Saturday, 18 August 2012

A story of Teresa Higginson's intercession from the Catholic Fireside

This is a story that was published in the now defunct popular periodical the Catholic Fireside on January 20th 1933, during the height of the Great Depression and at the time that Teresa's cause for beatification was in progress, before Rome shelved it in 1938.
The true story of an unknown benefactress and 
a simple tale that implies the intercessory power of Teresa Higginson

by Francis Quinn

It was about four o'clock on a dull December afternoon as Mrs. Hanson placed the last garment on the pile before her, put the iron down on the saucer, and with a sigh, half of relief, half of weariness, straightened up and looked idly round the little room which was the parlour, dining room and kitchen combined of her home in Back Bolton Street.  Looking through the tiny window, she could scarcely see the dingy house opposite, dim and vague in the rapidly deepening dusk, and a sigh escaped her as she noted this sign of a long winter's night.

These sudden winter evenings had no charm for her now, as they had done two years ago when John, her husband had been in regular work.  Then the moments, when daylight departed and firelight awakened in the cosy little room, held for her a particular magic.  It was then that she would sit for a space, conscious that the long lonely work was done and anticipating the noisy entrance of the children and John, clamouring for their tea, all of them adorably, incredibly dependent on her the homekeeper.

The bright frosty fire would tell her these things, though she did not know it.  At these twilight moments it would suddenly come to life and flood the room with a warm, golden light.  It would pick out the glowing rubies on the surface of the mahogany sideboard, rouse the bronze horsemen there and set their shadows capering on the wall behind, reproduce itself with pretty effects on the glasses of the pictures hanging on the walls and in the midst of its hissings and cracklings whisper all kinds of things to her.  It would tell her that she was the happiest wife and mother in the world, but it had told her this so often, that she soon ceased to take any notice of it.  In fact if you ever asked her what the fire had told her, she would have been surprised even to laugh at you for she was not very imaginative.

 A typical back street court, as described in the story

But today the gloom and cold of the slum street invaded the house, unchallenged by the fire, which for all its magic qualities is born of sticks and coal - and money.  Mrs. Hanson was hardly aware that she was contrasting her present and past fortunes as her eyes travelled slowly round the room.  She hardly noticed the wooden boxes that served for chairs, the cheap deal sideboard which had replaced the mahogany one and all the rest of the evidence of the savage changes swift and deeper poverty makes in the homes of the already poor.

Just for a moment, her gaze stopped at a patch on the papered wall, a brighter green the rest of the surface.  Here she did note the first milestone which marked the family's road to destitution.  It had been a lovely picture, a wedding present, the first of the things that had to go.  If - when things mended, she thought if - when John found work, she would see that green patch covered with the same picture.  So she stood, her thoughts darting from the past to the future, when a knock on the door recalled her to the present.

It was Father Grey, one the of the priests from St. Stephen's.  He was returning to the presbytery and thought that he would just pop in and see how the Hansons ("a very nice family in desperate straights") were getting on.  Father Grey had a way of popping in at odd times to see his parishioners, casually and without any ceremony.  It was part of the secret of his remarkable success with this grim taciturn folk of his district, whose invitation to "take 'em as he found 'em" he long ago literally accepted.  

He understood them and recognised their outward dourness as a cloak under which they concealed a stoical endurance of their generally hard lot.  He never offended their pride by openly expressed pity, but he never failed to say the right thing at the right time and never lost the opportunity of doing a kindness.  Before he had been in the mining town a year, it was a commonplace there that the people of St. Stephen's would do anything for Father Grey.  The Hansons were only one of the families which had changed, since his coming into the town, from being indifferent to really good Catholics.

Mrs. Hanson was glad to see him.  Would Father take a chair?  No, thanks all the same, Mrs. Hanson - he hardly had a minute, but just thought he would ask if Mr. Hanson had nabbed that slippery customer, "Work," yet?  No?  Not yet?  Well, they must all keep on hoping and praying to Teresa Higginson; she would get him work as sure as she would be canonised.  And the children - all well and out of mischief?  Not back from school yet?  But, of course, fancy him forgetting; they would be at the breaking up party - if he didn't hurry straight off he would miss the fun and get into terrible hot water.  With which Father Grey whisked himself off...  He had been gone fully a minute before Mrs. Hanson saw two half - crowns he had left on the dresser.

The evening wore on.  The children had returned and were now in bed.  She had told her husband of Father Grey's kindness and as she told him, saw in his eyes the thought that was in her own mind: there was no limit to Father Grey's generosity but there was to his half crowns.  Both of them had fallen silent, their thoughts hovering fearfully round the half guessed future.  John had done all he could to find work; there was nothing left for him to do but hope with the hope of a good Catholic who has done his best.  His mother had just lately made a pilgrimage to this Teresa Higginson's grave at Neston and left a petition for him there.  Perhaps something would come of it.  The novena Father Grey had recommended had finished that day; somehow he did not fell quite as downhearted tonight...

The next day a queer thing happened at 12, Back Barton Street.  A boy from Kays' the grocers had called and left a large parcel of groceries.  He told an astonished Mrs. Hanson that they had been paid for, and instructions should be sent to Mrs. Hansons, 12 Back Barton Street.  At once Mrs. Hanson hurried round to the grocers to rectify what she sure was a mistake.  No, there had been no mistake.  A funny little woman, "dressed like my grandmother's aunt," the assistant told her, had ordered the things and told him where to send them.  "No, there has been no mistake, mum," said the assistant.  "Unless, happen, she made one.  And she didn't look that kind for all her queer clothes," he added.

After consulting with her husband, Mrs. Hanson decided to accept the gift, but, rack her brains as she might, she could not think who the benefactress could be.  She asked Father Grey, but he could not help her, and after asking a few more "suspects" she gave it up.  All the same she wished she could thank the unknown friend.  

The next day. when a strange coal loader called and left an unopened bag of coal, she was hardly surprised.  She had a curious feeling of knowing exactly what he was going to say - a lady had paid for it and told him.  No, mum, he did not know the lady.  Never seen her before; a queer looking piece and not what you might call well off looking.  Anyway, she paid on the nail and he delivered the stuff.  He wasn't going to worry...

For three weeks the thing went on.  Christmas came and went, a joyful time for the little family.  Mrs. Hanson had given up trying to find out the identity of her benefactress.  Evidently she wished to remain unknown and, by not enquiring, Mrs. Hanson could respect that wish.  Also Mrs. Hanson felt that would not find out however hard she tried.

When the fourth week came round and neither grocer's boy nor coal dealer had called, Mrs. Hanson felt surprised but, strangely, not disappointed.  Father Grey called that day.  Mrs. Hanson looked curiously at the parcel he put on the table.  Not food she thought, it looked more like a picture.

"I did not know you had an old lady staying here," he said, "is she ill?"  

Old Lady?  Mrs. Hanson looked up, surprised.  "There's no old lady, here, Father," she said quietly.

It was Father Grey's turn to look surprised.  This was mysterious.  Was he witness to a miracle, he wondered.  "You know Hurtley's, the picture framers?" he asked.  Mrs. Hanson nodded.

"They sent this to me," he continued, pointing to the parcel on the table, "and left word that a lady had asked then to frame it, and given instructions that, when finished, they should take it to me and ask me to leave it in your house.  Which I have done," he concluded rather breathlessly.  

The two looked at each other.  Then as moved by a common impulse, the hands of both reached to the parcel on the table.  Father Grey opened it.  "It's a picture of Teresa Higginson," he said.

A few hours later John came in.  "What do you think's happened, Joan," he was smiling.  Joan smiled too.

"I know," she answered, "you've got work."

"Right first guess - hello who's this?"  He pointed to the picture.  Joan smiled again - a serious kind of smile.

"I think I know that, too," she answered, "It's a picture of our unknown friend." 

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