Chapter 1: Being Poor in the 1800’s
The horse-drawn buggy rattled along in the night. Its occupants were
invisible – a little bearded priest dressed in black and a youngish nun
in her dark brown habit.
What were these two up to, heading off at breakneck speed over rough
roads through the dark? Was there some kind of impropriety?
No, it was a debtor, yours truly, Mother Mary MacKillop, fleeing her creditors by the only means available.
The fact is that in 1883 I had ordered some new boots for the Sisters
in Adelaide -- and then realised that, in our poverty, we literally had
no money to pay for them. There was talk of my being arrested and
possibly sent to gaol. Father Thomas Lee, on hearing this, put me in a
buggy and drove me straight over the border into Victoria, which at
that time was still a separate colony where a South Australian creditor
could not pursue me. There I stayed until the money was found and I
could safely return.
Yes, being poor was a theme-song running through my whole life,
affecting everything I did. The same was true for many Australians back
in those days.
In our day there was no Department of Social Security. No dole office.
If you were hard up you had to accept charity wherever you could find
it -- from relatives and friends, from the Church or from strangers.
Our own MacKillop family often had to seek charity from friends and
relatives, thanks to my father being so “unlucky” in business. You
could say our family life, when we had one, was most unhappy. My
mother, physically exhausted much of the time, certainly had little
opportunity for interests outside bringing up her children.
I wrote about this to Mamma in 1866:“It was in hardship, poverty and even want
that you had to rear your children, but in the bitterest trial and
greatest need your confidence in divine Providence never failed.”
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poverty cramped my style, too, as you might say. Any thoughts I had of
a social life, advanced schooling -- even of entering the vocation of a
nun -- had to be put on hold, due to the need to feed seven younger
brothers and sisters, with no support other than a little from our
extended family and a few others.
first job, when aged 16, was as a governess living with friends of our
family looking after their children. All my pay went to help Mamma
provide for my brothers and sisters.
Later, at 18, I moved to Penola to work for my uncle and aunt, again as
a governess. This turned out to be a great thing for me. It was in
Penola that I met Father Julian Tenison Woods, who gave me the chance
to share his vision of teaching poor children in small schools run by
the Church -- children who otherwise would have had no schooling at
all. Knowing first-hand what it was like to be poor, and having a faith
that gave me a love for the poor, I felt happy to have this opening. I
spent the rest of my life responding to the challenge.
As for seeking charity from strangers, I have done plenty of that. Part
of our official policy, when setting up our Order of Sisters, was that
we were to have no income except what we could raise ourselves locally;
in particular, to accept no kind of government funding. So we went
begging in the streets and from door to door. The alternative to
begging was to starve. I remember that in our first school at Penola in
the 1860’s we lived for a while on bread and treacle.
And the first Penola school building was a mere stable -- converted for the purpose by my handyman younger brother John.
In the 1890’s we Sisters were still resorting to begging. For example,
when starting our work in Victoria (in 1890) we were low on money and
short-staffed with many children needing to be fed. I was once again
“beggar-in-chief”. I had to send a frantic appeal to Sydney, “Tomorrow will be the first day and we have no Sisters for the begging. I implore you to send two without delay.”
* * *
Some people were shocked that we should beg. But Father Woods believed,
and I knew he was right, that poverty and begging are literally good
for the soul -- good in so far as they can keep a person closer to God
and less obsessed by the things of the material world.
From my youngest years I believed that God was calling me to poverty as
a way of achieving intimacy with him. I wrote in 1871 to Bishop Sheil,
trying to make him understand, “I
longed for a religious life, one in which I could serve God and his
poor neglected little ones in poverty and disregard of the world and
its fleeting opinions . . . I looked for poverty more
like unto that practised in the early religious Orders of the Church, a
poverty which in its practice would make a kind of reparation to God
for the little confidence now placed in his divine Providence by so
many of his creatures.”
Father Woods was strict regarding poverty and set us a personal
example. He also had it written into our Rule that the Sisters were to
be “poor, humble, and consider themselves the least among all religious Orders.”The Rule stipulated that the Sisters’ houses must be “very
poor and fitted with furniture such as poor people use. The chairs and
tables to be of common wood, no carpets on the floors.”
To Father Woods, the principle of being as poor as those we served was
non-negotiable. He loved the example of Jesus who went about doing good
and who told his disciples, “The foxes have dens and the birds of the air have nests; but the Son of Man has nowhere to lay his head.”
Right from the start we put the principle into practice. When first
moving from Penola to Adelaide, I wrote to Father Woods, “Please do not let the young lady who is furnishing the home for us forget that we must be very poor.”
Near the end of my life, in my third stint as Superior, I was still at it. I wrote, “Let others seek the better more remarkable places, but let St Joseph’s true children remember their mission and seek first the poorest, most neglected parts of God’s vineyard.”
Another time I told them, “If
any Sister would say to herself that she could spend money, even a
shilling, as she liked, she would break her vow of poverty. And
so would I, if I did the same.”
We would have been hypocrites if we wanted to call ourselves Christ’s
followers, while at the same time seeking comfort.
But can the ideal of poverty be overdone? Did we overdo it?
* * *
I discovered in 1873, while in Rome, that the Holy See did not approve
of us seeking such radical poverty. Although disappointed, I resigned
myself to accept their ruling.
I wrote to Monsignor Kirby, “Concerning
our view of poverty in not having property of our own . . . we feel
anxious to preserve the poverty of our Rule. But as I said before,
having given this explanation as far as I was able, the rest I leave to God and the guidance of his Holy Spirit in those lawfully appointed to judge on the matter.”
The differences were never about whether poverty was an ideal to aspire
to -- all were agreed about that -- the differences were about how best
and most prudently to apply the principle in real life. Later on, when
things were in a bigger way and our Order did own property, we still
avoided waste and extravagance. At one stage, I had to apologise to the
Sisters for not writing them as many letters as previously because we
had not the money to buy stamps. That was in 1900.
One of the purposes of my letters was to remind the Sisters about the
spirit that underlay our desire for poverty -- that spirit of
In a circular to the Sisters in July 1899, I wrote, “We
came into religion to serve God, to overcome ourselves, to live in
obedience and charity, and in the peculiar spirit of Sisters of St
Joseph to hold ourselves detached from person, place or charge.”
tried to set an example regarding detachment. I slept in the dormitory
with the other Sisters even when I was Superior of the Order. Why not?
I mostly did not have an office, but did my letter-writing etc. on
whatever table was available. Office or no office, private bedroom or
no private bedroom -- whatever -- I tried to keep detached from such
considerations. My job was to do God’s will, with or without those
It was my job, also,
among various other duties, to teach detachment to others: to the
Sisters, obviously, and even to my mother. Yes, I had to help Mamma to
feel detached regarding her own daughters. It was a big sacrifice for
her not to have me, her oldest daughter, there with her lending a hand.
That must apply to every mother of a religious Sister. Without mothers
willing to exercise detachment, there would be no nuns anywhere -- or
I wrote to Mamma about this, “No matter what sacrifice of the will or inclinations we may make, the more and deeper the better, so long as we do God’s will, that is all we want. Oh, how I wish we would only remember that we are but travellers here.”
The spirit of detachment made us all equals. In my 1873 petition to
Pope Pius IX, I told him that the Josephite Sisters “wish to exclude all ambition and desire of distinction between any members.”
And that, as Sisters, we “beg
to be allowed the dormitory in common, as the use of separate cells
would expose them to the danger of the spirit of property.”
For similar reasons, Sisters never played the harmonium or organ for Mass, “Another
motive the Sisters have for being so averse to playing the harmonium in
the churches is that, all not being alike able to do this, it would
lead to some being thought more of and more desired than others, and
thus cause very dangerous distinctions from which all pray to be
our schools give lessons in piano-playing as Catholic schools have
traditionally done. We knew that such teaching would be divisive
between children whose families could afford a piano and those (nearly
all of them) who could not.
The purpose of our Order was to educate the poor. Our 1889 Chapter
Meeting underlined this in these words, “Only parochial and, where necessary, free schools are to be taught by the Sisters.”
We often felt under pressure to break this rule. In fact in 1895, when
I was not Superior and had been away working in New Zealand schools, I
returned to find that the Order had opened two so-called “select
schools”, where the principle of restricting our teaching to basic
primary education of the poor was not adhered to. I made my feelings
clear, telling those responsible, “These schools are against our Rule and spirit and will never have my sanction.” At our next Chapter Meeting the “select schools” were voted out of existence.
With our special calling being to the poorest, most neglected of God’s
children, it was vital that we Sisters remained, ourselves, detached
from worldly comforts and securities.
It was largely because of my father’s other-worldliness and mistakes of
judgement, business-wise, that I knew poverty and detachment from a
young age. Indirectly Papa thus taught me to cope with, and to be
content with, poverty -- and to be detached from riches. In the long
run this made me a better-equipped person to do my job.
“hardship, poverty and even want”
Dear 21st century reader, might I digress for a moment to say a few words about surviving poverty?
“Hardship, poverty and even want” were certainly the way of life of our family and many families of that era.
In the 1800’s,
families were bigger than in your century. Parents expected to have
more children; so not only did we youngsters have many brothers and
sisters, we also spent lots of time with cousins, grandparents, uncles
and aunts. We were very close. We supported each other in our poverty.
In that way we were better off than you are, for all your so-called
the 21st century, the family and the extended family seem a bit of a
lost cause. For a start, you have so many broken marriages -- plus
people having children without any marriage at all.
The family was invented by God who created us. Marriage was invented by God. Marriage is a Sacrament of God’s Church.
Through Catholic Marriage, as with all Catholic Sacraments, God offers grace.
Grace is a practical thing. The Sacramental grace conferred by
Christian Marriage offers married couples extra power, not available by
any other means, for dealing with life’s day-to-day
problems. Couples who are not married must struggle on without this
grace and power, which is what you might call self-inflicted poverty --
In the 21st century there is also much inequality. Inequality may not
matter very much so long as all, including the relatively poor, are
adequately fed and clothed.
But are they? With all your pensions and such, one might expect that at
least every modern Australian would have enough, but I am not sure that
that is how it works out.
It is one of the roles of our Church to see that nobody is in real,
unrelieved poverty -- the kind that damages health or stops children
getting a basic education. (Basic education includes, of course, first
and foremost, learning the fear of God. And the love of God. More about
Perhaps the worst modern inequality is the inequality between nations
-- between rich countries like Australia and poorer ones
21st century reader, did you know that in the last three decades the
average income of people living in African nations has fallen from
one-seventh of the average Australian income to one-fourteenth of the
average Australian income?
I was never much into politics, but I know that Our Lord wants people
like you 21st century Australians to stop ignoring injustice and
Don’t you modern Australians condone and benefit from slavery every
time you choose to buy cheaper articles imported from countries where
you know perfectly well that the workers are paid amounts on which you
could not survive?
Hardship, poverty and want -- of the usual material, money-shortage
kind -- are not the worst things that can befall a family. To a
Christian, Catholic family, physical poverty is of relatively minor
importance. But for a family to be in poverty of the spiritual kind is
objectively and eternally fatal.
"I looked for poverty”
Dear 21st century reader, might I digress more to say a few words about desiring poverty?
modern Australians have no real understanding of what poverty is --
what it feels like to be genuinely poor. Certainly most of you could
never honestly say you “looked for poverty”. That is the last thing you would dream of looking for. You are obsessed, infatuated, fixated with avoiding poverty.
How often do you hear modern people saying, when inconvenienced by
poverty, sickness etc., that all they want is for the inconvenience to
go away so they can “get on with their life”? They are talking about a “life” that does not exist and is not going to exist. They are mistaking life as seen on television for the real thing.
Real life is precisely coping with inconveniences like poverty,
learning from them, offering them up to God. To expect anything
different is simply to trap oneself in a vicious circle of being
frustrated about being frustrated.
Consider for a moment these words of Saint Paul, “I rejoice now in the
sufferings I bear for your sake; and what is lacking in the sufferings
of Christ I fill up in my flesh for his body, which is the Church.”
Yes, but is it necessary to actually go “looking for poverty”?
Well nobody is saying money is, in itself, bad. Money itself cannot be
bad because, like everything else, it belongs to God. The effects of
money become bad when you behave as though -- and even start to believe
-- that it belongs to yourself and not to God.
Giving up riches simply to make yourself poor, as an end in itself,
would not be a way to impress or to please God. What does please God is
to see his children giving up earthly riches for the right reason -- in
order to become spiritually rich.
Consider the birth of Jesus -- born in an unhygienic stable and put to
lie on rough straw. It reminds us of the words of Saint John of the
Cross, “Strive not to seek the best of worldly things, but the worst . . . to love is to detach and strip oneself, for God’s sake, of all that is not God.”
Consider the death of Jesus -- think of that moment when the soldiers
stripped his clothing from him so they could nail him, exposed, to the
Cross. By stripping him, they reopened the wounds in his whip-torn
flesh. Saint Alphonsus Liguori meditated on that moment, “My
innocent Jesus, by the merits of the torment thou hast felt, help me to
strip myself of all affection to things of earth, in order that I may
place all my love in Thee . . . grant that I may love Thee always, and
then do with me what Thou wilt.”
That is the understanding of physical and spiritual poverty that you
21st century people should be seeking.
As an aside, I have heard people say, “What
about the Catholic Church with its art treasures in the Vatican and its
elaborate church buildings? Why not sell them and give to the poor?”
Yes, I have heard such remarks. I must tell you that they are wrong.
Our first duty is to God and to give him glory. Church buildings should
always be the biggest and most beautiful buildings in any
There is, obviously, a balance to be maintained, and this could be
overdone. But the principle is as I have stated.
|Stress And Common Sense
By Arnold Jago
STRESS: WHAT IS IT?
Stress is what happens when your brain is called on to cope with more input than it is ready to handle.
Which may include situations where:
- Too much information is reaching your brain too fast
- Or your brain is receiving emotionally charged input demanding abnormal amounts of ‘nervous energy’
for some reason you are trying to manage with less than your normal
coping powers (due to sickness, tiredness etc.)
Stress is a normal part of life.
we all experience it.
itself, stress is not a problem.
The problem is when we don’t deal with stress properly. Then we get stress-related symptoms. Symptoms of distress.
And if we don’t take the right steps
as soon as the symptoms begin
starts going round and round
Stress & Common Sense
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STRESS-RELATED SYMPTOMS (DISTRESS)
In the early stages of stress, you feel nothing.
If stress continues, you may start to become aware of:
* anxiety in your head – turbulent thoughts racing like a machine that won’t turn off
* tension in your body – maybe symptoms like headache, diarrhoea, asthma
* emotional outbursts – anger, weeping, irritability etc.
KINDS OF STRESS
you’ve turned on a tap slowly. The water runs smoothly as a
nice streamlined flow. Now suddenly turn the tap on
full. You’re likely to see the flow lose its streamlined
appearance and become chaotic, turbulent and complicated.
In what situations is water flow most likely to become turbulent?
there’s no basic problem. You simply turned the tap on too
on this occasion but the plumbing is OK.
it happens every time, you suspect the tap may be too narrow for the
bore of the water pipe.
plumber may have installed the wrong fittings in the first
. . . .
the plumbing may have originally been suitable but now,
to rust build-up etc., can’t cope with the flow any more.
The times you’ve failed to cope with stress recently, what kind of problem was your downfall?
* Are you the “good-tap-sudden-overload”
type? Anybody can suffer distress when the stress they encounter
is overwhelming. The best of people feel distress if, for example, a
loved one dies. This is a short term problem, needing short term
support – only until the input settles back to normal.
* Could you be in the “plumber’s boo-boo”
category? Are your built-in coping skills so badly put together
that you’ll never cope with real life? No. There may be
people like that, but you are NOT one of them.
More likely you’re one of the “rust-clogged/obstructed-flow” variety.
Do your stress levels seem to be always increasing? Your coping ability
not what it used to be? That’s you, isn’t it?
That’s the common type of stress problem.
It CAN be overcome.
YOU can do it.
It will require some effort . . . .