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Catechism of the Catholic Church, 2494

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Shrewsbury-born Mother Elizabeth Prout moves closer to sainthood


A Shrewsbury-born nun is on course to become Britain’s first female non-martyr saint in 800 years after the Vatican ruled she lived a life of ‘heroic virtue’.

Mother Elizabeth Prout laboured in the slums of Victorian Manchester and towns of North West England until her death at 43 from tuberculosis.

The so-called “Mother Teresa of Manchester” opened a chain of schools for poor children and homes for destitute women across the industrialised region, and was ahead of her time in teaching women crucial skills to earn their own livings.

Her sainthood cause was submitted to the Vatican in 2008 for scrutiny by theologians who have now concluded that she lived a life of “heroic virtue”.

The ruling means not only that there is nothing in her background that would disqualify her from sainthood but also that evidence of her sanctity has been proven.

A document on her life is due to be examined by top-ranking cardinals and bishops in Rome who will then ask Pope Francis to declare Mother Elizabeth as “Venerable”.

At that point, the search for two miracles will begin in earnest – one to declare her as Blessed and the other as a saint.

Her canonisation could mean she will become the first English female since Pope St Paul VI in 1970 included Ss Margaret Clitheroe, Anne Line and Margaret Ward among 40 canonised martyrs of England and Wales.

But she would be the first non-martyr English female saint since St Margaret of Wessex, an 11th century Anglo-Saxon princess who became Queen of Scotland after the Norman invasion of William the Conqueror, and who was canonised in 1250.

Swift progress would also mean that, after a break of nearly half a century, England would have another saint in a short space of time, given that Pope Francis declared Cardinal John Henry Newman a saint only in October.

The breakthrough in the cause was revealed by Sister Dominic Savio Hamer, her biographer and a member of the Passionist Sisters, the order founded by Mother Elizabeth in 1854.

Writing in the Christmas edition of the Shrewsbury Catholic Voice, she said: “All the material for her cause presented to the Holy See has been accepted by the competent authorities, including a committee of theologians, but we still await the verdict of the responsible cardinals and bishops that she should be entitled Venerable.”

“We can imitate Elizabeth Prout in many ways and pray to her with confidence,’ added Sister Dominic.

“She was such a practical person – so entirely God-centred, so forgetful of self, so generous in giving herself to others, so willing to suffer in union with Our Lord’s Passion, always so that God’s will might be done.”

Elizabeth was born into an Anglican family in Shrewsbury in 1820 and has been described as “refined, intelligent and gently nurtured”.

She was received into the Catholic faith in her early 20s by Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Italian missionary who would later receive St John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church.

At the age of 28 she became a nun and a few years later was given a teaching post in some of the poorest areas of industrial Manchester, working largely among Irish migrants and factory workers.

At the time, poverty in Manchester was dire with Friedrich Engels, co-author of The Communist Manifesto, in 1844 describing parts of the city as “this hell upon earth”.

Four years later one observer described the Angel Meadow district as “the lowest,most filthy, most unhealthy and most wicked locality in Manchester… the home of prostitutes, their bullies, thieves, codgers, vagrants, tramps, and in the very worst sties of filth and darkness… the low Irish”.

It was in such a social context that Mother Elizabeth developed a reputation for her tireless efforts in teaching, sheltering, feeding and nursing the needy and opening an archipelago of schools and hostels across the most poverty-stricken parts of the region.

After other women joined her, she founded a religious community, but many people, including Catholics, criticised the new institute for its so-called “revolutionary ideas” – namely that of obliging nuns to earn their own wages to support themselves and by showing other women how to do the same.

But the Vatican approved the order in 1863 and named the deeply practical Elizabeth as the first Superior General.

Mother Elizabeth died in St Helens, Lancashire, in 1864 and was buried alongside Blessed Dominic and Fr Ignatius Spencer, a relative of Princes William and Harry whose sainthood cause is also being scrutinised by the Vatican.

The Diocese of Shrewsbury will next year commemorate the bicentenary of her birth in her home town with a pilgrimage in her honour.

The Rt Rev. Mark Davies, the Bishop of Shrewsbury, said: “Elizabeth Prout stands with the great figures of the Second Spring of the Catholic Church in this land.

“Her witness has special significance in a time of new evangelisation. Elizabeth saw the great human and spiritual crisis of her time and responded by dedicating her life with courageous faith and perseverance.

“We continue to pray that Mother Elizabeth Prout will one day be recognised among the great saints.”