Fr. Thomas Wells was the rector of St. Mary's church, Wigan, and the director of Teresa from 1873 - 1876, when her mystical life and experiences began in earnest, and when she received the stigmata and underwent the mystical betrothal. He was the son of a farm labourer, was born at Heaton in Lancashire in 1846 and trained for the priesthood in St. Cuthbert's Seminary, Ushaw, Durham, where one of his classmates was Alfred Snow, Teresa's final director until her death. He died aged 43 in 1886.
He was a very kind, gentle and holy priest, but he was not learned and was at a loss with what to do when confronted with Teresa, in such a high state of mystical life. Therefore it was by him that Our Lord was to severely try her and her obedience. Just as happened with St. Margaret Mary Alacoque in the case of one of her directors, he sought the advice of his professor of moral theology at Ushaw the Rev. Dr. James Lennon in dealing with her. On this he imposed many harsh penances upon her, denying her communion when it was her only food, publicly humiliating her in church, dismissing her offhand when she asked for his blessing, and ordering her not to cry out or complain when she was in agony.
Canon Alfred Snow on his Notes on the life of Teresa Higginson was to comment: “To begin with the last of these trials, Father Thomas Wells, the rector of St. Mary’s and her director, was a holy zealous and devoted priest, faithful in the discharge of every duty and withal a humble man. Finding himself in charge of so gifted and holy a soul, a position so remote from any experience he had hitherto had, in his humility and diffidence he sought advice and considered it his duty to follow it in all respects. Hence he came to guide her soul by proxy. He consulted and was in frequent communication with the Rev. James Lennon, D.D., professor of moral theology at St. Cuthbert’s College, Ushaw.
This is a situation that has often arisen in the lives of the saints and other holy souls, arisen no doubt by the Providence of God for the greater purification of the soul, but one which in itself can hardly be considered consonant with the principles which should guide the confessor in his dealings with his penitent. It invariably happens in such cases that the priest consulted is never satisfied, especially where he has no personal knowledge of the penitent. He is ever in doubt and orders one test after another to be applied, one humiliation and trial after another, until the penitent and director are robbed of all peace. This is precisely what happened in the present case. Father Wells was one of those men, and there are many like him, who think that when they ask advice they ought conscientiously to take it.
Hence he appears to have imposed upon Teresa all the trials and humiliations that Dr. Lennon suggested. At one time, he insulted her in public and drove her out of the church. This little affected her for she and all who witnessed the event, knowing as they did the habitual kindness and gentleness of Father Wells, would know that he was only acting. The humiliation was too apparent. What proved to be a real trial and suffering was a much more simple thing. He put her under obedience to take off her scapulars and medals and carry no pious object on her person. This caused her very great suffering as she considered she must in some way have made herself unworthy to wear them, and, moreover, thought that they were means of grace which she had thought necessary for her salvation.”
Indeed Teresa in one of her letters to Fr. Powell was to comment on Fr. Wells' treatment of her when she underwent the torments and attacks of evil spirits during her time in Wigan:
“I think the first visible temptation which I had at Wigan was as soon as I went. I think you know that without any permission I used to rise as soon after twelve as I conveniently could (I had not a bed to myself) to make my meditation etc. and each time I commenced the Devil used to beat and ill use the body, and spit horrible filth upon me in the face and eyes, in fact, completely cover me which made me very sick, and the stench was almost poisoning.
And this I told to rev. T. Wells who told me he thought I had a very fertile imagination, and as far as I can judge he did not believe me, but he told me to tell him each time I fancied it, and when he saw that it still continued he asked me could he write to some priest of great experience about it. But in the meantime, he said, you must not rise to make your meditation. Night is the time to sleep and rest so that you may be able to do your work as duty requires. And so I did not rise intentionally, but several times I found myself rising, and when I at once returned the devils would shriek and yell and laugh in a most dreadful manner and mock me and say: ‘Most obedient maid how firm are your words of promise to the King of heaven!’
But I did not notice him. Of course each time I found myself getting out of bed I told my confessor as soon as I could see him and he said if the will was really desirous of being entirely obedient he did not see how I could be so continually rising; but I begged and prayed our Lord and His b. Mother to help me to accomplish perfectly and promptly whatever my director would wish, cost it me what it would. And so by degrees I did not rise, but I seldom slept, I could not help myself making my meditation though I think I strove hard to resist, and so I told Father Wells. Then he said I must sleep a certain time, I forget now but I think he said four hours, and under obedience I did so, and when I slept the Devil would rouse me.
Sometimes he cried as though some poor child were out upon the doorstep; sometimes he used to throw me completely out of bed, throw things at me that were in the room, and make awful noises, and I used to be afraid at first that Miss Gallagher or the people of the house would hear. And several times when I awoke I perceived a smell of something burning, and the house being filled with smoke and brimstone, I thought surely the house was on fire. And other times I saw the whole bed and room full of flames and heard the crackling and I am afraid in this case I proved a coward, for I was frightened more than I can tell at first for there was no holy water: the Devil threw something against the bottle and broke it.
But Mary and St. Michael were ever near and when I called upon her I knew he had no power to hurt. But I thought the house might really be burnt and I think it was the Devil so I told Fr. Wells that I felt afraid and he said I must tell the Devil he must not do it again. And any temptation I always noticed stopped at the command of my director. Fr. Wells told me to ask our b. Lord to change the temptation."