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Sunday 17 October 2010

Mary MacKillop - and why it's a big deal for Catholic school kids

Growing up and attending Our Lady of the Rosary Catholic School in Fairfield, NSW, we learned about Mary MacKillop at the same time we were learning our maths and grammar basics in our cute, blue-check uniform. We knew all about Mary's good deeds and that she grew up in a place in Adelaide called Penola. I even distinctly remember the picture of the little home she lived in. Such was her importance at our school, she was spoken of almost daily and with reverence.

It was a HUGE deal for the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart, known as "Josephites" - the nuns who ran the school - that one day, Mary MacKillop may become Australia's first saint.

In the late 1970s and early 1980s, us kids thought it was a bit of a pipe dream. I mean, an Aussie saint? Impossible!

Weren't all saints Italian? With many of my school mates from Euro-backgrounds, that's all we knew.

I grew up going to plenty of what Italo-Aussies call a "festa", which we knew to mean the big Italian festival, held at a local park or church grounds, where you'd go all out to honour a saint. There would be the traditional procession (you see something similar in the movie "The Talanted Mr Ripley" and "The Godfather, Part II", for example) where strong Italian men carry the statue of the saint, often flown in from Italy. And where God-fearing Italian women dressed in mourning black would line up to kiss the feet of the revered statue, in the hope they and their families would be blessed with good fortune. Where you'd eat sfinge (or zeppole, depending on whether you're from Sicily or Abruzzi) and mastazzole (those hard 'biscuits' - with the bits of coloured foil - you'd almost break your teeth on) and Italian nougat. And you'd queue for rides, eat real ice cream, check out the young hot Italian boys as you got older, and hang out to see an Italo-Aussie entertainer like Jane Scali and in later years, Vanessa Amorosi. And if you weren't too tired, you'd wait it out to see the fireworks (I hid in my beloved dad's houndstooth jacket when I was really young, and bawled - much to the dismay of my older brothers who wanted to stay - because fireworks terrified me). Tony Barber may have MCed that year, and all the Italian oldies were totally convinced Tony was Italian; he'd just changed his name to Aussie-fy himself.

Ah, those were good ol' days. The festas still exist and I can't wait to take my kids to them. I may be a modern day girl and all, but I do love some old school traditions. We'd have to alternate between the Italian and the (husband's side) Maltese festas, to also honour Maltese saints like St Mary and St George.

But never, ever would I have imagined that one day we'd be celebrating the life of Aussie St Mary at a "festa" for her.

And here we are. Today, millions watched as Mark MacKillop became Australia's first saint.

My old school was renamed Mary MacKillop College, Wakeley many years ago. And today - despite my sometimes incongrous relationship with Catholism - I am as happy as that somewhat disbelieving kid in the blue check uniform.

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