Nestled among pine forests, cattle farms and canary-yellow canola fields, the sleepy Australian Outback town of Penola seems an unlikely place for miracles.
However, thousands trek to Penola every year to pray and give thanks for Mary MacKillop, who once taught children in a disused stable here and is now poised to become the country’s first saint.
“People come and tell us what they believe are miracles that have happened to them through prayer, praying to God through Mary,” said Claire Larkin, who works at Penola’s Mary Mackillop Centre. “They come in every day. A lot of them come for that reason, they’re so grateful for what’s happened to them, the answers to their prayers.”
The Oct. 17 canonization will be screened live nationwide as Pope Benedict XVI performs the ceremony in the Vatican.
MacKillop died in 1909, but has been credited with two “miracles” — curing two terminally ill women in 1961 and 1993 following prayers to the late nun — which qualifies her for sainthood.
Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard, an atheist, has declared the canonization “an historic event for all Australians,” about 65 percent of whom are Christians.
“For all Australians, who share a country in which we put freedom of religion into action every day by respecting each other’s beliefs, it is a time of celebration,” Gillard said. “Mary MacKillop was a pioneering woman who embodied the very best of our values and the best of the Australian spirit.”
MacKillop has become one of Australia’s most celebrated figures, with a pop song, commemorative coin and even an electoral district named after her.
A stage musical about her life debuted in Sydney this month, while the Sisters of St Joseph — the order she founded — have set up a Facebook page and a Twitter account to spread her extensive writings in cyberspace.
Thousands of worshipers visit her memorial chapel each year, while MacKillop is also credited with recent wonders such as rousing a beaten Irish backpacker from an eight-month coma.
Her trailblazing story began here in Penola, a tiny farming outpost in rural Australia where she worked as a governess for wealthy Scottish relatives as an 18-year-old.
Mary, recognizable for riding to mass on horseback, struck up a friendship with priest Julian Tennison Woods after opening her cousins’ lessons to the town’s poor children.
The “vivacious and lively” Mary made such an impression on Woods that he asked if she would hold classes in an abandoned stable in the town.
By 1866 they had raised enough money to build a stone schoolhouse and the pair decided to establish an order — the Sisters of St Joseph — to carry forth their mission of teaching and helping Australia’s rural poor.
“It’s unbelievable that Australia’s first saint actually walked the streets here, that it was here that she actually made the decision to give her life to God, to service to his people,” Larkin said.
Mary clashed with the Church as her order grew, and was briefly excommunicated for ignoring orders on how the sisters should live.
However, by the time of her death there were 750 Sisters of St Joseph teaching almost 13,000 children in 117 schools and her status was such that people flocked to her grave to take a clod of earth, believing it blessed.
The sisters moved her remains to a vault inside their main chapel in Sydney, where Pope John Paul II twice prayed and where Pope Benedict XVI also paid his respects.