What follows is the testament of Elizabeth Prout given during a Canonical Investigation conducted in 1859 by the Bishop of Manchester, England and three Canons of the Cathedral Chapter.
“Was it by accident, Lord, that I came to Manchester? I was alone and penniless and I had to earn my living. But all the time I felt You were drawing me there. There was something You wanted me to do. I saw how the children were growing up in ignorance. And then I met the mill girls and the young men crowding into Sunday School and Night School eager to learn. And as I crossed the dark city at night, I saw the others: women shouting and screaming in the doorways of public houses, women lying dead drunk in the gutters, then fighting men like beasts, children patched with sores and seamed with life, wandering in the rubbish dumps with the starving cats. This is not how men and women should live, Lord. You love every one of them… and yet they do not know You…
Lord, no matter how hard my life is, I am happy because I know You love me. I want to share that happiness with my brothers and sisters in Manchester. And to reach them, I must share their lives, work with them and teach them. O Lord, until Your will is made clear, I will defend the Institute. Your will be done.”
The above cited testament is a legacy that indicates the modernity and relevance, even today, of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion of which she is the Foundress. Originally it was named the Institute of the Holy Family and was established at Saint Chad’s in Manchester in 1852.
Elizabeth Prout was born in 1820 to parents who belonged to the Evangelical Anglican Church at the time. Her life could easily have been the subject of a novel by the Bronte sisters or Charles Dickens. It is fraught with romance and an outcry for social justice. When Elizabeth became a Catholic in 1841, she was disowned and persecuted actively by her parents. As an only child and of a highly sensitive nature, her interior pain was overwhelming.
In 1848 Elizabeth left her household and joined the Belgian Community of the Infant Jesus of Northampton. Compelled to leave while yet in formation because of the discovery of tuberculosis of the bone, she found it necessary to knock at her parents’ door where the family persecution began again. At the dawn of mid-century, she encountered Father Gaudentius Rossi, the first Italian companion of Blessed Dominic Barberi, C.P. and a friend of Doctor John Henry Newman. His English skills in the pulpit were extraordinary. This was partly because of his admiration of Newman’s eloquence. By many he is considered to be the co-founder of what was to become the Sisters of the Cross and Passion. Eventually he would be transferred to the United States to the Community of Saint Paul of the Cross in Pittsburgh because of his ability to communicate well in English.
This brought a reprieve to Elizabeth Prout. While he was substantive in his canonical direction and its relationship to the spirit of the Passionists, Father Gaudentius was so exacting and harsh that, at times, she found herself with only one other companion. He was succeeded by the Venerable Ignatius Spencer, who gently and lovingly told her, “Thank God for everything” and led her to her own phrase: “In the will of God I find my joy.” The Congregation found renewal and growth in their collaboration. But that was not without its price. A single diocesan priest accused them of the most inappropriate of human relations. For a while the pair, plus all the Institute, was thrown into a trash heap. Still, Ignatius counseled her gently. “When God asks you for your reputation, he assures the effectiveness of His love and of your work.”
The genius of Elizabeth Prout was that she sought to stabilize the image of the Church in Great Britain in a manner paralleled by Continental Catholicism after the Council of Trent which called for images of mercy, charity, education and evangelization. New Orders then sprang up and often without specified corporate apostolates. In the case of Elizabeth Prout in 19th Century England, there was no prescribed corporate apostolate in the beginning. The Sisters instituted discipline in households and inaugurated methods of hygiene. They taught school, but often not in a formal setting. Because of the pressures of the Industrial Age, the early members worked in the textile mills along with their female companions. They needed to do this to subsidize their work, to support themselves and to provide missionary example. British law forbade the wearing of the veil by Catholic nuns. They therefore had to wear a bonnet in the streets which they removed once at work.
The effectiveness of her vision was bolstered by several Passionists, both men and women. When she died in 1864, she informed Father Ignatius that she had sincerely attempted to meet every contradiction, every humiliation, every misunderstanding, every piece of gossip and every physical pain with a joyful “Thanks be to God!”
Heavenly Father, you have shown us the unconquerable courage and creative love of the Servant of God Elizabeth Prout. She is for us a model of fortitude. Grant through her intercession a greater identification with the poor and the uneducated, the jobless and the homeless. May we imitate her and receive from her the favors for which we pray. Amen.
- Father Jerome Vereb, C.P.