Mystery Buyer of "Mary MacKillop Gravesite Cross" Revealed

Catholic Communications, Sydney Archdiocese,
28 Nov 2014

ACU hope the Cross will be erected above the stone marking the site of the Melbourne birthplace of St Mary MacKillop

Speculation over the buyer of the "Mary MacKillop Cross" which is believed to have adorned the original gravestone of Australia's first saint, was revealed today when the Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University, Professor Greg Craven announced the historic Cross would be erected at her birthplace in Melbourne.

Professor Craven said that with substantial assistance from a private donor, the University had acquired this important religious and historical artefact earlier this month in a sale managed by Melbourne fine art dealer, Lauraine Diggins.

ACU, which is the largest Catholic university in the English-speaking world, is currently in discussion with the Archdiocese of Melbourne about installing the Cross in close proximity to St Mary MacKillop's birthplace and opposite ACU's Melbourne campus.

Professor Craven says it is important that an artefact of such national, historical and religious significance be put on permanent public display.

"Saint Mary MacKillop was a pioneer and a continuing source of inspiration not only to Australian Catholics but for educators everywhere," he says.

Handmade in cast-iron, the ornate "Great Cross" as it is also known, weighs a hefty 47 kilograms and stands 168 cm high.

In various private hands for more than 100 years, the Cross came up for sale earlier this month with the proviso that it be sold to a public institution so it could be seen by the public at large rather than an "individual."

Professor Greg Craven Vice Chancellor of the Australian Catholic University

After making extensive inquiries to satisfy beyond all reasonable doubt of the provenance of the Cross, ACU began negotiations with fine art dealer handling the sale.

The Cross is believed to have been created at the same time as the marble headstone after St Mary MacKillop's death in Sydney in 1909. Both the Cross and headstone adorned her grave at Sydney's Gore Hill Cemetery. However, when her remains were moved and she was reinterred in a marble tomb in front of Our Lady's Altar at the newly completed Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel in North Sydney in 1913, the headstone and Great Cross remained at Gore Hill.

The Mary MacKillop Cross went on public display before a private sale to ACU earlier this month

Not stored or put in a secure place they were stolen the following year by souvenir hunters. But somehow it is understood they found their way back to Joanna Barr Smith, a lifelong friend of Mary MacKillop's who had originally funded them as well as the tomb in the Chapel where she now rested.

The Cross and headstone remained at the Barr Smith family's Adelaide home until 1972 when James Elder bought them for a few dollars at auction. He broke them in two in order to repair the Cross and sold the headstone to Adelaide art collector, David Roche who placed it in his garden. For some years the marble headstone was used as a plinth to support a statue and it wasn't until the 1990s that a gardener noticed an inscription engraved into the marble that read "I.H.S. In Loving Memory/of/Mother Mary/ of the Cross (McKillop) Who Died Aug 8 1909/aged 67 years."

"The dropping of the 'a' in MacKillop was common at the time, " says Christopher Menz, former Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia who describes both the marble headstone and the Cross as items of "great cultural significance."

While the marble headstone remains in the late David Roche's acclaimed art collection, James Elder an antique dealer decided the repaired Cross up for sale through the Melbourne art dealer.

Although the buyer has been revealed, the price paid will remain confidential.

However this hasn't stopped Melbourne pundits going into overdrive, comparing the value of the Mary MacKillop Cross to what the sale Ned Kelly's armour might fetch, or the taxidermied body of race horse great, Phar Lap.

Buried at Gore Hill in 1909 Mary MacKillop's remains were later reinterred in the Mary MacKillop Memorial Chapel

"The Cross is not about commercial value, it is something profoundly meaningful beyond commerciality," Lauraine Diggins insists.

For ACU the intrinsic value and religious significance of the Cross also goes far beyond any monetary value.

"She was the first Australian to set up a congregation and one of the first Australian sisters to go outside the cities and minister to the education needs of the country's poor, rural and working class. Her commitment to providing an education to anyone who wished to learn has become a tradition that Australian Catholic educational institutions like ACU proudly continue," says Professor Craven. "In this spirit it is fitting this monumental Cross has come into the custodianship of the largest Catholic university in the English speaking world."