Sisters of the Cross and Passion

About our Foundress, Elizabeth Prout:
to Manchester

Fr Gaudentius advised Elizabeth to take a teaching post in a Catholic parish in Manchester. She had enjoyed teaching in Northampton, where children of military officers attended school. But Manchester, by then in the throes of the Industrial Revolution, provided a terrific culture shock. The city was filthy, teeming with famine-stricken immigrants from Ireland. Inhuman housing in dank cellars and monstrous working conditions in large, airless cotton factories defined life for many. Miserable pay, about 40 cents (US) for women and between 7 and 35 cents for children per week, made it impossible for workers to improve their own conditions. The very conditions seemed to enforce poverty and to discourage cleanliness,education and sobriety.

19th century Manchester
mid 19th century Manchester

Elizabeth's response was to plunge in with other like-minded young women. Under Fr Gaudentius' direction, they worked in the Stocks Street area of Manchester, teaching, feeding, sheltering and nursing the needy. They took special care of the factory workers. During this time, Elizabeth turned down a marriage proposal and began to look again at entering a convent in Belgium.

But as she continued her work, a new possibility presented itself. In a break with traditions of religious life, young women without education or dowry who felt a call to religious life joined Elizabeth. Fr Gaudentius and two other priests oversaw the project as an experiment in which these candidates would not be 'lay-sisters', but equals of other members, even those with education and/or dowry. Each sister would earn a living at the work she had been brought up to do, including in the mills. Elizabeth was asked to lead them; she was the only one with any experience, however limited, in religious life.

mass meeting in Manchester
mass meeting in Manchester, c. 1852

The venture launched in March, 1851. Of the 29 or 30 companions Elizabeth had at first in Manchester, only two remained. The three women moved into a house provided for them not far from St Chad's Church; they called it St Joseph's Convent. In the months following, more candidates came. On November 21, 1852, Feast of the Presentation of Mary, Elizabeth and six companions received religious dress during a ceremony in St Chad's Church. The Institute was given the name of "The Catholic Sisters of the Holy Family".

From any human perspective, the timing was a mistake. Sectarian troubles in and around Manchester grew violent. June riots between Irish immigrants and English mobs escalated the enmity and danger. In the face of vandalism and devastation of property, including churches, it would have been understandable if Mother Mary Joseph and her little community had fled. They did not.

'revolutionary ideas'

 

passion flower

Sign of the Passion

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Text for the story of Mother Mary Joseph follows and uses language from A Woman Who Said Yes: the Story of Elizabeth Prout by Anna Maria Reynolds, C.P. All rights reserved.