Mary MacKillop is significant to Australia's large Catholic population and the strong Catholic tradition within Australian culture. However, MacKillop is not only revered for her religious work, but also her cultural contribution. Her refusal to submit to patriarchal Church authority, a fierce independence, and the egalitarian attitude of her life and work recommend her as a strong female in Australian history.
Education was very important to the Catholic Church, and in 1852 in South Australia the government withdrew state aid so the Catholic Church was forced to pay for its own schools. In 1866 there were still only 19 lay staffed schools paid for by local parishes. .
In that same year, Mary MacKillop met an English priest, Julian Tenison-Woods and together they co-founded the Sisters of St. Joseph of the Sacred Heart, which was dedicated to looking after poor Catholic children, and providing them with a quality, Catholic education. .
She devised a system of education admirable suited to the basic needs of literacy and numeracy for "Bush" children, with priority given to character formation as young Christians, responsible for contributing to a better society for Australia.
The establishment of the order was not without its drama. Yet Mary was a woman always prepared to work hard and was unafraid to stand up to clerical authority. IN her lifetime Mary was accused for alcoholism, prostitution and embezzlement of church funds.
In 1871 MacKillop was excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Bishop Sheil for insubordination; reports had been made of strange visions, self-inflicted versions of Christ's wounds, and other unorthodox practices among the sisters of the order. Although the order's numbers decreased, MacKillop was determined that this would not be her undoing and she refused to defend herself and spoke only kind words of those of her accusers. Her enemies included at least four bishops, as well as influential priests and members of other religious orders.