Their prayers were directed to the Blessed Mary Mackillop, a Scottish nun who grew up in Australia and is due to become that country’s first saint. Her ancestry is rooted in the Highlands, and devoted her life to educating the poor.
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In the end, the decision to keep the school open was won by a single vote. It might not be recognised as a miracle in Rome but the community are certain a little divine intervention was involved.
In two months’ time more than 100 people -- including direct descendants of the soon-to-be Saint Mary from Roy Bridge, neighbouring Spean Bridge, Fort William and beyond -- will travel to Rome for Mary’s canonisation by Pope Benedict XVI in St Peter’s Basilica in the Vatican on October 17.
As a nun, Mary founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart to provide education for some of Australia’s poorest people, particularly in the Outback. Nearly 100 years after her death, the Sisters are still working in many towns in South Australia. Her work isn’t forgotten in Scotland either -- most weekends, groups of Australians arrive in the Highland village after travelling thousands of miles on the Mary Mackillop trail.
Soon after the ceremony in Rome the leader of Scotland’s Catholics, Cardinal Keith O’Brien, will lead a special Mass in St Margaret’s Church in Roy Bridge, where direct descendants on both sides of Mary’s family share pews. A celebratory grand ceilidh in the village hall is also planned that night.
While Australians trumpet Mary’s substantial antipodean legacy loudly, the Roy Bridge community are more quietly proud of their connection.
Mary’s resilience and determination -- she was even briefly excommunicated from the Catholic Church for upsetting the hierarchy -- is attributed by Father Tom Wynne to her “Highland stock”.
Helen Macdonald, 66, a retired teacher, is a direct descendant of Mary’s father, Alexander Mackillop. His grandfather was Duncan Mackillop, a tenant farmer who lived in Murlaggan, a small croft near Roy Bridge.
He had three children, John, Alexander and Angus. John married and had a family of seven, the first of whom was Alexander, who was born in Perthshire. The only one of his children who didn’t migrate to Australia was Archibald.
When Helen’s daughter, Deirdre, 30, also a teacher, travelled to Australia for World Youth Day she visited Mary’s tomb in Sydney and nuns clamoured to touch her when they discovered her saintly roots.
“I was given a book about Mary Mackillop when I was 15,” Helen said, “but I didn’t pay that much attention to it then. It was only later I learned from a local woman that I was related. It’s wonderful, very, very special. The atmosphere in Rome will be tremendous.”
Mary’s ancestors are buried in Cille Choirill, the 15th century Catholic church on a hill on the outskirts of the village. The graveyard overlooks the Murlaggan area where Mary’s grandparents hail from.
Sally Campbell, 77, and her sister Ishbel Campbell, 70, are among the closest living links to Mary’s mother, Flora. Flora was from the Keppoch branch of the Macdonald clan who lived in a small crofting settlement called Cranachan, close to where the Campbells live today.
Sally said: “I was told my mother is her nearest relative. My grandfather Ranald MacDonald was a second cousin of Mary.”
Mary Mackillop visited Scotland in 1873, possibly to recruit more women for the order, and her letters to her mother reveal how deeply the visit to her ancestral home affected her.
She wrote: “I have met so many who knew my relatives on both sides, and all, even the Mackillops, declare that I am a regular Macdonald. The moment I saw John Cranachan in church, I felt that I was near one of our own, and strange to say, it was more than I could bear unmoved.”
Twelve miles south of the village the Catholic community in Fort William are also preparing for the pilgrimage to Rome.
A group of women are huddled around a table sewing tartan lapel badges for the visit, at the home of Sisters Therese McConway and Audrey Thomson in Lochyside.
The pair were invited to Scotland by the former Bishop of Argyll, Ian Murray, to spread the word about Mary’s Highland heritage and are the only nuns living in the UK belonging to the Australian order that Mary founded.
Mary’s mother Flora was born at an inn on the town’s high street which still exists as the Ben Nevis. The family emigrated to Australia when Flora was around 22.
It is believed that Alexander, Mary’s father, was born in Perthshire. At the age of 14 he left to train to be a priest at Scots College in Rome, however he returned to Scotland for health reasons. He continued his studies at Blairs near Aberdeen but left the seminary after 17 months.
Alexander arrived in Sydney by boat in January 1838, aged 26, and became a schoolteacher. He would go down to the port in Point Ormond, Victoria, to greet Scottish migrants coming off the boats.
In April 1840 he welcomed Donald and Catherine Kennedy and their family, Flora and her younger brother Donald. Just three months later, he and Flora were married. On January 15, 1842, their first child, Mary Helen, was born. They would go on to have a further seven children at their farm, none of whom married.
Alexander was a good parent but a poor businessman who brought severe hardship on his family. His brother Peter lent him money to take an old immigrant back to Scotland to see his native land before he died, using the farm as security. He didn’t return in time to repay the loan and it left the family more or less homeless.
Mary was forced to go out to work as a governess to keep the family afloat. Although she had felt a natural calling to God she did not fulfil her wish until she was 25 because of the heavy burden of responsibility as her family’s sole breadwinner.
She set up the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart with Father Julian Tenison Woods, and her first school was based in a stable in Penola, South Australia.
Sister Audrey said: “When she was a teenager she knew that she wanted to give herself to God but felt that her family needed her. She was 25 when she was able to but she always had that desire and looked around for an order where she could fufill her desires.
“Because she had been poor herself she knew what it was to be poor. She also had direct experience of how the poor were treated. That gave her a very acute awareness that every person has the right to a decent life and deserves the right to be respected.
“She saw that education could break the cycle of poverty and she saw that it was the children of the poor who were missing out on education. Mary’s maxim was ‘never see a need without doing something about it’. She wanted the freedom to deliver need wherever it was and the bishops didn’t like that.”
According to Sister Audrey a “misunderstanding” in late 1871 led to her being excommunicated from the church, although the bishop who carried it out lifted the censure on his deathbed, just a few months later in early 1872.
Mary refused to adhere to one particular religious order and one diocese because she wanted to be free to deliver education and help for the poor where it was needed. Her fight for the poor and her disregard for stuffy church practices did not endear her to the hierarchy.
After her brief excommunication, she received the backing of the Vatican and her network of schools spread across the country.
Mother Mary ran the order into her old age despite suffering a stroke and being confined to a wheelchair. She died in 1909, aged 67.
In Australia, Elma Davidson, 92, provides the oldest living link to the Blessed Mary. Her grandmother and Mary were cousins.
Archibald Mackillop, Mary’s uncle, is the only relative to have stayed behind in Scotland, possibly in the Perthshire area. He married and had a son and it is believed another descendant has now preparing to come forward.
Events to mark the canonisation will take place around Australia on October 17. As the anticipation for the ceremony builds, Sister Audrey responds to critics who argue that saints have no relevance in modern society.
“We need heroes,” the nun said. “We all need role models. She is a challenge and an inspiration about how we can live our lives.”
Steps to sainthood
To achieve sainthood, two miracles must be confirmed by the Vatican.
In 1993, the Catholic Church accepted that Mary MacKillop was responsible for miraculously curing an Australian woman with leukaemia in 1961. This led to her beatification in 1995 by Pope John Paul.
Despite doctors giving her no hope, the woman fell pregnant and gave birth to a baby boy after praying for Mother Mary’s intercession. She went on to have another five children.
The second miracle involved the healing of another Australian woman, who was diagnosed with inoperable lung cancer during the mid-1990s.
Kathleen Evans, from New South Wales, said that after her diagnosis, she prayed constantly and wore a picture of the nun with a piece of her clothing attached.
She not only recovered but all traces of the cancer disappeared.
At the moment the doctor broke the news she said: “The first question I asked him was had it shrunk? And he said, ‘No, it’s gone’.”