The Obedience of Two Saints

Mother Mary of the Cross and Archbishop 
Marcel Lefebvre


Fr. Paul Robinson, FSSPX

And Samuel said: Doth the Lord desire holocausts and victims, and not rather that the voice of the Lord should be obeyed? For obedience is better than sacrifices: and to hearken rather than to offer the fat of rams. Because it is like the sin of witchcraft, to rebel: and like the crime of idolatry, to refuse to obey. (1 Kings 15:22-23)

Saints are necessarily similar. They adhere to the same faith, they acknowledge the same authority, they practice the same worship. But, most importantly, they follow the same Master, and in a heroic way. They all become Christlike. The differences in their lives, which make for a many-faceted jewel of holiness throughout the Church’s history, come from the way in which Providence arranges their path to Calvary.

On October 17, 2010, Pope Benedict XVI elevated to the altars the first Australian saint, Mary MacKillop, in religion Mother Mary of the Cross. While it is completely outside the scope of this article to touch on the controversial nature of modern canonizations, the heroic virtue of Mother Mary will be strongly defended here, and placed side by side with that of one whose canonization all Traditional Catholics await: Archbishop Marcel Lefebvre.

Like the Archbishop, Mother Mary of the Cross’s way of the Cross came not from her enemies, but from her friends, notably ecclesiastics with an exaggerated notion of their own authority, who constantly used it to attempt to oblige Mother Mary to contravene her obligations to God. “At 29 she was excommunicated. At 34 she was held under house arrest in Bathurst. At 38 she was forced to withdraw all the 46 Sisters from Queensland, and at 40 she was banished from Adelaide and her Sisters were refused permission to leave that colony with her.”1 Each of these terrible trials came from poor decisions of diocesan bishops. Each of them was met with humility and submission on the part of Mother Mary, but without her deviating one iota from her duty to God.

Rightfully, Mother Mary’s admirable fidelity to God before men on the one hand and her supernatural spirit in this fidelity on the other are the focus of her biographers and most articles and commentaries on her life, this one included. However, it is only in joining this with her extraordinary charity and love of poverty that her picture is completed, and so some anecdotes from her Sisters are given on the side. Meanwhile, we pursue here a look at the excommunication leveled at her by Bishop Lawrence Sheil on September 22, 1871.

Background History

From her travels in rural Australia as a young girl, Mother Mary developed a deep-rooted sympathy for the many far-flung Catholic children who were receiving a purely secular education and only rare visits from a priest. “I saw so much of the evils,” she said, “attending a merely secular course of education, that all my desires seemed to centre in a wish to devote myself to poor children, and the afflicted poor in some very poor Order” (p. 46).2 It was in coupling this sympathy with an ardent desire to devote her life completely to God that gave Mother Mary her vocation.

In 1860, at the age of 18, she met Fr. Julian Tenison Woods, the future founder of the Sisters of St. Joseph. Over the next three years, the then Mary MacKillop received spiritual direction from Fr. Woods, mainly by letter, while working as a governess in South Australia and Victoria (two of the seven Australian states). In October, 1863, she took up a position as teacher at the Catholic Denominational School in Portland, Victoria. Meanwhile, Fr. Woods, a man of many projects, proposed that Mary look to starting a free school in Penola, South Australia, which all the poor Catholic children could attend, some time in the future. This plan suited Mary perfectly, but by the time it was realized two years later, the plan had changed into an execution of Mary’s dream of starting a new order of religious sisters suited to the needs of Australia. These sisters would travel to the remote areas of the Australian bush and teach children for free, while themselves living a life of poverty and even deprivation of the Sacraments for months at a time. It was a bold scheme, but just what was needed.

The Penola school began in January, 1866, and on March 19, under Fr. Woods’ direction, Mary donned a black dress as a sign of her intent to give her life to religion. On November 21, with two others, she put on a complete habit. Fr. Woods gave the three a short rule, appointed Mother Mary as superior, and thence began addressing each as “Sister” (p. 59).

In June of 1867, the Institute of St. Joseph left Penola for Adelaide, the capital of South Australia. It was there that Mother Mary made her first religious profession on August 15, and her final profession just two years later on December 8, 1869. At this stage of irrevocable commitment, Mother Mary found herself as a young woman of 27 at the head of a new religious institute with its very uncertain future stretching before her. But, to all appearances, things were going along famously. The rule had been approved by the Adelaide Ordinary in December of 1868 and after only two years of existence, the Institute had 72 nuns directing 21 schools in Adelaide and the surrounding country districts (p. 70)! The Sisters were also engaged in many charitable works, such as visiting the sick and prisoners, caring for orphans, and running homes for girls in danger, aged poor people, and women off the streets. All of these enterprises were maintained solely through begging trips that formed part of the Sisters’ duties.

In 1870, Mother Mary traveled to Brisbane to establish the Sisters in the northeastern state of Queensland. Though she and her nuns were treated very coldly by the Vicar General of the Brisbane Ordinary, who was attending Vatican I, the Sisters were soon running three schools there comprising a total of 300 students.

There is only one way to explain this extraordinary success of the new group of Sisters with only five years of existence: a true imitation of Christ Crucified. Behind the impressive statistical growth were some serious trials: an extreme lack of prudence on the part of Fr. Woods, leading to unpayable debts, poor direction of the Sisters, and hostility to the Sisters on the part of some priests; and outrageous behavior on the part of two nuns who claimed false visions while causing true di-visions among the nuns. Meanwhile, Fr. Woods thought they were saints and favored them. But a greater cross still was reserved for Mother Mary of the Cross, one which was to become her glory: excommunication.


Bishop Lawrence Sheil was appointed to the diocese of Adelaide in January, 1866, and enthroned in August the same year. He was an Irish Franciscan who had come to Australia in 1852, being appointed as Rector of St. Francis’ Seminary in Melbourne. After seven years there, he took up a position in Ballarat, where he remained until being appointed as bishop of Adelaide.

Before leaving to attend the First Vatican Council and during the council itself, the Bishop showed a great enthusiasm for the new Institute. However, during his absence, there were developments that led him to change his opinion drastically upon his return. The first was the behavior of Fr. Woods mentioned above, and the second the opposition of Fr. Charles Horan, the Bishop’s right hand man and also an Irish Franciscan (p. 88).

In April of 1870, some Sisters of St. Joseph in Kapunda, Fr. Horan’s parish, reported to the Vicar General the scandalous behavior of a Fr. Keating, Fr. Horan’s associate, involving sexual misconduct with children. This led to the expulsion of Fr. Keating and the enkindling of an implacable hatred in the breast of Fr. Horan against the Sisters. From that point, he was bent on their destruction.

When Bishop Sheil returned to Adelaide from Rome on February 2, 1871, there was a written complaint against the Institute waiting for him. Fr. Horan had composed it and garnered the signatures of half the priests of the diocese. Also, the Bishop had been commanded by Rome to look into the shenanigans of the two supposed visionaries, who among other things had once removed the Blessed Sacrament from the chapel during Holy Week and left blood stains on the altar cloths in order to create a drama.

It seems that the Bishop decided his strategy in September of 1871. Rather than just remove these naughty Sisters and replace Fr. Woods as director, he would step in and completely revamp the Institute according to his own plans and wishes. With Fr. Horan at his side, he started dismissing and relocating Sisters. He announced that he was making a new Rule, and that the current nuns would be dispensed from their vows to the old Rule. When one of the Sisters asked to see a copy of this new Rule, which did not exist, her request was brushed aside as a feminine whim.

It became clear to Mother Mary that Bishop Sheil intended to change the Institute beyond recognition. “There was to be a division into lay and choir Sisters, no superior, no principal house, no place of teacher training (not even a novitiate), groups of two and three were to be subject to the local priest, with the bishop over all” (p. 103). And while the Bishop had the power to change the Rule that he had previously approved, yet he could not “alter a vow already made and direct it to an end other than the one intended by the person who made the vow” (p. 101).

Thus, Mother Mary found herself in a very fine predicament. She had committed her life to the service of God under the Rule and her episcopal superior was demanding her to give her life to a very different religious path. But Mother Mary did not have any illusions about the vocation to which God had called her.

Mary composed a clear and firm letter to the bishop. Taking care to express her respect for his authority and her dependence on him, she declared that he had every right to change the Rule, just as he had approved it in the first place. She outlined the development of her own religious vocation, and concluded that should the Rule be changed in the manner he had indicated, she would choose not to remain in the Institute but to look for some opportunity to live the Rule elsewhere…[Later on] she said, “My first duty was to God and to the Rule which for His sake I had vowed to follow, no matter what obstacles might be thrown in its way.” (p. 101)

Bishop Sheil reproached Mother Mary for this decision, which he knew she had every right to make. After this, she was repeatedly denied requests to see him and was left to working with Fr. Horan. Upon being asked by many of her sisters what they should do, her reply was to “seek only to know God’s will and to carry it out, and not to be influenced by the actions of others, even her own” (p. 103).

Things came to a head on September 21. Fr. Horan met with Mother Mary, demanding that she go to St. John’s, a mission sufficiently distant from Adelaide for her to be out of the way. She did not refuse, but asked for some closure on the question of the new Rule. At 10:30 that night, Fr. Horan appeared at the convent, demanding that Mother Mary comply with the Bishop’s wishes lest she be excommunicated. Being ill in bed, she sent the reply by another Sister that she still wished to follow the old Rule.

The next morning, Bishop Sheil called all of the nuns to the chapel. There, equipped with mitre and crozier, he pronounced excommunication on Mother Mary for disobedience and rebellion, and condemned her for spiritual pride and bringing wickedness into the convent.


Foundress at 24. A booming order of Sisters five years later. Then excommunicated at 29 for fidelity to her Rule, and on the curb, cast off by her Ordinary and with seemingly no hope for her future. How did Mother Mary react to these events? Was not her life shattered, as well as the work of the past five years? Would the Institute come to naught then in one fell swoop? Was she now no longer a Catholic because she had disobeyed lawful authority?

It is here that the lives of our two saints hum at the same frequency. Like the Archbishop after her, Mother Mary knew that she was not disobedient and that she was not excommunicated. On the contrary, she was upholding authority. Describing the excommunication later on, she stated:

I seemed not to realize the presence of the Bishops and priests; I know I did not see them; but I felt, oh, such a love for their office, a love, a sort of reverence for the very sentence which I then knew was being in full force passed upon me.…I was intensely happy and felt nearer to God than I had ever felt before. (p. 105)

Just as the Archbishop after his “excommunication” did not hesitate to conduct himself as a Catholic, so too Mother Mary. Though she kept out of the public eye, she continued to go to Mass and receive Communion from some of the many priests who knew that the sentence was bogus. Her apparent excommunication, she knew, was drawing her to a truer union with her Spouse. Her vocation and life were not stifled, but intensified. The affair was not a finish line, but a new take-off point.

Just as the Archbishop cared nothing for the unjust sullying of his own name, but rather experienced great anguish over the Church’s terrible trial and the immense discredit weighing on the Pope’s shoulders, so too Mother Mary. Her great heart hardly spoke of its intense anguish, and she seemed not to regard her own reputation. The focus of her worry, seen in many letters and actions, was to ensure that others not “write one word against the Bishop or priests” and that she herself excuse the Bishop in every manner possible, by saying that he had been misled or that he was confused, both of which were true (p. 109). She knew that the affair was a scandal and that the Bishop’s reputation would suffer from the mistake he had made. And while Fr. Horan went about falsifying events, she refused to defend herself publicly.

The heroism of the saints often lies hidden within their souls, apparent to God, but obscure to men, who have so little insight into the interior forum. But then Providence, wishing to display His handiwork, arranges a terrible crisis, and in the shadow of its immense darkness, the brilliance of the saint’s virtue shines so resplendently that none can mistake it. For St. Francis, the crisis was being disowned by his father. For Bl. Margaret of Castello, it was being disowned by both parents. For Mother Mary and Archbishop Lefebvre, it was being disowned by the Church’s hierarchy.

This state of affairs could not last for long, however. Just five months later, Bishop Sheil found himself on his death bed, and finally realized that he had been greatly deceived about Mother Mary. Two of his last acts before passing to eternity on March 1, 1872, were to appoint a Fr. Reynolds instead of Fr. Horan as his post-mortem administrator and command that Mother Mary’s censure be lifted. The latter took place without any formal request on her part. As with the bishops of the Society, there was no penance imposed, retraction demanded, or preconditions laid down (p. 110). Just 15 months later in Rome, Pope Pius IX lovingly laid his hands on the head of Mother Mary, knowing about her terrible trials. A modified Rule, but one keeping intact the original spirit of the Institute, was approved by Rome on April 21, 1874. Mother Mary’s vocation, and the Institute, were saved.


Everything is a grace. Our Heavenly Father arranges for each of us a path to sanctity, which infallibly leads there if we cooperate. In the name of obedience, Mother Mary of the Cross was commanded to give up the vows she had sworn to God. In the name of obedience, Archbishop Lefebvre was commanded to give up the Mass of his ordination. Mother Mary was persecuted because her order exposed the moral errors of a priest. The Archbishop was persecuted for exposing the doctrinal errors of the vast majority of the hierarchy. Both were condemned as being rebellious and stubborn. Both suffered immensely for decades from authority gone outside its bounds against God and reason. One of them has now been raised to the altars by a Pope Benedict XVI. Just a few decades before, he had been a close witness and associate of the declaration of excommunication on one who refused a false obedience. It was Mother Mary’s true obedience that made her heroic; the Conciliar Church has recognized this heroism and declared her a saint. It was Archbishop Lefebvre’s true obedience that made him heroic; Holy Mother Church will one day declare him a saint for the same reason.


Excerpts taken from Memories of Mary by Those Who Knew Her (Mulgrave, Victoria: John Garratt Publishing, 2010):

A Sister was dying at Port Augusta. She was putting out a crude kerosene lamp in the church after evening devotions. The lamp burst and in a moment the poor Sister was in flames. She lingered for three or four days in great agony and each day kept asking for Mother Mary. (p. 7) Mother Mary was in Adelaide when she received the news that two of her children were dying and were calling for her. She started at once but found that the last train had left; also the boat. She hired a coach from one town to another undertaking the long journey by the quickest way through the rough bush country. It was over 300 miles but she came along without any unnecessary stopping until she reached Happy Valley about thirty miles from Port Augusta. (p. 21) She made fruitless efforts to get driven on; several farmers were in with their wheat, but all shook their sage heads at the prospect of driving to Port Augusta. They adjourned to the hotel and were having refreshments when Mother Mary walked in and said: “Gentlemen, my sister who is dying at Port Augusta, is constantly asking for me. If one of you will lend me a horse, I will ride there.” Chivalry was not quite dead in those Celtic hearts. Two or three jumped up…and drove her on that afternoon where she was in time to console the last moments of the dying Sister.–Srs. Patricia Campbell and Stanislaus Punyer (p. 7)
On one occasion I threw out a very small crust of bread with some other scraps. Mother saw me from her place at table and she picked it up after I had gone out–I was out all day and that evening at tea Mother came into the refectory with the crust and quietly put it on my plate and told me to eat it, that food was too good for a wasteful novice. I do not think I have ever wasted a crumb of food since, and I really think that is why I cannot bear to see it wasted.–Sr. Sabina Lynch (p. 36)
I remember her on one occasion visiting one of our convents where I happened to be a member of the community. The house was in a dilapidated condition and our food was poor and insufficient. In wet weather the rain poured into every room–the oratory where we had the privilege of having the Blessed Sacrament was the best room, and even there the roof leaked sometimes. When Mother Mary came and saw how we were placed she sat down and cried–but they were tears of joy not sorrow: “Sisters,” she said, “here I find you all well and very happy–good and generous–bearing your privations with a spirit of contentment and peace though I know you are often cold and hungry.”–Sr. Ethelburga Job (p. 64)


Fr. Paul Robinson was ordained in 2006 and is stationed at Holy Cross Seminary in Australia where he is a professor



1 Sr. Lynette Young, RSJ, in the December 2010 newsletter of the Cistercian monks of Tarrawarra.

2 All page numbers are taken from the official biography on Mother Mary, written by the postulator of her cause, Fr. Paul Gardiner, S.J. It is entitled Mary MacKillop, an Extraordinary Australian, and is available from