When the Catholic Church in Rome is determining who will be canonised, it is the number of miracles that matter. Not the number of those advocating that a certain individual should be declared a saint.

Kevin Rudd went to Mass at the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel in North Sydney on Sunday. The Prime Minister, who was raised a Catholic but mainly attends Anglican Melbourne-born founder of the Sisters of St Joseph (or Josephites), a saint.services, is a well known supporter of the cause to make Mary MacKillop, the

Tim Fischer, the former National Party leader and now ambassador to the Holy See, is another fan of MacKillop. The new Liberal Party leader, Tony Abbott, is also a member of the MacKillop Fan Club.

Support from Australia for MacKillop would not have done her cause any harm. But there is no evidence that the Vatican’s bureaucratic processes have been hurried up to suit the wishes of Rudd or anyone else. The proposal that Mary MacKillop (1842-1909) be made a saint was first raised eight decades ago. Clearly the Holy See has not acted promptly in response to pressure.

Some Catholics believe in miracles. Others are not so sure. After all, medicine is a developing science and it is impossible to demonstrate that what is currently an inexplicable cure may not turn out later to be explainable.

There is little doubt that MacKillop warrants the highest honour the Pope can grant to the Catholic departed. Catholics believe in the Fall, the inevitability of sin and the need for forgiveness and reconciliation. Like the rest of her flock, MacKillop was far from perfect. She, too, was a manifestation of original sin. Yet, for all her faults, MacKillop was a remarkable Australian Catholic who exhibited enormous personal courage. Her story is well told by Paul Gardiner in the biography Mary MacKillop: An Extraordinary Australian.

MacKillop’s parents were Scottish-born Catholics. She was well educated for her time but when the family experienced financial difficulties she spent considerable time caring for her mother and siblings.

In 1860, at age 18, MacKillop moved to Penola in South Australia where she worked as a governess. Soon after she decided to found an order of Catholic nuns dedicated to teaching the poor and the less well off. In time this work extended to orphanages.

The Josephites were formally founded in 1866, the year MacKillop turned 24. In 1871 she was formally excommunicated from the Catholic Church by Bishop Laurence Sheil in Adelaide. Sheil, who suffered from mood swings, withdrew the excommunication order shortly before his death the following year.

The dispute between MacKillop and Sheil turned on her insistence that the Josephites be a national order with a central form of government. Here she was before her time, maintaining that a new country like Australia could not be beholden to colonial (later state) boundaries or to the prevailing structure in the church whereby Catholic priests, brothers, nuns and laity alike belonged to a diocese run by a bishop or archbishop who reported directly to the Pope in Rome.

Certainly the Society of Jesus (the Jesuits) was an international order reporting directly to the Pope. The likes of Sheil were willing to accept the Jesuits in Australia. After all, their founder – Ignatius of Loyola – was a canonised saint. But this did not mean that the Irish-born Sheil and some fellow bishops were willing to concede a degree of autonomy to a young women with a Scottish Catholic background.

In 1873 MacKillop took her case to Rome, met Pope Pius IX at the Vatican and won. At the time she was just over 30 years of age. Opposition to MacKillop from within the hierarchy did not dissipate and in the 1880s the matter was again referred to Rome. This time Pope Leo XIII ruled in MacKillop’s favour. And there the matter rested. MacKillop found that when dealing with bishops it was advisable to document your case in writing.

To be fair, she did get consistent support from the English-born Archbishop Roger Bede Vaughan in Sydney along with a couple of New Zealand bishops and the Jesuit order. Under its central structure, the Sisters of Saint Joseph undertook good works in giving basic education to poor children in Australia and New Zealand. MacKillop received some support from those of Protestant and Jewish faith. But most of the support came from Catholics and MacKillop described herself as the Josephites’ beggar-in-chief.

Many contemporary Australians of Catholic background and modest economic means owe their success today to the sacrifices made by the Sisters of St Joseph.

MacKillop’s pending canonisation is a timely reminder of the men and women of Christian faith who devoted their lives to the poor and the dispossessed. At a time when there is proper concern about the past sexual and physical abuse of some young Catholics by Catholic clergy, it is appropriate to remember that many Australian Catholics had a more wholesome experience.

Greg O’Regan, for example, who wrote to The Canberra Times last month thanking the Sisters of Mercy and the Marist Brothers for taking him “into their hearts” when he was an orphan and affirming that they “have no need to apologise”.