Sr Kathryn Sweeney, of Ballina’s St Francis Xavier Parish, is joining a pilgrimage to Rome for the canonisation of Australia’s first Roman Catholic saint Mary MacKillop.
Sr Kathryn Sweeney, of Ballina’s St Francis Xavier Parish, is joining a pilgrimage to Rome for the canonisation of Australia’s first Roman Catholic saint Mary MacKillop.

Woman to witness sainthood

KATHRYN Sweeney knew she was a bit different when she joined the Sisters of St Joseph in Tenterfield in 1973 as an 18-year-old.

As she prepares for her pilgrimage to Rome next week for the canonisation of Australia's first saint – the Josephite's founder Mary MacKillop – Sister Kathryn took a moment to reflect on her own journey.

While most of her friends were getting married at that time, Sister Kathryn had different urges.

With few options available for women, she went to work as a pharmacy assistant, though the gregarious country girl had a nagging feeling that was to draw her back to the Josephite Sisters, and a certain childhood epiphany.

At school she had learnt about Mary MacKillop, another strong-willed country girl who, like her, loved people, the land and horses.

But what impressed Sister Kathryn most was Mary MacKillop's sense of justice and her devotion to the poor and underprivileged.

“I remember the day very well. I was in Year 9 and I thought, ‘this is what I want to do',” she said.

“She set up free schools for the poor where they didn't have to pay, which was quite different from the elite schools at the time.

“Like Mary MacKillop, the Josephites reached out to those in need and there were many struggling families in Tenterfield in the '60s.

“There was also an Aboriginal reserve just out of town and from a very young age I knew they were treated differently. The only time they were encouraged was at sporting events, which I was into as well, so I had that early connection.”

Today Sister Kathryn works from the Ballina parish where she oversees the Aboriginal ministry in the Lismore Diocese, passionately advocating for, and building relationships with, the Bundjalung people.

Though one of only three Josephite nuns working in the diocese, next week she will join a contingent of 116 of her fellow sisters on the 10-day pilgrimage to Rome culminating in the canonisation ceremony at St Peter's Cathedral on October 17.

“It's a great privilege to be chosen to go on the pilgrimage (that will) follow in the footsteps of Mary MacKillop in 1873 as she sought approval from the Pope to set up our order,” she said.

“We know exactly where she went from her letters – different churches and different places all over Rome.

“It took her eight months because she had this new vision of a centrally governed order instead of being under the control of dioceses and the bishops. That was one of the big issues and the reason so many were against it.

“That was before (Australian) Federation and before women had the vote so she really was a visionary to organise a system of governance so similar to our Federation. She could've been Prime Minister.”

While Sister Kathryn is thrilled about the trip, her heart remains in Bundjalung country where she is as excited about her work today as she was at the beginning.

“I love the people but it's not just that – it's all God's work, because if you don't have that connection with God it wouldn't make sense,” she said.



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