SYDNEY (Reuters Life!) - Thousands of Australians poured onto the streets and into churches on Sunday to mark the impending canonization of a feisty nun who died a century ago as the country's first Roman Catholic saint.
In her lifetime, Mary MacKillop struggled with the Catholic authorities and was once briefly excommunicated. She was also instrumental in exposing sexual abuse by an Irish Catholic priest.
She was one of six Catholic figures being canonized by Pope Benedict XVI on Sunday at a ceremony in Rome.
"It is a great day," Sister Monica Cavanagh, acting secretary general of MacKillop's order, told Reuters.
"We are proud of Mary. We are proud that she's Australian, that she's a woman and she's a Josephite. We are just filled with great joy. We have probably even had a few tears today," Cavanagh said from MacKillop's tomb, a short distance from Sydney's famous harbor.
In the town of Penola in South Australia state, where in 1866 MacKillop founded the Sisters of Saint Joseph of the Sacred Heart, a special mass was celebrated with children dressing up in 19th century costume.
In Melbourne where she was born, Australia's atheist Prime Minister Julia Gillard joined celebrations commemorating her life. Near MacKillop's tomb in Sydney, giant screens were set up to broadcast the canonization ceremony live.
Foreign Minister Kevin Rudd, a Catholic who has travelled to Rome for the event, commended MacKillop for "extending education services to girls, to the poor, to the far flung parts of Australia." Opposition leader Tony Abbott, also a Catholic, called MacKillop "inspirational."
Around 5 million of Australia's 22 million people are Catholic, making it the country's largest religion.
Born in Melbourne in 1842 to Scottish parents, MacKillop's worked to provide Catholic education at a time when many poor children in colonial Australia received no education at all.
MacKillop was beautified by Pope John Paul II in 1995. Late last year the Vatican recognized a second miracle ascribed to her, paving the way for canonization.
A special cross made from timber taken from MacKillop's original school has toured Australia over the past two months in preparation for her canonization.
Today's Josephites work in several countries, including Australia's neighbor East Timor. They no longer wear the traditional nun's habit, but wore a blue scarf on Sunday to denote membership of the order.
Reporting by Chris McCall; Editing by Alex Richardson