THE CALL TO TEACH
IN 1865, when twenty-one years of age, Teresa finally left the convent and returned home. Her family were now living at St. Helen's, in Lancashire, where Mr. Higginson was engaged as a commissioner or forwarding agent. He went out to his office every morning, and, evening by evening, his wife stood waiting at the garden gate to welcome him on his return. One day he came home looking deadly pale and evidently in great distress. He walked straight into the house and began pacing up and down the dining room. Mrs. Higginson, seeing he could not speak, waited outside the door for a few minutes to give him time to recover. Teresa happened to be in the room and watched her father anxiously. At last, thinking that sin alone could cause such anguish, she threw her arms round his neck and kissed him saying: "Oh, Papa, even if you have committed mortal sin, God will forgive you. Only do not lose your trust in Him!" He put her aside and, turning to his wife who at that moment came into the room, said: "I am ruined! I have ruined you all!"1
Teresa afterwards told Father Snow that these words pierced her heart like a sword. She had always had a great dread of riches and had prayed much that her family might be poor, and now, when she saw her father's agony and realised all the anxiety and distress her dear ones would have to undergo, she felt that her prayer had indeed been answered. Mr. Higginson had been involved in some dealings in cotton which had turned out disastrously owing to the American War and he had lost everything. He went bankrupt and for a time it was impossible for him to find employment, so they removed to Liverpool where they suffered many hardships from their poverty. Teresa, who was a beautiful needle-woman, used to go from shop to shop asking for work. She was often laughed at or refused, but she obtained a few orders, and the nuns at the convent in Beacon Lane were very good to her. After a time, the family settled at Egremont in Cheshire, and gradually their circumstances began to improve. Mr. Higginson was able to resume business at St. Helen's; one of his daughters, Louisa, trained as a school teacher with the Sisters of Notre Dame at Mount Pleasant, and another, Frances, gave lessons in music. Teresa remained at home with her parents who seem always to have been very loath to part with her, both, no doubt, on account of her delicacy and because they realised the very special treasure Almighty God had committed to their care.
In the year 1871, a terrible epidemic of smallpox and cholera broke out in the western counties and spread with great rapidity in Liverpool and the neighbouring towns. One of the most severely affected was Bootle, where the schools had to be closed for want of teachers. The rector of St. Alexander's church at Bootle, the Rev. Edward Powell, was a zealous and holy man who came from a family of corn merchants at West Derby, Liverpool. He had the interests of his parish very much at heart, and the story is told of how he once went to seek advice from the saintly Curé d'Ars. He explained how he had prayed and even fasted for the good of his people, but apparently with small result. The saint looked at him and said simply: "Have you tried blood?" When Father Powell came to die many years later he was found to be wearing a hair shirt.
This zealous priest was much distressed at the state of his children who, owing to the closing of the schools, were running wild and becoming utterly undisciplined. He applied for help to Sister Mary Philip, then in charge of the training college at Mount Pleasant. She had no qualified, or even experienced, teacher, available, but recommended Miss Teresa Higginson, the sister of one of her students who had a wonderful influence with children. Teresa, as may be imagined, far from being scared by the fear of infection, was delighted at this opportunity of sacrificing her life in the cause of charity and eagerly offered her services. Father Powell gratefully accepted the offer, and two souls destined to play a great part in each other's lives, were thus brought together. The appointment proved a great success. Teresa quickly won her way with the children and remained at Bootle for about a year. Father Powell became more and more impressed with her as he recognised the great heights of virtue to which she had already attained, and the special graces with which Almighty God had endowed her. He allowed her to communicate daily, a thing most unusual in those days and one for which she was ever grateful to him. He soon discovered her wonderful gift for teaching. When she was giving her catechism classes on a Sunday he used to watch the benches fill with grown-up people as well as children, all listening to her with rapt attention. After a time he told her he thought Almighty God was calling her to serve Him in this way and sent her to consult the Sisters of Notre Dame. Sister M. Philip told her that she would require a year's study before going in for the necessary examination, but Father Powell, finding that one was to be held in the following week, bade her go in for it at once. She obeyed and passed successfully. Throughout her life it was remarked that her learning never came from books. She was hardly ever seen to read, a point on which she was often affectionately teased by her fellow-teachers in later years. They used to say that it was hardly fair that she should be able to give her lessons with so little trouble when they had to spend such long hours in preparation. A gentle smile was Teresa's only answer.
Mr. and Mrs. Higginson were opposed to the idea of Teresa's adopting the teaching profession, for they did not think her health would stand it. She herself was in much anxiety as to her vocation in life. As a tiny child she had dedicated herself entirely to God, and she only longed to know along which path she could follow most closely in the steps of her suffering Lord. In her trouble she went to consult Father Ignatius Spencer, the venerable Passionist who had been so fond of her in her childhood, and who was then at Sutton. When she went in he said aloud the Gloria Patri, adding: "Thank God, my child, you have come to me." He encouraged her to continue her teaching and told her she had no vocation to be a nun, though she would later on live in a convent. He assured her that God had special designs on her, and that she must be very faithful and very open with her confessor, adding that if she were lost her damnation would be awful. He also warned her against making friends, promising that when our Lord saw it was necessary for her to have a friend He would send her one.
Teresa's doubts were set at rest. She felt, as she expressed it, that "Almighty God was calling her to teach little children how to love Him", and she entered eagerly on her profession. In 1872, she went as mistress to the village school of Orrell, near Wigan, and having satisfied the government inspector, was granted her certificate, and sent early in the following year to the more important post of St. Mary's, Wigan. Here she remained for three years, leading to all outward appearance the ordinary uneventful life of a schoolmistress, but in the inner history of her soul these years were to prove of vast importance. It is at Wigan that we first come into touch with friends and fellow teachers, from whose living lips we are able to gather many details of Teresass daily life. But it must be borne in mind that her constant aim was to avoid notice and to disguise as far as possible from others the favours which Almighty God was lavishing upon her soul. And thus it is that, with few exceptions, her companions, while they could not fail to note many strange occurrences, little guessed their true significance, and when, in after years they learnt the stupendous truth about the retiring little woman they thought they had known so well, they could but wonder at their blindness. Even the chosen few who were admitted to her confidence were far from knowing all — this was revealed to her director alone and then only in virtue of obedience. Still, her friends have much to tell that is of interest, both as depicting the external history of her life, and as lending confirmation to her own statements.
One of her fellow teachers has described her appearance when she was at Wigan:
"She appeared about thirty years of age (though I have since learnt that she was much younger than she looked. She was about five feet two inches in height, her body seemed much emaciated though her face was not too thin. She had what the people here call a wizen face, i.e. shrivelled and sallow. Her hair was dark, eyes also dark, small, very quick and bright, her general expression very pleasing; in conversation she was animated, witty and humorous. Her movements were quick and sprightly and she seemed always on the alert and entered heart and soul into everything she took in hand. Her dress was often odd. She never cared whether her clothes were in taste or well-fitting, in fact never seemed to have a new costume and as she had literally no regard for money I came to the conclusion that her clothes were simply her sisters' cast off clothing, and that she squandered her salary in buying books and objects of piety for others and in charity, so that she never had the wherewithal to buy a decent outfit. Such was Miss Higginson as I remember her… From the first day I met her until we parted I could never find fault with her in any way. She was never cross-looking or out of humour and her pupils idolised her. She seemed to live in the presence of God and always introduced some religious topic into the conversation without boring one with an overdose of piety, or seeming to preach."
The little staff of St. Mary's school were on very happy, intimate terms. One of the things which attracted their attention with regard to Teresa was the strange attacks of what they called debility to which she was subject, especially of a morning. She went to daily Mass but was often so weak that she had almost to be carried to the altar rails; then, after receiving holy Communion, her strength returned and she would walk back unaided to her place and be able to carry out her duties for the rest of the day as though in normal health. They noticed too, how rigorously she fasted. There were times when she seemed literally to live on the Blessed Sacrament alone, for three days at a time taking no other food.
Towards the end of 1873, a new teacher was appointed to the staff, Miss Susan Ryland. She spent a day at Wigan to visit the school, and Teresa told her later how, before her arrival, the Devil had tormented her, saying that she would no longer be able to keep her secrets as the new teacher would soon find them out. Miss Ryland took up her duties on January 5th, and Teresa soon recognised in her the friend Father Spencer had promised her our Lord would send her in her need. For the next eighteen months they were seldom parted, and during the holidays Miss Ryland accompanied Teresa to her home. Mrs. Higginson met her with open arms, saying: "I have longed to meet you. You are the only friend Teresa has ever had." And Mr. Higginson bade his family do all they could to welcome Teresa's friend.
Miss Ryland and Teresa at first shared a lodging and then removed to the little schoolhouse attached to St. Mary's school, where they occupied the same room and even slept in the same bed. Hard-worked and poorly paid, there was much of sacrifice and no little heroism in the life of the Catholic teacher of those days. The year 1874 was to be one of the most eventful in Teresa's life, and our Lord had provided her with a friend after her own heart, loyal, silent, and above all not inquisitive! Living in such close intimacy it would have been impossible to hide all trace of the mysterious events of those months, and Teresa gladly gave up all attempts at secrecy and, though she never spoke of her inner life, Miss Ryland was the silent witness of many marvels concerning which she drew her own conclusions. Yet even so, on looking back, she can but wonder at the simple way in which she took these things and at her utter want of curiosity and surprise concerning them.
"I became acquainted with Teresa", she writes, "at the end of December, 73. It was on January 5th, 1874 that 1 began my life with her. I remained with her at Wigan until July 1875. During that time she received to my knowledge many favours from God; visitations from the evil One in person, also from our Lord, our Lady and the saints. In Lent, 1874, she was granted the following of our Lord in the details of His sacred Passion, the Crown of Thorns, like St. Rose of Lima, the sacred Stigmata and many other favours."
From their first meeting Miss Ryland was strangely attracted to Teresa and soon began to suspect that there was something very remarkable about her. Her first experience of anything out of the common was after she had been at Wigan a fortnight. It was about ten-thirty and they were going to bed, when she looked round and found Teresa lying on the floor, unconscious. Being unable to move her she called for help and lifted her on to the bed. She saw that this was no ordinary illness, and when, by one p.m. there was no change, she went for Father Wells. He came at once though she was surprised to see the calm way in which he took the matter. Teresa was still unconscious, but when he gave her some Lourdes water she immediately came to herself. He then sent Miss Ryland for the doctor, who expressed astonishment at Teresa's excessive weakness and could make nothing of the case. Miss Ryland herself soon realised that these strange illnesses were supernatural — Teresa was in fact, in ecstasy, a condition which became very constant at this time. Her friend has described her outward appearance on these occasions:
"There were two ways in which Teresa was taken. In one the body was supple and she showed either excessive grief or excessive joy. In the other the body was quite rigid and it was almost impossible to move her. That state did not last long. Twice she was like that in the street. Fortunately it was in a lonely part or it might have proved awkward. I could do nothing but stand at her side till she became conscious. During the early part of 1874, there was something in the paper about Louise Lateaux2 in France being in ecstasy every Friday and we passed the remark (I mean Miss Woodward and I), 'That is nothing to this house. It is a daily occurrence here', which it was at that time. Teresa must have had some kind of communication with her, for she said one day after coming to herself: 'Louise Lateaux told me to read something in the life of St. Teresa.' So I brought the book to her but I don't know what she read. She had the same favours as that saint, one being the seraph's dart of love, but she said it did not seem to come from an angel, it was our Lord Himself. Once she saw something (I don't think it was the Passion) that caused her great grief and a little while after something that brought on excessive joy and I heard her say (for she spoke rather loudly), 'I can bear the grief but I cannot bear this joy.' At another time she experienced some terrible fear, she was for a long time as pale as death and as if in an agony. She held her crucifix in her hand at a distance and passed it round in front as if to ward off someone. I got the holy water and used it freely. It brought about no change, so Miss Woodward went for Father Wells. He came down, watched her for a while, then called her by name when she immediately came to herself. I have only thought since what it might be. As the holy water did no good I am of opinion that she was resisting our Lord because I know that she had afterwards something of the same kind to do and it was distasteful to her, but of course she always obeyed.
"There was another state she was in but I think that was only recollection. When we said the rosary together she would suddenly stop and I had to wait a long time for her, so I made up my mind not to wait but to continue taking both sides. That night in the middle of the first mystery, she stopped and began again when I was finishing the fourth. She touched me gently when I began the fifth and said: 'It is only the second.' I replied: 'It is the second for you, but for me it is the fifth, and I don't want to be here all night.' That sounds irreverent, but I was dealing with her then not as a saint but as a familiar friend.
"I have said little of our Lord's visits. They were frequent but, as a rule, Miss Higginson did not speak to Him in such a way that I could hear. She told me once, however, that she was longing for the Day of Judgment that He might show men how much she had loved Him. I recognised these words as having been said to St. Teresa.
"On four occasions, to my knowledge, our Lady appeared to her. I give an account of two. I saw she was talking to someone. Of course, at these times she was unconscious of anything else. When our Lady went away she said to me: 'Isn't she beautiful?' I asked: 'Who?' 'Our blessed Lady. Didn't you see her, dear?' When I said no, she was very quiet and only said: 'She has told me I love Him more than I can tell.'
"The second apparition was at a time when she was very ill and not able to help herself. I was kneeling by her side when she sat up and said: 'Our Lady says I am cured, and I shall go to holy Communion on Thursday morning.' That was Tuesday night, and I wondered why not the next morning since she was better, but in the morning I found she was weak as ever. I got her up before dinner and brought her downstairs. After dinner she became unconscious again. I had to leave her and go to school. Miss Woodward remained with her. A little before four o'clock, she (Teresa) came up to the school to me although she had to mount a flight of stone steps. I said: 'You have no right to come up here when you have been so ill.' She said: 'What God does He does well. I am all right', or words to that effect. She had also been to church, and to see Father Wells. Miss Woodward told me that at three o'clock she came to herself and said: 'Didn't our Lady say three o'clock?' She then put on her hat and came out, going first to church.
"St. Joseph was with her once and St. Peter once. There were other visions which she only told me of, but I mention only those which I was present for."
Teresa's great wish was ever to remain hidden and unknown, and never throughout her life did she do any startling public work, but while in Wigan she seems to have performed a number of what might be called minor miracles, of which Miss Ryland gives a few examples.
"At the bidding of Father Wells she cured a child of some chest disease. She used common lard (as an excuse I suppose). The child's mother asked her afterwards for some of the ointment. Teresa said to me: 'What shall I do? It is only common lard.' One night she came from church where she had been doing the altar, etc., bringing with her a duster or so to wash. There was no common soap in the house. I suppose we had forgotten it. She asked me had we nothing but the good soap and when I said no, she remarked it was against holy poverty to use that for dusters. I turned away but happened to turn back just in time to see a pound of common soap on the table and Teresa stretching out her hand to take it, as it was nearer to where I was standing than to her. I am not sure but I think she laid down the money necessary to pay for it. I am quite certain there was no soap on the table when I turned away. Another time I had forgotten, or did not notice, that there was no wood in the house. In the morning I wanted to light the fire. Teresa was in bed. I went in to her and said: 'We have no wood and I want to light the fire.' She said: 'There is plenty in the sacristy.' But I said: 'The church is not open yet.' 'Very well', she said, 'ask St. Joseph for some.' I said: 'You ask him, he won't do it for me.' Then she said: 'Have you been to such a cupboard?' I said: 'Yes, and there is none there.' 'Well, go and look again.' I went and found a quantity of nice pieces not like the wood we bought.
"The key of her school was once lost. We kept it in the school-house, and when she wanted to enter it was not to be found. I searched the house for it, so did she. She then went up to the parlour and I think knelt by the table. Presently she came out with the key in her hand and looking very pale. I said to her: 'What on earth is the matter with you? You look frightened to death.' (It was unusual to see her like that.) 'Yes', she said, 'I was frightened because I saw nothing, but a white hand put the key down.'
"Another day after coming from Holy Communion she lighted the fire on the spur of the moment by making the sign of the cross over cold cinders. She said: 'This would warm the children's cans.' Then made the sign of the cross and I saw the flames come into the cold cinders. She did the same thing at home. Her sister Fanny said to me in Teresa's presence (they, like myself, used to tease her sometimes): 'Our Tess is very clever, she can light a fire without coal or wood.' I asked Teresa what she meant and she told me her Mama was ill that morning and Fanny wanted the fire quickly. Hence the result. Her brother said to me one day: 'Tess can do wonderful things. She can send up a tray before her.' He was teasing her. I asked her what he meant. She told me she was going to bring up the tray but it was too heavy for her, so her guardian angel took it from her and put it into her brother's hands. Then he saw her at the bottom of the stairs.
"The Maundy Thursday I spoke of I was preparing the room for holy Communion and had nearly finished, when the bell rang for Mass and I had to leave to see to the children. There were clean sheets downstairs which I was airing at the fire the day before, and a white counterpane we used only when she received. That was in my box. As I went downstairs I said to our Lord: 'I cannot do any more. I must go now to my duty.' I locked the door of the house. When I came back the sheets and counterpane had been put on. It was done for her, but certainly not by her as she was unable to leave her bed. Besides the undersheet was only halfway as is sometimes done in case of sickness."
Miss Ryland noticed that Teresa seemed often able to read her thoughts and even knew what happened in her absence. As a little instance she tells how she was once making pastry and dropped the rolling pin on the floor. She washed it and having wiped it with a cloth went on with her work. When she went upstairs, Teresa, who had all the time been in her room, said with a smile:
"My dear, never roll out pastry with a damp roller."
Others of her friends had like experiences, and an amusing story is told of two old priests on their way to visit her who thought it wise to go to confession to each other before seeing her!
But ecstasies and visions notwithstanding, Teresa never for an instant thought that she could slacken in her battle against self. To the end she feared she might turn traitor, and often begged for prayers lest she should become "a castaway". One of her favourite sayings was: "Small straws show which way the wind blows", meaning that it is the little things which prove our attitude towards God. The following incidents related by Miss Ryland show the close watch she kept and how sternly she exercised her rare powers of self-control. One day in conversation something was said about Father Wells. Teresa jumped up and ran out of the room. Miss Ryland followed her and found her in the school-yard with her lips tightly closed and her hand pressed over them. She asked what was wrong. 'Oh', said Teresa, 'I was so afraid I should answer back!'
Another night she came in looking much disturbed. "I did not speak to her", says Miss Ryland, "as I thought it best to leave her until she recovered. In a few minutes she said to me: 'I was nearly overcome that time!' meaning that she almost gave way to nature. I said: 'I thought you were put out. What happened?' She then told me that she had gone as usual to ask Father Wells' blessing before retiring to rest and he had ordered her out of the room, and she said: 'I think he would have thrown me over if I had not got off my knees quickly.' Father Wells, of course, did these things to try her."
No detail was too trifling to be turned to use in the conquest of nature. When asked to admire a lovely sunset she took one glance and did not look again. She delighted to obey the wishes of her junior teachers, and would often stand waiting at the door that Miss Ryland might enter first. Tiny straws indeed! but it is by the lightest touch that the masterpiece is brought to its perfection, and what iron mastery of self does such unceasing watch entail!
Miss Ryland has often been asked whether she did not find life with Teresa sad and painful, but she will not have it so. Teresa herself was so ideal a companion, ever kind and thoughtful, bright and full of interest, by nature very quick and active, except when overtaken by her mysterious weakness. Even then she took no thought of self nor was she in any way hysterical. Calm and self-controlled, she was never known to cry or make a scene, and the doctor, puzzled though he often was at her condition, never made mention of hysteria as its cause. Her very illnesses gave way before the call of duty and, except towards the end of Lent, she was seldom absent from her place in school. Her influence with the children was very great and they quickly fell under the charm of her personality, so strongly felt by her companions in her own childhood. She seemed to see into their minds and to know if they were speaking the truth, and they soon found that the most elaborate excuses were of no avail, though in any pain or trouble they had a ready listener. One who was a pupil teacher at the time, describes Teresa's lively interest in her pupils and remembers specially some game of railways in the school-room wherein she played a leading part, puffing up and down the room in vigorous imitation of an engine!
1. Notes on Teresa's Life by Father Snow.
2. Louise Lateaux was a famous Belgian Stigmatic living at this time.