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How Australia got its first saint

Pope Benedict XVI saw a miracle in a cancer victim's recovery and thus created a saint.

A night time projection of an image of Pope Benedict XVI illuminates a pylon of the Sydney Harbour Bridge July 14, 2008, during a papal visit. (Tim Wimborne/Reuters)

SYDNEY, Australia — In 1993, a large-cell carcinoma was found in Australian woman Kathleen Evans' right lung. Following further medical examination, a secondary tumor was discovered in her brain. The Australian mother of five was given a grim diagnosis: two months to live. She was beyond chemotherapy, and radiotherapy would have extended her life by a couple of weeks at best.

Evans, a devout Catholic who was then 49 and a reformed smoker, decided to forgo the radiotherapy. Instead, she prayed.

Then a friend gave her a picture of Mary MacKillop, the Australian nun much-revered since her death in 1909. A piece of Mackillop’s clothing was attached to the back of the image and Evans wore it on her nightgown. Her family and friends also prayed to Mary Mackillop, and after gaining enough strength Evans attended a two-week prayer retreat.

To her doctor's surprise, four months later Evans was still alive. And three months after that, X-rays confirmed that her cancer had vanished. Its disappearance remains unexplained.

Evans, now 66 with 20 grandchildren from five children, has only been known by name since this January. Before then, she was referred to only by a case name: "Mary Mackillop's second miracle," the one necessary to secure the nun’s promotion to sainthood.

In December 2009, the case was officially recognized by Pope Benedict XVI as the second miracle that could be attributed to Mackillop. And on Feb. 19 to the rapture of Australia's 5 million Catholics he announced that she would be canonized in October.

Australia's Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, raised Catholic, lauded the declaration of Australia’s first Saint as “deeply significant ... for all Australians whether of Catholic faith or not.”

Mackillop’s image now adorns a series of souvenir stamps, believers who claim that she helped them are speaking out and spiritual tourism to significant places from her biography is on the rise.

Despite Australia’s reputation as a secular nation, Mary and her miracles have been greeted with little skepticism, and there's no shortage of social commentators voicing their concerns.

“It's as if we've taken off our modern thinking caps and gone all medieval,” wrote Philip Almond, a professor of religion at The University of Queensland, in The Australian newspaper. Almond described the nation’s muted reaction as “the propensity of a generally skeptical and pretty irreligious Australian press and public thus far to have uncritically endorsed, without more than a moment's reflection, that miracles can happen.”

Carole Cusack, an associate professor of studies in religion at the University of Sydney, said meantime that the public’s willingness to embrace Mackillop’s sainthood had little to do with religion. Rather, it was a “pop-culture phenomenon.”