Monday, 24 September 2012

Appreciations of Teresa Helena Higginson: from Agnes Casey (Sister Mary St. Francis)

From the booklet Appreciations of Teresa Helena Higginson, Schoolteacher and Mystic, by Brian Honner.

Finally we turn to the most important witness of the times, Sr. Mary Francis of Assisi.  You may recall that Teresa had prayed that she might be tended by one who knew and loved God.  Miss Agnes Casey, a Franciscan Tertiary from Newton Abbott, was such a one.  In her presence we may surely bless a triple providence - see her as the one sent to minister to a dying saint, record her last days, and leave an account of her spiritual doctrine.  No need to comb through Sr. Mary Francis' account for the word 'saint', since the exalted holiness of her invalid is implicit on every page, but all may he summed up in the following passage:

"The three theological virtues of faith, hope and charity shone out with the greatest splendour in her life.  To me they seemed part of her very being.  She loved God above all things, and all other things she loved purely for His sake and in union with Him."  (from the "Last Days" p.30 - 31).

Several years passed before Agnes Casey became a Poor Clare at Lynton.  Her people did not think she would be able to endure the austerity of such a rule, but Sr. Mary Francis gave decades of devoted service in the order and after long arthritic suffering died in old age in 1963.  (Reading over our list of witnesses one wonders if Teresa, if she is canonised, will become the patron of longevity!)

When I had the treasured privilege of a visit to Sr. Mary Francis in 1947 she described at some length the circumstances leading to her vocation (which she attributed to Teresa's prayers) and spoke with emphatic conviction of her belief in her sanctity.  But the most memorable visit to Sr. Mary Francis must have surely been that made by Miss Catterall, Miss Arkwright and a Miss McGinity in 1929.  They had come on from seeing Sr. Mary Teresa (Mrs. Fleck) in her Gillingham Carmel, and Miss Arkwright writes:

"It was a wonderful tour.  Teresa's friends, nearly all passed away now, meeting for the FIRST time.  To be an onlooker when they and Miss Catterall met was awe inspiring.  Sr. Mary Francis when she saw Miss Catterall exclaimed - 'Oh, a breath of Teresa!'"  (From a letter to me 16th March 1958.)

As a major witness Sr. Mary Francis was called upon to testify to the Liverpool tribunal instituting the informative process of Teresa's cause, and she described her inquisition to me in a letter of 10th October 1957.  As it is so interesting and gives an account of how the church proceeds in such matters, I quote the relevant passage:

"One morning before 9am the parlour bell rang and our extern sister said to the portress that six priests had just arrived and wished to speak to me, so Sister came up and told our dear Rev. Mother Guardian Angel, who was Abbess then.  She died in 1942 and it was some years before her death that these priests paid me this honourable visit!  Well, dear Rev. Mother came down with me to the parlour, but Mgr. O'Brien who was the vice postulator of the cause of Teresa Higginson, kindly asked Rev. Mother to withdraw as they wished to speak to me alone, so poor dear Rev. Mother bowed in silence and went away.  Then Mgr. O'Brien put the Holy Bible before me and told me to take it into my hands and make a most solemn oath that what I said in regard to the Servant of God, Teresa Higginson, was the truth.  You see, when anyone is giving their testimony of anyone who may be eventually raised to the altars, how very careful one has to be not to be governed in any way by mere natural enthusiasm, only to say the exact truth.  You can imagine it was a very solemn ordeal for me, but I am sure that holy Teresa was praying for me for I felt very calm, and stood my ground (as we say) in spite of the devil's advocate being there trying to trip me up at any moment. 

But I seemed to ignore his presence and thought only of the work before me.  Next to the devil's advocate was a doctor of divinity, who was very kind to me, then Mgr. O'Brien, who was ever so fatherly, then three other priests, most of then writing down what I said.  After this ordeal, which lasted for four hours, was over I said to Mgr. O'Brien, I was ever so anxious not to make a mistake that I may have said less than more, and he replied, 'My dear child, you have done very well indeed, and I am quite satisfied.  So don't worry, but if anything should occur to you after we have gone, something you may have forgotten, just write it down and send it to me'.  So I did, and often wrote to him as time went on.  Well now, before I left the parlour Mgr. O'Brien and all the priest put me under a most solemn oath of obedience not to say one word to our dear Rev. Mother or to any member of our community, or to anyone, which of course included any priest or religious elsewhere, and I promised absolute obedience, but you can understand what this silence cost me, not to say one word to our dear Rev. Mother of what had been said during this long interview, but our dear Lord gave me the grace to obey."

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