns that don’t have a St Joseph’s school in them. And ten years ago, Mary MacKillop was beatified by the Pope. She is now known as the Blessed Mary MacKillop. ‘Blessed’ is a title given to a person whose life has been proved to be extraordinarily holy.

So what made her into that sort of person? What makes a saint? I tried to answer some of those questions in The Black Dress, but I know there are many other answers than the few I’ve found.