Mary MacKillop and Little Lons

It was a time of world-wide depression. Those who were rich lost their investments, those who were poor lost their work, the poorest were homeless and slept on the streets.

First, I need to tell you about inner-city Melbourne in 1891.

A short stroll from the edge of Fitzroy where Mary MacKillop was born forty-seven years earlier, was the seedy part of Melbourne known as ‘Little Lons’. The top end of Little Lonsdale Street ran through the middle of a maze of lanes offering cheap rent or the possibility of sleeping rough in alleyways. Those who lived here were in dire need. During the depression the population of this block peaked; penniless families, children, the homeless, the unemployed, street gangs, new arrivals and criminals lived crowded together.

Mary arrived back in Melbourne right at this time, met the Archbishop and found that Thomas Carr was a man who had a heart for the poor; a bishop who understood her. In his letter of welcome he wrote that while the need in Little Lons was overwhelming, one would have to live in the area to do anything worthwhile. He wouldn’t ask the Sisters to live there. Predictably Mary replied, ‘Of course I have no objection to the locality, it is there that the real work lies.’ She and Sister Gertrude moved into two small adjacent houses, one still under repair. They named it ‘Providence’; this was a name the Josephites coined when they had no idea where the money would come from. God would have to provide.

Mary and Gertrude would beg for food and donations of money. They found good hearted people among the Little Lons residents. Within weeks they gave shelter to homeless out-of-work servant girls, dispensed soup and clothing in the backyard, and taught ‘night school’ for children who worked as ‘cheap labour’ during the day. These children were ready to learn at night. Mary’s sister Annie MacKillop, wrote after staying for a few days at the Providence, ‘It was a dreadfully noisy place—women screaming at night used to be so awful I thought it was murder’.

On the day of the Canonisation of Saint Mary of the Cross MacKillop, a battery of TV cameras filmed Melbourne’s response to this event.  They captured images of a packed mass of humanity surging from the city, past Mary’s birthplace in Fitzroy, to the Exhibition Centre where Aboriginal Elders, the Prime Minister, the Premier, the Leader of the Opposition, and leaders of many religions waited, crammed together on an outdoor platform in the threatening rain. But the platform was not the favoured image of the media. The image was of ordinary people walking, pushing, marching and even dancing. The camera lingered on the feet: Moccasins, runners, working boots, plastic high heels, thongs, silver slippers … the feet of tiny children too.

Into focus came a pair of worn-out boots tied with string. The camera panned to a large, bearded, weathered man who seemed to have been sleeping rough for many a night.  ‘What do you think about Saint Mary?’ ‘She cared about the poor and disabled’ he said. He paused, gazed belligerently at the camera and added emphatically, ‘She was a Saint before she died.’

Each year on January 15th Mary’s birthday, there is a Eucharist in the small parish church of Fitzroy, then a birthday cake shared between the locals and the Josephites. Those whom Mary would have claimed as her people never forget her.