The Catechism of the Catholic Church says, “The saints have always been the source and origin of renewal in the most difficult moments in the Church’s history” (CCC 828). Encouraging and inspiring are the lives of the saints. It is also heartening to know that most endured great hardships and adversity in living out their commitment to following the Gospel’s call to care for the people of God. As we celebrate the feasts of All Saints and All Souls, I recall and honor so many saints and souls that have inspired our Church and me personally.
I want to highlight, and possibly for some, introduce two holy women that were extraordinary examples of renewal to the Church: Saint Mary MacKillop (1842 -1909), also known as St. Mary of the Cross; and Venerable Henriette Delille (1812-1862), also known as “Servant of Slaves.” These two women who served in the name of Christ and the Church are models to the need for perseverance to ensure environments that maintain the respect of the dignity of all children of God.
Saint Mary MacKillop was born in Melbourne, Australia, in 1842, to Scottish parents. She grew up in a family that constantly struggled financially and she helped provide for her siblings. She was drawn to religious life. With her spiritual director, Fr. Julian Woods, they founded a new community of women—the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, also known as the Josephite Sisters. This new order ministered to the poor by serving in schools, orphanages, and social services, including assisting unmarried mothers. They served not only Catholics but also worked among the aborigines.
St. Mary MacKillop and her sisters also faced struggles with some local church authorities on their new order’s power structure but found support from Catholics and non-Catholics alike. During their trials with leadership, they continued serving the poor while seeking recognition of their new order even during the five months when St. Mary was excommunicated. After learning that he was provided false and prejudicial information about her and the sisters, the local bishop rescinded her ex-communication. St. Mary persisted and ultimately received official approval for their congregation and how it was to be governed from Pope Leo XIII.
At the time of her death in 1909, at the age of 67, the Josephite sisters were thriving throughout Australia.
Following St. Mary’s canonization in 2010 as Australia’s first canonized saint, Sr. Maria Casey, in a radio interview in Australia, stated that St. Mary MacKillop was a woman that many can “resonate with because she knew what it was to have sorrow and tragedy in her life.”
The Venerable Henriette Delille also persisted in following Christ, like St. Mary, despite facing rejection and challenging unjust systems. Henriette was born a free woman of color and lived her life in New Orleans, Louisiana, in the 1800s. Even while being denied entrance into a women’s religious order and overcoming obstacles of creating the first order for women of color, Henriette committed her life to care for the sick, dying and poor whose dignity and humanity were rejected.
According to the Archdiocese of New Orleans, Henriette and her fellow sisters are recorded as serving as “godmothers to many slaves, free, children and adults and they also witnessed many marriages.” Even though Henriette was born into the “placage” system, which expected that she would live “in concubinage” with a wealthy white man, she spoke out against and resisted this practice.
As a Catholic, Henriette witnessed to the love of Jesus caring for people of color even though she faced the adversity of racial prejudice both within her church and her country. It is important to note that Henriette had others in the Church who supported her efforts, which led to the recognition of her religious order in 1842. She is credited for being the founder of The Sisters of the Holy Family, which their apostolic intention stated was to care for the sick, help the poor and instruct “their people, free and enslaved, children and adults, in the name of Jesus Christ and the Church.”
Both St. Mary MacKillop and Venerable Henriette Delille witnessed, through adversity, strong dedication and perseverance of their love of God and faith in God’s direction. They challenged unjust systems and were sources of renewal for the Catholic Church and the world during the times in which they lived.
St. Mary MacKillop has been referred to as the patron saint of clergy abuse victims because sisters of St. Joseph also exposed a known abuser of that time. Sr. Maria Casey stated that a more appropriate title for St Mary MacKillop is the patroness of “the dignity of all people.”
In honoring the lives of St. Mary MacKillop and the Venerable Henriette Delille, it can be said that they both have modeled for us how to protect and defend the dignity of the vulnerable and those rejected by unjust systems or practices. May we look to their example to remind us that we each have a role in ensuring the dignity of all by caring for others, speaking out against harm and looking toward a vision to promote change to bring about the Kingdom of God to our communities and our world.
The writer is the director of the Archdiocese of Anchorage- Juneau Office of Safe Environment.