Elizabeth Prout, an extraordinary life

by Mary Ann Strain, C.P.

Elizabeth Prout, C.P.On June 20, 1973 a woman's body was exhumed in Sutton, England, after resting undisturbed for over one hundred years. It was clothed in a religious habit; rosary beads fell from a leather girdle at her waist. She had been a tiny woman, barely five feet tall, her fingers so small they hardly held her ring of religious profession. Her knees showed the tubercular condition that caused her death. At the exhumation were Rev. Mother Wilfreda McHale, C.P., Superior General of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, Sister Martin Joseph, C.P., M.D.,and various government officials. The woman's name was Elizabeth Prout -- Mother Mary Joseph -- foundress of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion.

In the mid-nineteenth century, Elizabeth Prout, with the help of Passionist Fathers Gaudentius Rossi and Ignatius Spencer, founded the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, a new community that brought comfort, education and hope to the oppressed poor of England's industrial slums. Her community made religious life accessible to women with limited educational opportunities and financial means, who were not be able to enter other religious communities.

Today, the Sisters of the Cross and Passion are in ten countries and on three continents. Members of the Passionist family, they share the charism and spirituality of St. Paul of the Cross. At the heart of their spirituality is the conviction that the Passion of Jesus is the greatest proof of God's love for sinful humanity.

Her Early Life

Elizabeth Prout was born on September 2, 1820 in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England (the setting for Ellis Peter's engaging Brother Cadfael mystery stories). Her mother, Anne, was a member of the Church of England; her father, Edward, a non-practicing Catholic, was a cooper by trade and worked for a brewery outside of town. The family lived in Shrewsbury until Elizabeth was eleven years old. She probably attended one of the schools sponsored by the Church of England that provided a fairly decent elementary education. Girls were prepared to be good wives and mothers; Elizabeth would have been taught religion, reading and writing, basic arithmetic and sewing. Singing and dancing may have rounded off the curriculum.

In 1831, the brewery in Shrewsbury closed down and Edward Prout had to seek work elsewhere. Between 1831 and 1841, the family lived in Stone, Staffordshire, and likely relocated more than once as Edward Prout looked for available work.

Conversion to Catholicism

God saw to Elizabeth's formation as a Passionist from her first encounter with Blessed Dominic Barberi, C.P. The Passionists arrived in England from Belgium and were entrusted with the care of Catholics in Stone. On Sunday afternoons Barberi, who later received John Cardinal Newman into the Catholic Church, lectured in a rented room in the local pub, The Crown Inn. People, some curious, some looking for entertainment, went to the lectures.

We don't know why Elizabeth went, but meeting Dominic Barberi changed the course of her life. We believe she was received into the Catholic Church by Blessed Dominic shortly after her twenty-first birthday in 1841. Elizabeth's parents were horrified. Mid-nineteenth century England was strongly anti-Catholic; Catholics and Catholicism were despised and distrusted. The Prouts responded to their daughter's conversion by disowning her.

It is not known where Elizabeth went after becoming a Catholic. But in a letter written to her in 1849 by Father Gaudentius Rossi, Passionist companion of Fr. Dominic, who had joined him in England, we learn that Elizabeth was a novice with the Sisters of the Divine Infant, in Northamp-ton, England. She wrote to inform Father Gaudentius that she had been dismissed from the novitiate as unsuitable for religious life because she had contracted tuberculosis.

Elizabeth returned to her parents' home. They were delighted to have her back, probably hoping that all of that "Catholic foolishness" was out of her system. Her mother nursed her back to some semblance of health. But as soon as she was able, Elizabeth began to practice her faith again. Her parents reacted furiously, to the point of physical abuse. Elizabeth realized that she would have to leave home.

St.Chad's Parish, Manchester

ManchesterFather Gaudentius arranged a teaching job for Elizabeth in St. Chad's Parish in Manchester, England. Nothing in the young woman's experience could have prepared her for the reality of life in that city, then the second largest city in England. It was a vast industrial center, turning cotton, imported from the American south, into textiles. Working conditions were unhealthy and dangerous. The hours were long, the pay miserable. Workers could not afford decent places to live. The average life expectancy was fifteen. right: Manchester in the Industrial Revolution

Elizabeth felt compelled to do something. She and other young women began to help the poor in the area around St. Chad's and to meet regularly for prayer themselves. The group would have resembled the Legion of Mary at this stage. Elizabeth seems to have been biding her time until she could enter another religious community. She turned down a marriage proposal and made inquiries about entering a convent in Belgium.

Then she heard the call of the Passion of Jesus.

Answering the Call

The Passionists, led by Blessed Dominic Barberi, came to England in 1841 to fulfill a dream of St. Paul of the Cross, who prayed all of his life for the return of that country to the Catholic faith. The new arrivals quickly realized, however, that they could not convert the whole country unless they reanimated the Catholics already there.

Catholics in England during this period fell into three categories. The first was the recusants -- old aristocratic families who had held on to their Catholicism through centuries of persecution, but who had survived by practicing their faith very quietly. The second were Irish and Italian immigrants, nearly all poor. They lived in the slums and had a reputation for disorderliness and drunkenness. The last group were converts, often poorly instructed and weak in their faith.

The early Passionists in England worked to inject life into English Catholicism, especially through parish missions. They realized, however, the need for a permanent Passionist presence to remain after the missionaries moved on. In working with the poor, the Passionists - Father Gaudentius in particular - met many young women - mill girls, domestic servants, seamstresses and the like - who desired religious life. Father Gaudentius spoke to Father Croskill, the pastor of St. Chad's and Father William Turner, later the first Bishop of Salford, England, about founding a religious community to receive such women. They asked Elizabeth Prout to lead the group because of her experience of religious life.

A New Community Among the Poor

In March of 1851, Elizabeth and two other young women moved into a house at 69 Stocks Street near St. Chad's, which they called St. Joseph's Convent. The institute was named "The Catholic Sisters of the Holy Family." (The name of the Congregation was later changed to the Sisters of the Cross and Passion.) More young women joined them, and on November 21, 1852, Elizabeth and six companions received a religious dress in St. Chad's Church. The dress was their own clothes, dyed black; they were too poor to afford anything new. A religious community was born.

Ignatius Spencer, C.P.Elizabeth Prout, now Mother Mary Joseph, imbued the community with her spirit until her death of tuberculosis in 1864. With the help of Father Gaudentius and later of Father Ignatius Spencer (right), an ancestor of the late Diana, Princess of Wales, she founded a community to meet the needs of her time. In day schools, in night and Sunday schools, the sisters taught children and young people who worked in factories. They visited homes, especially of the poor, and offered their friendship. They got to know people by listening to their stories. Spiritually, morally, academically and materially, they supported those they met. They opened hostels for girls who worked in the mills, not only as safe places to live, but also as Christian communities where they were loved and could better themselves through education and the acquisition of domestic skills.

Challenges and Trials

Throughout these years, Mother Mary Joseph contended with difficulties that would break most people. She and her sisters lived in extreme poverty. Like the people they served, they were often without adequate food or warm, dry shelter. Circumstances like these were hard on the foundress, who suffered from tuberculosis.

She lacked support and encouragement from Father Gaudentius. whose vision for the new institute differed from hers. He often berated Mother Mary Joseph for not implementing his ideas and criticized her decisions and her judgments.

Others, too, opposed her. Some religious institutes as well as members of the local clergy regarded the new institute with suspicion because of the humble origins of the sisters. Some disaffected former members spread lies about her.

Mother Mary Joseph endured it all with unshakable faith and calm. Her devotion to the Passion of Jesus helped her persevere through poverty, illness, loneliness, and misunderstanding.

The last full year of Mother Mary Joseph's life, 1863, was eventful for her institute. That year, Father Ignatius Spencer, C.P. (illustration at right), helped her revise the original rule, based on the Passionist Rule written by St. Paul of the Cross. Her institute was canonically established on August 17 and its first General Chapter was held on October 23, 1863. Mother Mary Joseph was unanimously chosen its first Superior General.

On January 11,1864, Mother Mary Joseph died peacefully at 6 o'clock in the evening at the Sutton Convent. She gave her Congregation the gifts given to her for the sake of the Church.

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