Saturday, 6 October 2012

Appreciations of Teresa Helena Higginson: witnesses in Scotland

At the close of the year 1887 Teresa passed to Scotland where she remained for some dozen years.  Most of this period she spent in St. Catherine's Convent, Edinburgh, though she had short stays in neighbouring towns (Dalkeith, Linlithgow, Selkirk, etc.) in a teaching capacity.  Our chief informants for this relatively tranquil and hidden phase of her life are Mrs. Helen Fleck, and two of her pupils Mrs. McVey and Mrs. Margaret McKeon.

St. Catherine's Convent, Edinburgh

Mrs. Helen Fleck will be remembered for having taken Teresa to Rome where they had an audience with Pope Leo XIII.  The opportunity arose as follows.  Mrs. Fleck asked her daughter Mary which she would prefer as a 21st birthday gift- a party or a visit to Rome.  She chose the latter, so Mrs. Fleck asked Teresa to accompany her instead, all expenses met.  She had known Teresa for some years and in 1895 had collaborated with her in providing a needy priest in Selkirk with a daily meal.  Another bond was that they were both Tertiaries of St. Francis.  Mrs. Fleck gave a full length statue of the saint for her room in St. Catherine's, and at the end of the pilgrimage they exchanged tertiary habits, Teresa asking her to come to her if she was dying, and promising to do the same for her.  (This was not to be.  Late in 1904 Teresa wrote to say that the weather was so bad and Biddlecombe so out of the way that she could not think of Mrs. Fleck coming.)

At this time Mrs. Fleck was a wealthy widow owning a modern hotel in Dunbar, but later her fortunes changed.  The Lord, she said, took everything from her by degrees.  He seemed to be leading her somewhere, she did not know where.  At the age of 77 she entered to Carmel at Gillingham, Dorset, where she became an extern sister, taking the name Sr. Mary Teresa.  "It often appears to me in a dream" she wrote to Miss Arkwright in 1931 "that we were so closely united in Rome, and yet I never realised I was beside a saint."

Of the two pupils mentioned, Mrs. McVey of Dalkeith was a witness to something of the extraordinary side of Teresa's life, while Mrs.Margaret McKeon expressly disclaims having seen anything miraculous about her.  Her memoir is however in my opinion the most revealing account of Teresa left by any of her pupils, this no doubt due to her spirituality and perception.  For Mrs. McKeon was herself a wonderful person.  Towards the end of a life of devotion to God and neighbour she wrote "I was ten years of age when Teresa's voice fell upon my ears.  I am now 74.  It's a long time to remember one outstandingly saintly, gentle, kind person".  She took every opportunity to spread knowledge of her revered teacher and sought out the testimony of others, including the nuns who had known her in St. Catherine's convent.  The following is taken from her memoir:

"I distinctly remember an instruction Teresa gave us in the top classroom of the school in 1889.  The lesson was on the incarnation and at the end she asked us all to kneel and honour Our Lord's Sacred Heart beating beneath the heart of Our Lady before he was born into the world."

"About the year 1890 when I was twelve years of age I attended St. Catherine's Convent for the sewing.  There was an apple tree in the garden with a surrounding seat where Miss Higginson placed my work.  I've seen birds coming down into her hands.  She used to turn away and I would hear a faint whistle, then turning back she would she me the bird.  When I found out that she was the one who whistled (not the bird) I said "Miss Higginson, you're the one whose whistling!" and she laughed joyously.  Before leaving I was sure of a cup of tea with buns."

In 1925 she received a great favour after praying to Teresa and mentioned this to Mother de Sales.  She also asked her if she thought she was a saint.  Mother de Sales replied "When Teresa is honoured by the church it will be as a very great saint."

I was privileged to receive many lovely letters from Mrs. McKeon before her death in 1966 at Bathgate.

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