A Short Reading

Saint Mary of the Cross was canonised a saint in St Peter’s Square, Rome on 17 October 2010. She lived and worked in Arrowtown. She and her sisters were loved by the people in the town.

This is an excerpt from the biography of Mary MacKillop written by Paul Gardiner SJ:”We were all very sick and only got to Bluff about 5 p.m. on Friday.” These inauspicious words introduced Mother Mary’s long letter to Mother Bernard about the Institute’s arrival in southern Otago, Dunedin’s hinterland, on 22 October 1897. In addition, it was raining heavily. But there was a heartening welcome awaiting them at Bluff, where they were met by Father Keenan, the pastor of remote Arrowtown.

He had lodgings for the night ready for them at Invercargill, and arranged to accompany them on the train to Kingston the next morning. Mary’s remark that he was “determined not to lose sight of us” was a significant one. He was not only being hospitable-he had taken possession. He was making sure he did not lose them to another parish. He had organised a welcome for them at Queenstown when they arrived after six hours by train to Kingston and a further three hours by steamer on Lake Wakatipu.

Finally on Monday, October 25, they set out on the historic journey to Arrowtown, fifteen miles away:When about six miles from here, a number of men and women on horseback met us; and nearer again, several in buggies. They cheered and cheered again. Such an entry as we made into the pretty town!The two priests Father Keenan and Father O’Donnell from Queenstown, were in the leading buggy, then came the four nuns in a large double buggy, and then ocher buggies and riders. Margaret Mary said what seemed to be the whole population came out to meet them-men, women, and children-some in spring-carts and buggies, others on bicycles or horses. One horse gave its girl rider some trouble, and when she had quietened him down Mary came over, patted the horse, and said to the girl: “You handled that well, dear.” After this cavalcade and the rest of the excitement, the nuns were glad when finally they could “sit down to a quiet meal in our own nice little convent”.

Father Keenan’s presence on the wharf at Bluff had made the small party feel very welcome in the Dunedin diocese, but it had created a problem for Mary. She explained that there were only enough Sisters for one place, Port Chalmers, and that the pastor there could not be denied. But Keenan said that the bishop had promised him a community for Arrowtown, and that quarters had been ready for them there since June. Margaret Mary described how he pleaded so strongly for his little wayback children that Mary yielded and he carried off the whole company in triumph to the Cold Lake District in Central Otago.

At Queenstown, Father O’Donnell had known nothing of the work of the Josephites and thought it foolish to expect two or three Sisters to live in such an out-of-the-way place as Arrowtown. But later on he became one of the greatest friends and admirers of the Sisters, very impressed by their readiness to work away in the lonely mountains for the sake of a few children. When later conditions made it look as if they were to be withdrawn, he begged Mary to leave them, offering to provide their expenses out of his own pocket if necessary.

Mary remained a month with the pioneer “Arrow” Sisters, but she had to bear in mind that there was pressing business in Dunedin, Port Chalmers, and Rangiora. At first she thought she would have to break up the little group almost immediately, in order to help the priest at Port Chalmers, but he gave her a reprieve until after Christmas. As a result, when she left on November 22 she did not have to take a Sister with her. She was sensitive to the need of the three at Arrowtown to be reassured that their isolation in no way cut them off from the Institute, especially as they would be having their first real taste of loneliness at Christmas. She also wanted “to see that they have a proper Convent for the winter”. So as soon as she had Sisters to staff the school at Port Chalmers, she returned to Arrowtown.

But when she arrived she found that things were moving very slowly in the building line. The church, school, and convent were in the one block, and that was an advantage; and besides, the ground was high, clean, and dry. She insisted on a fence to give the Sisters some privacy. Realising from experience that she would have to exert a little pressure, she remained in the role of overseer until the last week in April although she had planned to be away in the first days of the month. She wrote that the people and the priest were most kind, but noted, I believe, for procrastination,” and she had to avail her self of the bishop’s suggestion that she threaten to remove the Sisters unless they were in warm quarters before the winter.

She would have preferred to leave three Sisters there instead of two, as the need to study meant there was a danger they would not have time to prepare proper food for themselves and attend to the housework. Since she was not a regular teacher herself (though she took Catechism and also other classes when necessary), the household problem was solved while she was around. In order to have the meals up to standard, she sometimes had to ask the lady next door for advice and assistance, especially when the flounder she was cooking fell to pieces. The result of the lady’s lesson made her “as proud of her success as if she were cooking for the queen instead of for two humble little professed novices”. She washed the clothes, sometimes getting this done before the early morning call, and also took her share of washing up the dishes and sweeping, dusting, or gardening.

At first the two young Sisters felt a little shy about living in such a small community with the Mother Foundress, but her simplicity very soon dispelled all feelings of restraint and they felt in her presence as free as they would have felt in that of a novitiate companion”. Her government “allured to brighter worlds and led the way”. The Rule was kept, but it was a kind and gentle discipline when she was around.Once a Sister was hurrying after lunch to make the Way of the Cross. Mary quietly pointed out to her that her duty at that time was to see to the children’s recreation in the playground and that on no account should this duty be set aside for religious devotion. She was sensitive to the “hierarchy of values” too where the rules were concerned, impressing on the Sisters the need to create a bright cheerful atmosphere in their little isolated convent. She said she would prefer to see Sisters who had to live in small communities in out-of-the-way places bright and cheerful, rather than strictly observing the rule of silence.

This southernmost foundation of the Josephites lasted half a century. In 1943 the decline in population made it impractical to continue, and there was general sadness when the Sisters withdrew. Throughout its isolated existence, the Arrowtown Convent was affected by the early influence of the foundress, and all those who had ever formed part of the community spoke of the little town with affection. The people still have vivid memories of the Sisters, and traditions are handed on-this one’s mother was the one who prepared the tea the day the Sisters arrived; that one’s mother was the one who was complimented by Mother Mary on the way she handled the bolting horse at the welcoming cavalcade; “the bowling club there is the building the Sisters used for their school … Mother Mary taught in there, it was then in a different part of town, but she taught in it … “; “that little old wreck of a stone shed was once theSisters’ house”, and so on.

No place typifies the spirit of Mary MacKillop and the early Josephites better than Arrowtown-by Australian standards it is far “beyond the black stump”, and by the standards of the rest of mankind it is on the edge of the earth; but it was not too humble, cold, or remote for the Sisters to go there to bring the knowledge and love of God to little children. This peculiar quality of the Josephite vocation impressed Father O’Donnell. “He venerated Mother as a saint,” said Margaret Mary, “and after her death used to implore her intercession for his schools and parish.” Mary herself, while pleased with the prospect of a house near Dunedin, regarded the readiness to go to the remoter places as “our real work”. She wrote to Mother Bernard from Arrowtown that while it would be well to have a city house, “all the same our real work lies more in the scattered country parts-and I hope we shall never forget this.”

In the providence of God, dedication nurtured by the Christian faith that had been brought by the MacDonalds and the MacKillops from the remote Highlands of Scotland had found its way to what was almost exactly the antipodes of Lochaber.¬†Writing from Arrowtown, Mary told of a family at Nokomai, not far away, which brought back memories of Penola: “A nephew of Uncle Cameron’s and his wife are near us on the other side of Queenstown-the principal people of that part.” When she was preparing to leave Arrowtown in November she wrote to this Mr. Cameron, the wife of the son of the King’s brother Ewen:

I shall be passing on to Dunedin on Monday next and should you be at home and it be convenient for you to send to meet me, would gladly spend one night with you. I must be in Dunedin on Tuesday evening as I am rather hurried. At the same time it would give me great pleasure to see you and your husband of whom as “Donald New Zealand” I used to hear so much long ago in Penola. I am very fond of all Highland friends, and though we are not cousins, feel almost as if we were for dear Uncle Cameron’s sake … I take it for granted you know it is Mary MacKillop that was who is writing to you …. Yours very sincerely in J.M.J., Mary of the Cross.

She did go to Nokomai, and though she was with the Camerons for such a short time she left an impression that has remained with the family to this day-and indeed with the house-for there is a room there known as “Mother Mary’s Room”. The tradition grew that any child suffering from an indisposition had only to be put to sleep in Mother Mary’s Bed” to wake up normal in the morning.

Staying at the house at the time of Mary’s visit was a little boy of five, Donald L. Cameron, the grandson of Donald Angus. Throughout his life he retained a vivid memory of the lovely lady with the wonderful eyes who had stayed a night at his grandfather’s place, Glenfalloch Station.