An important part of women's history


Starring Lucy Bell, Linden Wilkinson and Brendan Higgins
Writer/director Kay Pavlou
Reviewed by Catherine Brown

The beatification of Mary MacKillop, to take place in Sydney in January by Pope John Paul II, has probably not escaped the attention of even non-Catholic Australians.

All too often, as feminists have argued, women have been hidden from history. Mary brings to life the inspiring Mary MacKillop. Catholic and non-Catholic can appreciate the strength and fighting spirit of this woman, who lived in a century when independence in a woman was not encouraged and often was stifled.

MacKillop's life is something more than "a good Catholic story" that. Mary doesn't concentrate on her spirituality, though it doesn't ignore it either. Rather it looks at her struggle to bring education to the poor and establish an independent order of nuns. Mary uses the style of doco-drama to tell MacKillop's story, interspersed with interviews to highlight its contemporary relevance. It's an approach that works.

Lucy Bell, with an eerie physical resemblance to MacKillop seemed an obvious choice for the part. She doesn't disappoint. Bell captures a strength and determination that MacKillop herself clearly possessed.

MacKillop and a priest, Father Julian Woods (Brendan Higgins) were committed to free education at a time in Australia's history when the working class received little or no education. Refuges for single mothers were also seen as a priority.

MacKillop was only 25 when she established her first school, orphanage and women's refuge. It became clear to MacKillop that the order of nuns she established would need to be democratic and responsible to themselves, electing their own leader. At this time, all orders were responsible to the bishop.

MacKillop believed in equality in the order of the Sisters of Saint Joseph, which brought her into confrontation with Bishop Shiel of Adelaide. Shiel insisted the Josephites adopt the practice, common to other orders, of two classes of nuns based on the dowry each took to the convent on joining. MacKillop refused to budge on what she saw as a fundamental question. She was excommunicated by Shiel.

Six months later, MacKillop's excommunication order was lifted. Determined to avoid future confrontations over the independence of the order, MacKillop went to Rome to enlist the pope's support.

MacKillop in her memoirs comments on the freedom her habit gave her — no family responsibilities. Mary gives us glimpses of this freedom, as we see nuns (alone) riding through spectacular Australian countryside or MacKillop (alone) in Rome. "We're talking of a period when 'good women' didn't catch the night train, let alone travel through Europe for two years", comments Kay Pavlou, the writer and director.

The pope's support did not stop later confrontations with bishops in Australia. When Brisbane's bishop demanded the Josephites open an elite girls' boarding school, MacKillop refused and instead pulled the order out of Queensland. The Josephites left Bathurst after conflict with another bishop. Nevertheless, despite opposition by the Josephites, MacKillop was deposed as head of the order by Cardinal Moran in 1884. She was re-elected 15 years later.

The ABC's Four Corners program on Mary MacKillop touched on the different perceptions of her today. Bishop Clancy dismissed with outrage any hint that she was a feminist and stressed her obedience to the bishops of her day even when in disagreement. Women in the church interviewed saw a different Mary MacKillop, strong and determined. Hardly surprisingly, the movement for women priests looks to MacKillop for inspiration.

Mary MacKillop's beatification is just one of 850 that have occurred under Pope John Paul II, more than all the other popes have beatified in this century. Is it an attempt by the church to be more relevant? Of the 5 million Catholics in Australia, half don't attend mass. It is estimated that by the year 2000, one in four parishes will have no priest. The footage in the Four Corners program showed few men at weekly masses. Yet the church hierarchy stands firm against women priests.

Kay Pavlou's previous works include the award-winning The Killing of Angelo Tsakos. Pavlou felt an initial alienation from the Catholic content of MacKillop's story, as she was a non-practising Greek Orthodox. In the end, says Pavlou, it was MacKillop's political struggle with the bishops that won her over. Pavlou was also struck by how MacKillop "didn't allow anyone's notion of her as a woman stop her from achieving her ends".

In the process of writing Mary, Pavlou came into regular contact with the Josephites. She referred to them as the "radical/ratbag element of the church". Hence, perhaps, Bishop Clancy's ready dismissal of Mary MacKillop as a feminist: it is not an image the "modern" church hierarchy feels comfortable with, any more than the 19th century hierarchy felt comfortable with the real Mary MacKillop.

Do you have to be a religious or even Catholic to appreciate Mary? Is MacKillop's life relevant only for Catholics? No on both counts. Mary is an inspiring account of a woman's life, a woman any women's history of Australia would want to own.