Edna Hamer, Elizabeth Prout 1820-1864. A Religious Life for Industrial England, Gracewing, Leominster, Herefordshire, 2011. £15.99, 978-0-85244-171-8 (paperback), pp. vi + 362
Reviewed by: Rene Kollar, St. Vincent College, Latrobe, PA, U.S.A., July 2011
An important aspect of the revival of Roman Catholicism in England during the nineteenth century was the establishment and growth of sisterhoods. Because of the Reformation, convent life had disappeared, but during the French Revolution a number of sisterhoods found refuge from persecution in Protestant England and conventual life for women began to flourish. Soon, however, a number of English Catholic women also began to establish convents. For the most part, these pioneer women religious looked to European convents as the basis for their communities, but adopted continental rules and customs to meet the needs of the Victorian Catholic Church. The industrialized and urban culture presented new challenges and problems, and these English sisterhoods assumed an active role in the establishment of orphanages, schools, or missions to help the marginalized of society. Several courageous and farsighted women broke new ground and spearheaded the foundation of religious orders. Edna Hamer tells the story of one of these individuals, Elizabeth Prout (1820-1864), and her endeavors to minister to the poor and needy of the Manchester area.
First published by Downside Abbey in 1994, this revised edition is based on a doctoral thesis written for the University of Manchester in 1992. Hamer, known in religion as Sr. Dominic Savio, CP, is a member of the Congregation of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, the order founder by Elizabeth Prout, whose name in religion was Mother Mary Joseph of Jesus. The author clearly states in the introduction that she will also examine how social circumstances influenced her subject’s life and mission, and consequently this book will give the reader an insight into the living conditions of the working class of a large urban area in northern England. English Catholicism, the role of women in religion, labour history, and the importance played by sisterhoods in the lives of the poor are important topics which Hamer discusses in a clear and in-depth manner.
In addition to the introduction, this study of Elizabeth Prout contains eight chapters, a number of illustrations and a bibliography The approach is chronological, starting with her early childhood as an Anglican in Shrewsbury and Stone, Straffordshire, her conversion to Roman Catholicism in 1841, her entrance into the novitiate of the Sisters of the Infant Jesus in Northampton and her departure from this convent because she contracted tuberculosis. The author points out that Prout felt drawn to ideals of the Passionist mission in England early in her life, and was greatly influenced by two Passionist priests, Dominic Barberi and Gaudentius Rossi, who would play an important role in the establishment and development of her congregation of sisters. After she left Northampton, Prout sought advice from Rossi who urged her to settle in Manchester. Here she began teaching at St. Chad’s parish school where she came in contact with the horrific living conditions of the working class and the Irish immigrants. The author describes the development of Prout’s efforts to establish a sisterhood to work among the poor. In 1852, the Institute of the Holy Family was established, and through the efforts of Prout, Fr. Rossi, and another Passionist priest, Fr. Ignatius Spencer, this foundation eventually evolved into a community firmly based on the spirituality and Rule of the Passionists. Rome approved this change in 1863 and Prout was elected its first superior, but died shortly afterwards on January 11, 1864. The spirit and work of Elizabeth Prout and her community, which adopted the name Sisters of the Cross and Passion in 1875, still exists today, and the case for the canonization of this remarkable woman is currently under review in Rome.
Hamer’s description of her subject’s personality, character, and motives are revealing. The difficulties which Prout faced are not minimized, and her commitment to working with the anawim, a Sacred Scripture term used frequently by the author to describe the oppressed and destitute of society, within the framework of a religious community of women are chronicled in detail. A strong-willed and deeply committed woman of petite stature, her life and accomplishments are examples of the outstanding service which women performed in the masculine-dominated society of Victorian England. In addition to this favourable but objective depiction of Elizabeth Prout, the other main figures in her life and in the development of her sisterhood are not minimized. Frs. Dominic Barberi, Gaudentius Rossi, Robert Croskell (the pastor of St. Chad’s) and Ignatius Spencer all encouraged and supported her vision in different but important ways. The disagreements and tensions with Rossi and the successful efforts of Spencer to obtain permission in Rome for the revised Rule show Prout’s determination to establish her community in the face of obstacles.
The spirituality of St. Paul of the Cross and the Passionist mission in England greatly inspired Elizabeth Prout, and the author continually reminds us of these influences and how they shaped the prayer life and apostolic work of her community. As with any new enterprise, problems did exist, and Hamer gives us a realistic and balanced description of clergy opposition, fragile health of the nuns, lack of funds and frivolous rumours that rules were being ignored, which were later disproved by an ecclesiastical investigation. Anti-Catholic rhetoric in Manchester, suspicions of sisterhoods, labour unrest associated with the cotton famine, the presence of a large Catholic Irish population also seeking employment and mistrust of women seeking a voice in religion and social concerns were also part of Prout’s world, and the author’s portrayal of this milieu highlights the difficulties she encountered and overcame.
Hamer has written an insightful and well researched study of a woman dedicated to ministering to the poor of the industrial Manchester area. This interesting study of Elizabeth Prout, moreover, sheds light on the role of women religious and their significance in nineteenth-century England, especially among young women in need. People interested in the history of women religious in England will appreciate this book, but it will also appeal to urban, labour and social historians. The reader, however, never loses sight of the personality, mission and accomplishments of Elizabeth Prout.