How Australia got its first saint

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.”

“A lot of Australians aren’t interested in sport, but will watch the Olympics. Australians that aren’t particularly patriotic will go to a barbecue on Australia Day,” said Cusack. “It’s a bit like Vegemite — we like to celebrate things that are Australian, even if it doesn’t completely align with our tastes.”

Mackillop was born to Scottish migrants, in Melbourne, in 1842. She was the eldest of eight and helped support her large family by working as a governess. An appreciation of education led her to dedicate her life to teaching children in remote areas.

In 1866, she founded a school in an abandoned stable in Penola, South Australia, where she was joined by several more women. The group came to be known as the Congregation of the Sisters St. Joseph. Another 117 more schools were established under their name during Mackillop’s lifetime.

In 1871, a disagreement with ecclesiastical authorities led to her excommunication, but the bishop who accused her of insubordination renounced the sentence. She died in 1909. Just 16 years later, the first calls for canonization were made.

Speaking to the theory of “pop-culture phenomenon,” Neil Ormerod, a professor of theology at the Australian Catholic University, said: “She is an affirmation of the form of Catholicism that has developed in Australia.”

He continued: “She had an affiliation with the bush, support of the underdog and she clashed with authority. These are all strong themes that Australians can relate to.”

Popularity is one thing, but to win favor with the Vatican and achieve sainthood at least two miracles need to be cleared, first by medical bodies and later by religious authorities.

The process can take years. It begins with an investigation of the potential saint, usually conducted by a bishop or nun belonging to the candidate’s diocese. This postulator searches for evidence of the candidate's role in a miracle.

Once a possible miracle has been identified, scientific experts must conclude that the event could not possibly be explained by scientific means alone. This evidence is presented to a theologian, who also combs through the writing and activities that took place in the candidate’s lifetime.

MacKillop “has to have led an exemplary life,” said Ormerod. “There was some controversy in parts of her life, there were controversial rumors that she had a drinking problem, but they were unsubstantiated.”

The accumulated information is then submitted to an authority in the Vatican, and the decision rests in their hands.

MacKillop's first supposed miracle took place in 1961, when a 23-year-old leukemia-stricken woman, given less than a month to live, prayed to MacKillop and recovered. The 72-year-old who remains anonymous, went on to have six children.

Thirty-four years later Mackillop was beatified, but until Evans came along she languished one miracle away from being a full saint.