Australian Ambassador to the Holy See Tim Fischer and Sister Maria Casey have unveiled a unique reliquary containing a lock of Blessed Mary MacKillop’s hair at the Caravita Oratory in the centre of Rome.

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The reliquary – a receptacle for a relic – is made from a red gum fence post from the South Australian Penola property where Mary MacKillop founded the Australian Sisters of Saint Joseph with Julian Tenison Woods.

It has been carved into a cross with a sculpture using an antique piece of glass set into its centre containing the relic of Blessed Mary.

The reliquary will be presented to Pope Benedict XVI next month during the October 17 canonisation ceremony at Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome.

Five other saints from Italy, Canada, Poland and Spain are being canonised on the same day.

The Australian Embassy to the Holy See is expecting around 7000 to 8000 Australian visitors to the city for the canonisation ceremony of Australia’s first saint.

Several events are planned for the weekend of the ceremony, including a special evening opening of the Vatican Museums on Friday October 15, accompanied by a performance of indigenous dancing and didgeridoo playing, a Saturday prayer vigil and a mass to be celebrated by the head of the church in Australia, Cardinal George Pell with several other bishops and priests in Saint Paul’s Basilica Outside the Walls on Monday after the canonisation.

“I think believers and non-believers alike agree that Mary MacKillop was a great Australian,” Mr Fischer said.

“This is a rare opportunity for Australia to boost its profile in Rome which is also a hub for global food security with organisations like the Food and Agriculture Organisation of the United Nations and the World Food Programme based here.”

Mr Fischer is keeping Australians attending the canonisation up to date by using social media network Twitter, ‘tweeting’ information about tickets for the ceremony and other travel advice.

He has issued a special warning to visitors to be on the lookout for pickpockets.

“We replaced 400 passports for Australians last year in Italy,” Mr Fischer said.

He said the number 64 bus that takes visitors to Vatican City from the city centre was one of the most frequent routes used by pickpockets, and the train from Rome’s Fiumicino airport to the main Termini station had been dubbed the Pickpockets Express.

“Rome is not a dangerous place but travellers should be especially on the lookout for thieves who work in gangs of two or three, bumping into people to distract them while another relieves them of their wallet,” he said.

“We have even had purses stolen from nuns and priests.”