Elizabeth Prout (1820-1864). Courtesy of the Diocese of Shrewsbury.
Bishop Davies welcomed the move forward in the sainthood cause of a religious sister who served poor communities ravaged by cholera and typhoid.
Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury said on 21 January that it was fitting that Elizabeth Prout’s cause was progressing amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The bishop made the comment on the day that Pope Francis recognized the heroic virtues of the nun known as the “Mother Teresa of Manchester,” meaning that she can now be called “Venerable.”
“It seems appropriate this announcement came during the pandemic when we can look to Elizabeth’s example and ask the help of her prayers as a woman who helped many during the epidemics which swept the industrial communities of Victorian England,” Davies said.
The bishop had appealed for prayers for the advancement of Prout’s cause at a Mass last September, marking the 200th anniversary of her birth.
He recalled that Prout, who was born on 2 September 1820, was “a pioneer of education,” who established day and night schools for the industrial poor and homes of refuge for young women working in factories.
“Together with a handful of companions she confronted the most degrading situations with the confidence of the revolution which flows from Christ’s command: ‘Love one another as I have loved you,’” he said.
Prout was baptized in the Anglican Church. Her father, a lapsed Catholic, worked as a cooper for a local brewery. Her parents disowned her when she decided to join the Catholic Church in her early 20s, at a time when Catholicism was emerging after centuries of persecution in England.
She converted with the help of Blessed Dominic Barberi, the Italian Passionist priest who also received St. John Henry Newman into the Catholic Church.
Prout became a nun at the age of 28, and, a few years after taking her final vows, was given a teaching post in industrial Manchester, where she worked among Irish migrants, women, and factory workers.
During her time as a teacher, Manchester was one of the world’s first industrial cities but workers toiled in abject conditions. Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels, the authors of “The Communist Manifesto,” described working conditions as “hell upon earth.”
Prout founded a religious community inspired by the spirituality of St. Paul of the Cross, the Italian founder of the Passionists. The community was initially called the Institute of the Holy Family, but later renamed the Sisters of the Cross and Passion or Passionist Sisters.
The new institute was criticized for advocating “revolutionary ideas,” because it required religious sisters to earn their own wages to support themselves and taught other women to follow their example.
In 1863, Pope Leo XIII gave the community his approval. Prout, also known as Mother Mary Joseph, was named the order’s first superior general. Today, the Passionist Sisters work with the poor all over the world, including countries such as Papua New Guinea, Argentina, Chile, Peru, and Jamaica.
Prout died from tuberculosis at the age of 43 in Sutton, Lancashire, in 1864. She was buried in the archdiocese of Liverpool, where her cause opened in 1994.
Archbishop Malcolm McMahon of Liverpool welcomed the recognition of Prout’s heroic virtues.
“Her contribution to the Church and people of England and further afield in the education and healthcare through the institutions she founded and the Sisters of the congregation continues to show the care of the Catholic Church for those in need,” he said.
Prout’s body was laid to rest in the shrine of St. Anne’s Church, Sutton, where it lies alongside those of Dominic Barberi and Ignatius Spencer, an aristocratic convert from Anglicanism to Catholicism who served as a Passionist priest.
“My prayer is that the shrine at Sutton will be a place of prayer for her eventual canonization,” McMahon said.
Prout’s sainthood cause was submitted to the Vatican in 2008. If she is beatified and canonized — which would require two verified miracles attributed to her intercession — she would be England’s first female saint who did not suffer martyrdom in almost 800 years.
The last non-martyr English female saint was St. Margaret of Scotland, an Anglo-Saxon princess who became Queen of Scotland after William the Conqueror invaded England. She was canonized in 1250.
Passionist Sister Dominic Savio Hamer, author of the book “Elizabeth Prout: A Religious Life for Industrial England,” said: “This is wonderful news for Congregation of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ.”
“She loved Our Lord so much and also knew so much suffering in her own life and was conversant with the bad social conditions in which so many people lived in Manchester that she will be an ideal person to pray to in our difficulties today.”