TERESA HELENA HIGGINSON
A CHILD OF PROMISE
"I FEEL it right to say that I have the firm conviction that Teresa was not only a saint but also one of the greatest saints Almighty God has ever raised up in His Church."
These striking words, written of Teresa Helena Higginson, express no mere passing opinion, but are the weighty judgment of the wise old priest who, for the last twenty-two years of her life, was the director of her soul.
In the year 1844, when so many hearts in England were turning with hungry longing to the ancient Church, a little girl was born at the famous shrine of Holywell. The child of a Catholic father and a convert mother, she inherited from the one the heroic traditions of the dark ages when the light of faith had so nearly been extinguished, and from the other the bright hopes of a future when it was once again to illuminate the land. And she herself, though destined to play no public part in the world's history, may yet prove to have been one of those special instruments whom Almighty God from time to time selects for the fulfilment of His secret purposes.
Her father, Robert Francis Higginson, was born in Preston in 1816, and educated at Stonyhurst. He then went to Ireland as agent to Lord Dillon at Loughlyn House, Roscommon, and while on a visit to Dublin, was taken to a ball at Viceregal Lodge. Here he was introduced to Miss Bowness, a young English lady a few years older than himself, the romantic story of whose conversion at once excited his attention. Her family came from the town of Bowness in Westmorland, and she had been brought up in staunch old-fashioned Protestantism. Her father had a hearty hatred of the Catholic Church and more especially of the Jesuits, but in spite of this he allowed his daughter to travel with some cousins to Rome, where they were much attracted by the great churches and basilicas. Having wandered one day into the Gesu, they met a kindly English priest who offered to show them round. They were deeply interested and liked their guide so much, that they begged him to come and see them at their hotel. During his visit, Mary Bowness alluded to her intense dislike of the Jesuits. To her no small embarrassment, her new friend quietly observed that he himself was one. Closer acquaintance apparently removed her prejudices, for before leaving Rome, she asked to be instructed, and was finally received into the church. When she told her father what she had done, he was terribly angry and turned her out of house and home, declaring that he would rather see her dead at his feet than a Catholic. She took refuge with some friends in Dublin and so met a fellow English Catholic, Robert Higginson. They quickly fell in love and were married at Loughlyn in October, 1841. Their first child, a daughter, was born in the following year, and soon afterwards, they returned to England and settled down at Gainsborough in Lincolnshire, where Mr. Higginson took up business as a wharfinger. The quiet little town of Gainsborough was a place of considerable note at a time when so much of the country's traffic was conveyed by water. The Chesterfield, Keadby, and other canals brought goods from all parts of the country to its wharfs, whence they were shipped down the river to the open sea. The duty of the wharfinger was to control and regulate this traffic, a busy and important post, and Mr. Higginson was able for some time to maintain his fast growing family in very comfortable circumstances. But with the advent of railways, things began to change. Commerce on the canals gradually died down and, in the end, ceased altogether, and in 1857 he found himself obliged to remove to Whalley Bridge in Cheshire.
But it was at Trent Port Wharf in Gainsborough that the little Higginsons spent the first happy years of their lives. Teresa was the third child. Before her birth, Mrs. Higginson being in a poor state of health went on a pilgrimage to Holywell, and so it came about that this child of special destiny was born at the ancient shrine so famous in the days of faith, on May 27th, 1844. Priests were few and scattered, and it was not till June 22nd, that the baby was baptised. The ceremony was performed by Father O'Carrol, and it was surely not mere chance which prompted the selection of her names. Saint Teresa, the great mystic of Avila, and Saint Helena, the British princess who searched so diligently for the Cross, were the patrons chosen for this child who was herself to walk the heights of mysticism and to prove so true a lover of the Holy Cross.
Catholic life was at a low ebb in the east of England in those days, and the Higginsons who were so devout must have felt themselves sadly isolated. There were a few scattered Catholics round Gainsborough when they first went there, and a priest visited the place at intervals. The second entry in the baptismal register is that of Robert Francis Higginson, son of Robert Higginson and Mary Higginson, formerly Bowness. He was born in April, 1848, and nearly two months elapsed before a priest came to baptise him. It would appear that the Rev. J. B. Naughton was appointed to the district shortly afterwards, for the last three children of the family were baptised by him within a few days of their respective births. In the year 1850, a room was taken in Whitehorse Yard which was used as a chapel until the building of the present church, but before this took place it is probable that the Higginsons' house was the chief Catholic centre of the neighbourhood. They had an oratory where Mass was said as often as possible and where the vestments and other altar requisites were kept. Dr. Roskell, the Vicar Apostolic of the northern district, was a frequent visitor, and they numbered many well known priests among their friends. These were stirring times for the little band of Catholics, and we can easily imagine the eager conversations that were carried on, and how their hopes for the return of England to the Faith rose high, as day by day the roll of Oxford converts mounted up with steady tide. Not least welcome of their guests was the Venerable Dominic Barberi, the famous Passionist, who in all likelihood will soon be raised to the altars of the Church, and by whom Newman himself and so many of his followers were received. One of the children, Louisa, was privileged to receive baptism at his hands, and he often carried little Teresa in his arms. Did he, to whom the future was so often shown, perhaps foresee the heights of sanctity to which this child would reach — how steadfastly she would scale the path to Calvary, there to be ennobled by our Lord Himself with the sublime title of "Spouse of the Crucified"? Surely we cannot doubt that his fervent prayers won for her a share in his own heroic zeal for souls, and that his burning words sank deep into the opening mind of this little one whose infant heart was aflame already with the love of God.
There are no outside records of Teresa's early days. Our only sources of information are two accounts written by herself, in obedience to her directors, Father Powell and Father Snow, and from her simple pages we gather many glimpses of a very perfect Catholic home. The children led a sheltered life; they had no playmates, but the five sisters and three brothers formed a happy, merry little band among themselves, and Teresa seems to have been the ringleader in all their games and romps. Their education was entrusted to nursery governesses, but their good parents themselves watched closely over them and trained them carefully in the fear and love of God. Although with few spiritual advantages — until she went to school Teresa had never been either to Benediction or the Stations of the Cross — they learnt to follow closely in the spirit of the Church and to enter fully into all her feasts and seasons. They were trained too, to have true charity for the poor. Each day at dinner the first helping from the dish was set aside for the next beggar who might ask for alms, and, if by evening none had come, the good parents would say: "We have had no visit from Our Lord today." Teresa used in after years to tell how to her confusion, when carrying the dish to the kitchen to be kept warm, she once fell and smashed the plate and scattered all the food.
One of the lessons their mother impressed most deeply upon their young minds was the practice of the presence of God. She would bid them picture Our Lord as standing always at their side, and Teresa told a priest in her last illness what consolation this had brought her throughout life. "I had but to put out my hand to find it ever in His", she said.
The good seed took deep root in the fertile soil of little Teresa's soul. Lively and intelligent, thoughtful beyond her years, with a very tender heart and great force of character, her whole being from the very cradle was centred in the thought of God. Her parents early realised that it was no ordinary soul whom He had entrusted to their care. Indeed all who knew her looked upon her as a child of special promise, one whom God had marked in a peculiar manner for His own. Bishop Roskell watched with loving solicitude over this lamb of his flock; Father Dominic, as we have seen, loved to take her in his arms; and Father Ignatius Spencer, another well-known Passionist, used to call her his little apostle, from the zealous way in which she tried to spread his league for the conversion of England.
One of her earliest recollections was of hearing a priest (possibly Father Faber) say of her, that she would be either a great saint or a great sinner, and would lead many souls to God or away from Him. 1 "This I think had a great impression on me though he did not think I heard it, yet it sank deep down in my soul, for that night when we received our parents' blessing, when Papa put his hand on my head, he sighed and it went through me. Then that same night when Mama came to look at us last thing, she knelt down by my crib and cried, and when she kissed me the warm tears fell upon my face, and I was too much ashamed to open my eyes and felt unworthy of so good a mother. I mention this fact for it has never been forgotten, and I think our dear Lord had a great deal to do with it, though I did not then understand the meaning of it all, but I did beg of the dear little infant Jesus to help me to be more like Him and never to let me do anything that would make my dear parents cry, for I loved them so tenderly. I don't know how old I would be then, but I must have been very young."
It is clear that even at this early age, Teresa possessed a dominant personality and remarkable strength of will. "The Kingdom of Heaven suffereth violence and the violent bear it away", said Our Lord. It is not the feeble of will and the faint of heart whom He chooses to accompany Him on the way to Calvary. And certainly Teresa was no weakling. From the first she seems to have held complete sway, not only over her brothers and sisters, but also over all those with whom she came in contact. She describes herself as very headstrong and self-willed, though the objects she pursued so resolutely were no mere childish whims, but matters she had pondered deeply in her little mind, and which conscience told her to be right.
 "I was a great source of anxiety to my parents for though I did not disobey them, yet I was very headstrong and almost always contrived to get my own way. I had such control over all in the house, and even strangers that dear Papa and Mama say I led them whichever way I pleased, in spite of themselves, and this self-will grew as I grew. I used to weigh a thing well in my own mind and if I thought it should be, I would not rest until I had achieved my point. I used to propose it and if I thought there was opposition, for a little I might argue it over, but dear Papa often said as long as I argued there was some chance, but when I became silent I had made up my mind, cost me what it would, I would do it (through God) and invariably I got what I wanted. I was glad of obstacles and thought I had then something to give Him who had given me so much. Oh my Beloved, when I look back and see all the dangers you have led me through and removed from my path I rejoice and bless Thy Holy Name for Thou hast ever been mindful of me."
In all the records of the saints there is hardly one more beautiful than Teresa's own description of her first realisation of the Blessed Trinity. This sublime revelation was granted to her at a very tender age.
 "I think I would not be four years old when He brought me to the full use of reason and I fancy it was on the feast of the Purification (Presentation?) of our Blessed Lady. I must have been told a great deal about it and I wished very much to please and honour our dear Mother Mary, for I thought if I did she would let me nurse her dear little infant Jesus, and how ardently I longed for Him He only knows. But something must have been said to me also about our Blessed Lady being the Temple or Tabernacle of the most Holy Trinity and her giving herself to God when she was only as old as I was, for I remember going before the image of Mater Dei and telling our Blessed Lord I wished to say to Him all that our dear Blessed Lady said to him, and I promised to do all that she then promised and gave myself to her that she might offer me up with her own offering. And I think Almighty God accepted my poor offering and gave me grace to make a profound act of faith which I shall never forget, though I don't know in which way it was that thou Oh Beloved of my soul then revealed to me for the first time the great mystery of the Blessed Trinity (not anything distinctly about it) but prostrating myself to the ground I felt surrounded by an overwhelming power and majesty and when I was able to speak, I said over and over again: 'Blessed be the most holy and undivided Trinity, now and forever more. Amen.' And although I did not understand the vows I then made, still I renewed them every day and night, and as I grew older and prepared for the sacraments I felt more and more my obligations of love and fidelity."
There is a further account of this wonderful event in the memoir she began to write for Father Snow.
 "It was the feast of the Presentation of our Blessed Lady in the Temple, and we had been told all about it and the four Hail Maries been said as Daughter of God the Father, Mother of God the Son, and Spouse of God the Holy Ghost, and Tabernacle of the adorable Trinity, and we were told that Mary was all these because she gave herself so entirely to God on that day, and a strange feeling began to work within me. I thought all over again and again and thought that I too must give myself to God as Mary did, and yet a strange feeling of dread was over me and I dare not. A real struggle was going on in my soul and at last Thou, oh my King, conquered: I stole into the oratory and bowing myself down to the ground I offered myself to God to be all His for ever. I told our Blessed Lady to say to God for me all that she said that day in the Temple. Then I realised God for the first time. I seemed to see and know the great Mystery of the Blessed Trinity and how Mary was the Tabernacle of the thrice Holy Trinity. I then really bowed in adoration and saw how the soul is made after their Image and Likeness. It seemed to me that God was in my soul in a mysterious manner, yet I knew Him and loved Him and gave myself to Him. I would be then about four years old and though I did not understand all the offering I made yet I daily renewed it."
Where could be found a more touching scene than that of this tiny child prostrate before the altar, lost in adoration of the infinite majesty of God? "Venerable old age is not that of long time nor counted by the number of years; but the understanding of a man is grey hairs", says the Book of Wisdom. Young as she was, Teresa understood the Voice that spoke to her; she made her choice and henceforth she belonged to God for ever.
But to this wonderful grace there was soon added the realisation of evil, for she goes on to tell of her first sin — a mere childish act of disobedience it may seem to us, but to her whose soul was so illumined by the light of Grace, it was revealed in all its horror as a deliberate offence against Almighty God. Father Snow, for so long her director, used afterwards to say that in his opinion this was the only true matter she could ever have had for confession, and it would almost seem as though Almighty God had allowed this fall, in order that she should realise to the full the horror and malice of sin and the anguish of repentance.
 "Oh my Spouse and my only Delight, how closely Thou hast guarded Thy poor weak child", she writes. "How often would I have strayed from Thee if Thou hadst not made Thyself so attractive to me and imprinted Thy beautiful Face on all things, so that looking at earthly things I might see in them Thy beauty, Thy wisdom Thy power and Thy love. And yet in spite of all these yet in Thy very presence would I dare to offend Thee my Lord and my God. Ah who but Thou wouldst have borne with me in my wickedness for at the very time Thou wert lavishing favours upon me I dared to disobey my parents and thus break Thy Holy command. One day we had all been out for a walk as usual, and when we returned I stayed behind a little till the rest had all gone upstairs and, instead of hanging up my hat, I was dragging it after me or something of the kind, and dear Mama saw me and called to me and I pretended not to hear her, but went on humming something to myself and trusting that she would call me again, but she did not and I did not go to see what she wanted or tell her how naughty I was and that I was sorry, for I really was grieved the moment after it happened. The next minute I was called into the nursery but I could not do anything I was so ashamed of myself and so sorry I could not learn my lesson, play, or take my tea, and they all thought I was sick and everyone's kindness made me worse and worse. I felt they really would cry if they knew how wicked I was and I longed to tell them and beg pardon and yet I felt they would be so hurt with me, and when they nursed and kissed me I felt as though my heart would break, not so much because I had offended my dear Jesus, as it was for the wrong I had done to so good a mother and I felt I was so ungrateful to her. Oh how I longed to put my arms around her neck and tell her all, but I was put to bed, and of course I could not rest, so after a while I crept out of bed and came partly down the stairs and there I sat crying to myself, till someone saw me and told Mama and I was carried into the room where Rev. Father Smith etc. were playing whist. I said I wanted to tell Father Smith something and he took me on his knee and when supper was ready he said he would stop a few minutes and see what I had to say, and there and then I made my first confession though I did not get absolution from Father Smith, yet I felt so happy again, and he took me down with him and I told my dear parents, and Father Smith, Papa, and Mama all cried, and I cried too, but now they were tears of joy for me and I promised that I would not be such a naughty girl again."
In a letter to Father Powell she writes in allusion to her sin:  "Oh what a day of misery that was for me. I was afraid of our dear little Infant Jesus and His holy Mother, and I was ashamed before my dear good angel and my friends, and I thought the clock was telling everyone what I had done. And now I bless You for this fall, for it showed me how much and how truly you loved me (by allowing me to make my first confession so soon) and Father Smith and my parents cried to think I should so soon offend our Blessed Lord, and it made such an impression on me then, a new world seemed open to me and I felt that I had been the cause of all that our Blessed Lord suffered and I tried each day to hurt myself in some way. I have cut my fingers and scalded and burnt myself as if by accident trusting that, in union with His bitter torments, these little things would be acceptable in His sight. I often used to put my finger ends in between the door when it was about to be shut and try to get my feet trodden on. I would entangle my hair purposely, so that when it was combed it would hurt my head. I am sure you will laugh at these little things, but little minds and hearts can only contrive little ways, and little as they were I always felt I was pleasing Him whom I love above all things. And I wonder He never told me I should ask about things, for our Blessed Lady several times brought Him to me that I might look into His little Face and see how beautiful and good He is. He showed me Himself to me in such a manner even then, that I could not help but love him. I mean there was no virtue on my part."
The horror of sin and the awful price it had cost Our Blessed Lord were indelibly impressed upon her mind, and her one desire henceforth was to share His pain and to help Him to win back the souls He held so dear. So at four years old, the little girl took up her cross and set out resolutely to accompany Our Lord on the long road to Calvary, and as she grew, her love of suffering for His sake also grew until it filled her with such insatiable desire that, as she said, she craved for it more than for meat and drink. The penances invented by her childish mind sound almost incredible, but none knew of them. She never spoke of them regarding them as precious secrets with her Jesus, sure that He too loved to share them, for she noticed that He often helped to hide them when others might have found them out. One of her favourite ways of mortifying her natural inclinations was to take upon herself the misdeeds of her companions, a practice for which she used afterwards to blame herself severely, but one which at the time must have cost her many a bitter fight.
 "My dear Lord how often I have offended Thee I know not, for many and many times I have said that I committed faults that I never did, for if little things sometimes were denied by the others, I would not tell of them but would say that I did it, to save them the punishment, and this I did many times even after I made my first holy Communion and thought I was doing something for God, when all the time I was offending Him in Him Infinite Truth. Oh that I could cry aloud to the whole world and say how base and ungrateful I have been and how sorry I am. Oh my dear Lord how ungrateful I have ever been to thee, and though I have always had a great desire to please Thee yet how little have I done. My dear sisters and brothers were always a great deal better than I was though I do not think Thou gavest them, Oh my Spouse, and only Treasure, such a knowledge of Thy beauty and love as Thou gavest to me. For my infant heart was all on fire for Thee and Thy Blessed Mother and I longed at times to shed my blood for Thee. And our play as little ones was very often little instances from Your holy Childhood and lives of the Saints and martyrdoms, and we used to save our pocket money to buy Chinese children, for we were all in the Holy Childhood and used to have the little stories read from the Annals of that Society, which gave us a great zeal for the souls of pagan children etc. And many times in the day ever since I have prayed, and always teach the children under me to say, 'Oh divine Child Jesus save us and all other poor children, especially those of pagan parents. Oh Virgin Mary, St. Joseph pray for us and them, Hail Mary etc.'
"When I was about five, my little brother died and this made a great impression on me, for the whole house was in great mourning; and I think someone must have said something about what a soul must feel when it has to be separated from Almighty God, when we feel so keenly the death of a person we love — but I don't remember who said it, only that ever after I used to beg of Our dear Lord never to let me be sent away from Him for one minute, though I don't know that I did anything extra to try and please Him more. Though a little later on just before we went to the convent, when my eldest sister who was about seven made her first confession, I renewed all my good resolutions and gave myself to my dear Divine Lord, promising Him to be for ever more and more His own, and that I would never again say what I liked, but for the sake of Him who denied Himself all things I too would henceforth mortify myself in every way possible, keeping a strict guard over my senses and watching for chances to prove how earnest I was in doing little things for him whom I felt burning my poor little heart away. And though I often did little things, yet Oh my God how frequently and basely I offended, slighted, and neglected Thee and how ungrateful I have ever been towards Thee, my loving Lord. I was never very strong and our dear Lord gave me a great many chances of suffering patiently and silently for love of Him, and I know I used to feel so grateful to Him if He could give me some painful suffering that no one knew about only Himself.
"Then in 1854 Dr. Roskell gave confirmation in Gainsborough and I think he remained over night at our house; however he heard us our prayers and catechism (as Miss Featherstone was obliged to go to her aunt who was sick) and he advised dear Papa and Mama to let us go to the convent at Nottingham where I remained for eleven years."
1. The figures give the reference to Teresa's letters to her directors which are numbered in chronological order. In every case the number is given of each letter quoted in the text.