Commemorating a Saintly Visitor

Celebrating Mass or attending school in a humble timber building in Cooranbong seems difficult to imagine today, especially if it meant being accompanied by the woman who famously lived by the motto, “Never see a need without doing something about it”.

However, 120 years ago, on 19 May 1885, Mother Mary MacKillop attended Mass with her fellow Josephites at Cooranbong. The Sisters were teaching at this local school, in the only area she is recorded as having visited in what is now the Diocese of Maitland- Newcastle, described in her diary as a “poor, struggling community”.

1826 saw the first Land Grant in the area and by 1861 the community had banded together to build on the ‘cleared ground’ this humble building for Sunday Mass and weekday schooling, as the predominantly Irish community saw a need for education for all local children. Six lay staff had taught from the very beginning until 1880 when the Public Instruction Act withdrew funding from religious schools and it seemed the school would close. However, Cardinal Moran invited the Josephite Sisters to the area and it became one of Mary’s foundations, allowing the school to continue educating all members of the community, with 10 Sisters teaching here over the following 16 years. It was the practice of Mary MacKillop, a modest woman who, with Fr Julian Tenison Woods, had set up education for the poor and established the Sisters of St Joseph, to visit each of her foundations. Hence she attended Mass at Cooranbong 120 years ago this month.

In late 2013, parishioner Frances Dunn recognised the importance of commemorating this historic visit. The MacKillop Planning Team – Michell Foo, Margaret McFarlane, Kerry Lendon and Kevin and Frances Dunn – has not only organised for Mass to be celebrated on 19 May to mark the 120th anniversary of Mary’s visit, but has also commissioned a pair of commemorative plaques in her honour. As the church is now a pilgrimage site, last visited by 13 Sisters of St Joseph who travelled on their NSW Pilgrimage ‘In the Footsteps of Mary MacKillop and Julian Tenison Woods’, it was decided to dedicate a memorial external to the church. This way, it would be visible to anyone wanting to pay tribute to Mary.

The team received generous donations from the parish as well as the Sisters of St Joseph. The plaques are secured on a 1.14 tonne granite rock, thanks to Kevin Dunn. The parish Gardening Team created a garden around the plaque featuring a Mary MacKillop rose. In a contemporary touch, the team has also ensured one of the plaques has a QR code which, when scanned by a smart phone with the app I-Nigma, directs you to the Sisters of St Joseph website.

The Mass of celebration will take place at 9.30am on 19 May at St Patrick’s and St Brigid’s Church, Cooranbong, followed by a morning tea to pay tribute to the visit of such a significant woman in Australia’s history. All are welcome!

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