Elizabeth Prout. What was she like? Some observations
Elizabeth Prout was born in Shrewsbury, Shropshire, England on 2nd September 1820. Her mother was a staunch Anglican, her father a lapsed Catholic. Elizabeth was baptised and brought up in the Anglican tradition. Sometime before 1841 the family moved to Stone Staffordshire where her father worked as a journeyman cooper in Joule’s Brewery. He earned a good wage enabling the Prout’s to live in relative comfort.
We are told that Elizabeth was gently nurtured, refined, intelligent and well educated according to the standards of the time. She was a delicate young woman, barely five foot tall, of fragile build but she was no shrinking violet. Fr. Ignatius Spencer described her shortly before her death as “a little woman brimful of energy and will.” She was a tough opponent. By nature open and honest, she hated deceit. Writing to Fr. Gaudentius she says of herself: “ I cannot, dear Father, say one thing and believe another.” In another letter we see this same spirit: “ My dear Father, I know I must have grieved you very much by my repeated opposition to your wishes but I hope you will forgive me for I would never have done it if I had not felt in conscience bound to do so for the welfare of the community and institute.”
Aged 29, Elizabeth Prout, a delicate Victorian woman, was chosen by God to do an impossible thing: to found a Congregation of Religious women to bring the compassion and love of Christ to the poor. This she accomplished over a period of sixteen years of self-sacrifice, grinding poverty and total submission to the will of God. She died at the age of 43, her mission accomplished. She had laid the foundations of “The Congregation of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion”, an international missionary Congregation, dedicated to keeping alive the memory of Christ’s Passion, Death and Resurrection “even unto the ends of the earth.”
Life changing decisions
Elizabeth, in her mid twenties, was living in Stone, Staffordshire when she met Fr. Dominic Barberi, an Italian Passionist. Under his influence she became a Catholic. In 1848 she entered the convent of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus at Northampton. After six months she developed a tubercular knee and had to return home. Nursed by her mother she got well. Forbidden to go to Mass, she left home and made her way to Manchester looking for work. Here, in September 1849, with the help of
Fr.Gaudentius Rossi C.P. she got a job teaching in St. Chad’s School, Angel Meadows, Manchester’s worst slum.
Manchester in 1849 was at the height of the Industrial Revolution. It was an age of exploitation and greed. The poor lived and worked in appalling conditions. Many were Catholic, famine refugees from Ireland. Children from the age of five worked long hours in the mills; they could neither read nor write. Thousands were without any religious instruction. Mill girls were particularly vulnerable. Shocked by this inequality and injustice Elizabeth and a few companions were moved to do something about it.
The Catholic Sisters of the Holy Family
In 1852, in St. Chad’s parish, with the help of Fr. Gaudentius Rossi, Fr. Croskell and Fr. William Turner, later to become Bishop of Salford, Elizabeth founded “The Institute of the Holy Family”. Elizabeth, the Mother and Leader, was given the name Mother Mary Joseph of Jesus. The spirit of the Institute was to be the spirit of the Holy Family living, working and praying in their home at Nazareth. As the life lived in Nazareth was the most perfect harmony of contemplation and action ever attained in this world, so the Sisters were to reproduce that harmony in their own lives.
Elizabeth Prout’s radical vision
Elizabeth Prout’s Institute was a new venture. The Sisters lived in community combining a humble, austere and prayerful life with an active ministry outside the convent. Anyone who was truly virtuous and could work for the support of the Institute could be admitted. There was no class distinction among members. No dowry was required. Lack of education was not an obstacle. Sisters went out to teach, to sew, to work in the mills or in any employment compatible with their religious state. They had no property, no patrons, no security. They pooled their wages and when they were out of work they, like their neighbours, went hungry. Dire poverty was often their lot.
This was a radical departure from the established Religious Orders of the day. In the 1850’s this “classless” community, was considered “revolutionary”. It aroused fierce opposition. The very existence of the Institute was seen as a threat to the “status quo”.
The annalist tells us:
“The Sisters at this period had to suffer the most determined opposition from all the priests in their neighbourhood who treated them as persons devoid of reason for attempting this foundation under what seemed to them unfavourable circumstance.”
Some, loud in their denunciation, called for the Institute to be suppressed. To settle the matter Bishop Turner, in July 1858, set up a Diocesan Enquiry to examine the Charges against the Sisters. All aspects of their life and works were scrutinised…The Charges were examined… and quashed… Elizabeth personally and all the Sisters were exonerated. Their opponents were defeated…and they didn’t like it.
After the Enquiry
After the Enquiry the Sisters had to tread warily maintaining “humble silence”, waiting for the tide to turn in their favour. This took time, but turn it did
The Annalist records:
“… the Institute struggled on, amidst difficulties and opposition, but was supported throughout by the Providence of Almighty God who while he smites with one hand, as surely sustains with the other”.
All this Elizabeth and her companions accepted as sharing in the Passion of Christ. They were not broken. They endured. They had learnt through betrayal and rejection that “ Identification with Jesus Christ in the mystery of His Passion, Death and Resurrection lay at the heart of their vocation.”
Elizabeth died on 11th January 1864 at the convent, Sutton St. Helens Lancashire. She was 43 years of age. Her body together with that of Blessed Dominic Barberi C.P. and Fr. Ignatius C.P lies in the shrine of St. Anne’s Church Sutton. The church and shrine are now a place of pilgrimage.
International missionary congregation
The Congregation began small, a little seed sown in Manchester in 1851. But from the beginning Elizabeth dreamt of an international missionary congregation …“limited only by the limits of the earth”. This was not achieved in her lifetime.
After her death only a handful of Sisters remained. But among them were exceptionally talented and inspired leaders. Numbers grew. New works were undertaken. Convents were opened throughout Lancashire and Yorkshire, Scotland and London. Sisters were missioned to make a foundation in Bulgaria in 1873 and in Ireland in 1878. The tide had turned…
Affiliation to the Passionist Congregation
In 1875 the Sisters were affiliated to the Passionist Congregation, founded by St Paul of the Cross. They changed their name to “Sisters of the Cross and Passion” and ever since have worn the distinctive Passionist sign.
Approbation of the Rule
In 1876, the Silver Jubilee year of the Congregation, the Holy See granted a Brief of Provisional Approbation of the Rule for a period of ten years. This was essentially the Rule compiled by Mother Mary Joseph and Fr. Ignatius Spencer in 1863. Definitive Approbation came in a brief of Louis X111 dated 21st June 1887. This was the Rule lived by the Sisters until 1967.
Rome had spoken. Elizabeth Prout’s work was complete.
Meeting the needs of the time
The early Sisters responded to the need of their time through active service in diverse ministries.
- “Homes” for factory girls,
- Parish schools
- Day and Evening classes
- Sunday schools.
- Boarding Schools for the lower middle class girls
- A Teacher training centre
- Sodalities and confraternities
- Care of orphans, waifs and strays, women in need.
- Home making skills: Knitting, sewing, laundry work.
- The manufacture and embroidery of Church Vestments and altar linen
- Migrants, Refugees and Asylum Seekers
- Basic Literacy
Today we find Cross and Passion Sisters ministering to people as far apart as North America and Africa, Papua New Guinea and Peru, Chile and Jamaica, Argentina and Australia, Ireland and Bosnia, England, Scotland and Wales, diverse climates and cultures. The challenges of yesterday are still the challenges of today but on a global scale
- The Dignity of the Person
- God in our world
- Retreat work
- Respect for life – Abortion, Euthanasia, Capital Punishment
- Hospice movement
- Poverty, Injustice, Exploitation, Trafficking
- Refugees, Asylum Seekers, Migrants
- Prejudice and bigotry;
- Social Exclusion on grounds of Race, Colour, Sexual Orientation, Language, Religion
- The Aids Pandemic
- Family Life
- Planet Earth
- NGOs and United Nations