The tiny town of Penola in South Australia is gearing up for its biggest event – the canonisation for its favourite daughter, Mary MacKillop. Brendan Shanahan found a community being typically Australian – restrained and understated in its celebrations. Penola is a town of a little more than 1500 people, approximately five hours south-east of Adelaide by car. It’s a charming place, but not exactly what you’d call “on the map”. “When I went to the Gold Coast and told people I was from Penola, they had no idea where I was talking about,” says one local woman. “Even when I said I’m from Mount Gambier.” Even the Mount Gambier, glittering jewel of the border region and “City of Sinkholes”? Surely she jests!

Relatively obscure as it is, Penola does have much to boast about, primarily as the place where Mary MacKillop, with the inspiration of Father Julian Tenison Woods, founded the Josephites, the first religious order to be established by an Australian. On October 17 MacKillop will become our only native-born saint, and this little town in South Australia will have its biggest moment since a churchy girl from Melbourne arrived in 1860 and said, “Hey, why aren’t you in school?”

God forbid, not too posh

Penola is an unexpected delight. Green and misty, much of the surrounding land is given over to the vineyards of the Coonawarra, lending it a vaguely European air. The town itself is modest but scattered with beautifully preserved colonial buildings and churches. There’s a smart restaurant and even the rough pub serves riesling by the glass, but Penola is too far from anywhere to be truly posh. When Father Woods arrived in 1857 he described a “pretty retired spot” with a “sedate air of prosperity”. More than 150 years later, that just about covers it.

Arguably the biggest attraction in Penola is the Mary MacKillop Penola Centre, a modern museum of unexpected architectural sophistication, devoted to telling the story of the only nun since Sally Field to have penetrated popular consciousness. Next door is St Joseph’s Church and the Woods-MacKillop Schoolhouse, the first purpose-built structure to practise Mary’s revolutionary educational program.

Manning the complex are a team of energetic volunteers, including 86-year-old Father Paul Gardiner, an avuncular Jesuit intellectual, author
of MacKillop’s authorised biography and the man essentially responsible for writing the submission that will make Mary a saint. It was Father Paul who proved the two miracles that were accepted by the Vatican as evidence for MacKillop’s sainthood.

An all-Australian town, gal and saint

As job titles go, proving miracles for a living invites a host of questions: is there opportunity for promotion? How do you tell if someone didn’t have a miracle and just got lucky? What do you tell people at cocktail parties who look at you like you’ve just announced you’re an alchemist or the king’s chief soothsayer?

“The occurrence of miracles doesn’t contradict science,” says Father Paul with the same slightly exasperated tone he gives to everything. “It just says that exceptions happen.” To illustrate his point, the padre picks up a Milk Arrowroot from the plate in front of us. “If I drop this biscuit a certain number of times, science can predict it will return to the plate. But it might not. Maybe, just one time, it will stay there… Physical science can’t give you the cause of anything. It can’t say why. ‘Cause’ is a philosophical concept, not a scientific one.”

To secular eyes, it can seem a curiously anachronistic, even dangerous, view of the world. But isn’t there something inherently exciting about the possibility of a miracle? That here, now, in 2010 – when we have quantum physics, missions to Mars and a 24-hour food channel – there could be a mysterious magic more powerful than anything we can imagine?

Miracles might seem like the preserve of hysterical Mediterranean grandmas, hair-gelled tele-evangelists and their couch-bound devotees, but part of me envies their sense of hope and faith in the face of the apparently impossible.

Penola’s big break missed?

It would be an unbecoming exaggeration to say Penola is in the grip of MacKillop fever. There are no messages of celebration in shop windows, there’s no banner across the main street. If there was a sign on the highway welcoming me to “MacKillop Country” then I missed it.

“She seemed like a really good lady,” says one local woman, offering a typically low-key insight into the place Mary MacKillop occupies in the tiny town’s heart.
If we were in Europe there’d be guys selling flashing MacKillop statues, a new loaf called a Pain au MacKillop and you wouldn’t be able to move for falling over some black-clad Nanna shuffling by on her knees, weeping to the sky.

Sure, a baker at the neighbouring town of Naracoorte is shipping a cake to Rome and the Coonawarra winemakers are sending 100 dozen bottles of red but, on the whole, there seems to be a slightly frustrating Anglo reserve to the whole affair. I mean, this is it. Penola’s big shot. The chance to go to the Gold Coast, walk into Hooters and say, “I’m from Penola – you know, the Mary MacKillop town you saw on Kerri-Anne.”

I just hope Penola realises exactly how big this opportunity could be.

Miracles are in the eye of the beholder

Guy De Tot is a loquacious 57-year-old French-born local, the sort of cultured, eccentric type who seems to populate refined country towns like Penola. After 25 years as an international ballet dancer, he has reinvented himself as a successful sculptor. The
Mary MacKillop Foundation has commissioned him to make three reliquaries (where one houses one’s saintly relics) to hold strands of MacKillop’s hair. One reliquary will be sent to Rome.

Perhaps unexpectedly for one with many glamorous and decadent stories of his days on the stage, De Tot once trained as a priest. These days he describes himself as agnostic, but he’s effusive in his praise of MacKillop. “I’m a big fan of Mary MacKillop,” he says, pronouncing it MacKil-oop and gesticulating with Gallic enthusiasm. “She didn’t compromise on education for the lower classes. She rebelled and was excommunicated. That really spoke to me, as an artist.” De Tot also hints at a barrier to her wider acceptance within the Australian national consciousness. “I grew up in France listening to stories about saints. Every year I get a present on my patron saint’s day. For me it was normal.”

Australians, generally speaking, just don’t do religion. We are, for the most, a nation of pragmatists, suspicious of strong passions – levitating Milk Arrowroots are just not our scene. It
would be a shame, however, if MacKillop’s status as a religious icon were to cloud her status as an Australian icon.

The Josephites appeal to Australians precisely because, like their founder, they are pragmatic. The Josephites were a specifically Australian response to specifically Australian conditions. They moved independently, free of the bishops in the distant capital, and were given a fair bit of personal flexibility. Unlike many European orders they don’t tend to have elaborate degrees or brew award-winning beer. The primary thing is to get the job done.

A saint for everyone, and everyone has a saint Sister Neisha is the only Josephite in Penola and principal of Mary MacKillop Memorial School. “It says that our experience in this land has validity,” she says of MacKillop’s canonisation. “And I think that’s one thing Mary says: to be happy in who we are as Australians and not to worry about what everyone thinks of us.”

Secular readings of MacKillop’s life are not, however, viewed particularly favourably by the Catholic Church. Try mentioning her status as an early feminist. “She’d have been horrified!” booms Father Paul. (Although she was one, whether she liked it or not.)
MacKillop may have some status as a figure of inter-faith harmony – the Josephites taught everyone equally, and in Penola at least, there is a great deal of ecumenical support for her canonisation.

“The thing about Mary,” says Father Paul, “is that they tend to stress her good works, her orphanages and schools, etc. But she’s not being canonised for that. You’ve got to look into her heart, her soul, her devotion to God. That’s the difference here.”
To many it would seem an obscure and insignificant doctrinal matter. After all, most people do just think of her good works. The matter, however, is clear – Mary is a saint because of her closeness to God. It’s the kind of detail that makes people uncomfortable, but there’s no getting around it: at the centre of the MacKillop story is a capital-G God, complete, as Ned Flanders once said, “with all the stuff that contradicts the other stuff”.

No matter how you slant it, canonisation is still a strange and rather ancient thing, a primitive swamp creature crashing the party of polite, liberal, secular Australia. Whether you approve or otherwise, it’s impossible to deny that the MacKillop story represents a radical new chapter in our national story, born in the genteel Penola village.

An exception but no miracle

Two days after I leave Penola, a highly improbable event hits the town: a tornado destroys the bowls club, blows the roofs off several homes and launches a tree through the roof of the schoolhouse. The damage, I am assured, will not impact the canonisation celebrations, but it’s an event with the kind of biblical overtones that headline writers can’t resist – there are mentions of both miracles and divine wrath. A couple of people complain about a newspaper’s description of the town as “tiny”.

The nice thing about Penola is, of course, that it is tiny. As in a miniature painting, details stand out and become charming: the flashing “OPEN” sign in a bakery; the obsessive arrangement of costume jewellery in a shop window; the Indian and Cambodian seasonal workers getting into beat-up vans in the IGA car park. I think, too, of the display in Mary’s schoolhouse, of the ribbons MacKillop would award children for behaviour – black for bad, red for good. I see the Josephite logo on the front of her habit, appearing as it did in my childhood, somewhat like the ABC logo, and bringing with it a flood of nostalgia.

All at once I am taken back to primary school, to the kindly nuns who taught us reading and the cranky ones who ran the choir; I remember singing the national anthem and marching into class. I find myself unexpectedly touched by the MacKillop story, by my own half-forgotten connection to it. And what was my sporting house called? Our colour was green and we always lost.

Ah, yes. I remember now: Penola.

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