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Higginson, Teresa Helenalocked

(1844–1905)
  • Mary Heimann

Higginson, Teresa Helena (1844–1905), Roman Catholic schoolteacher and mystic, was born at Holywell in north Wales on 27 May 1844, the third child of the family of five daughters and three sons of Robert Francis Higginson (1816–1877) and his wife, Mary, née Bowness (d. 1884). Robert was a Catholic from Preston and Mary converted before their marriage in 1841.

Teresa Higginson went to school at the Convent of the Sisters of Mercy in Nottingham in 1854, where she first came across the penitential exercise known as the stations of the cross. She evidently felt her own sinfulness from an early age, and later claimed that her first trespass had been committed at the age of four, when she 'wilfully pretended not to hear' her mother calling her (O'Sullivan, 29). About 1849 her younger brother died and, according to her confessions, she began to pray that God should send her sufferings. She kept quiet her increasingly severe self-mortifications since she 'thought that our dear Lord liked to have secrets' (O'Sullivan, 57). A nun caught her trying to burn herself, however, and told her never to do such a thing again.

Higginson's already marked desire to suffer seems to have accelerated after her first communion, which was delayed until 1857. As she did not know what name to take at confirmation, Bishop Roskell suggested Agnes to her, which she interpreted as meaning that she ought to offer herself in sacrifice as a lamb. Another chance remark by a visiting ecclesiastic made a deep impression: F. W. Faber's light admonition upon being introduced to the child, 'See that you are a Teresa' (Kerr, 36), led her to focus her ambitions on emulating her mystical namesake.

Higginson spent an unusually long time at school, leaving in 1864 or 1865, after which, by her own account, she was able to ‘mortify’ herself without fear of discovery. In 1871 a smallpox epidemic caused a shortage of teachers in Liverpool and she found work as a supply teacher at the school attached to St Alexander's, Bootle, run by Father Edward Powell (1837–1901). She received her teaching certificate at Orrell, near Wigan, in December 1872. In 1873 she taught at St Mary's, Wigan, under the care of Father Thomas Wells, who acted as her spiritual director for three years. It was during this period that she began to experience ecstasies including what she called wrangles with the devil. She once re-enacted the passion to horrified spectators. By Good Friday 1874 she was convinced that she had been chosen as the ‘spouse of the crucified’ and claimed to have developed the stigmata, or signs of Christ's wounds, on her body. Her room-mate Susan Ryland afterwards testified to the strange trances which she suffered at this time and to the mysterious appearance of articles which she prayed for: soap on one occasion, and kindling 'not like the wood we bought' (Kerr, 53–4) on another. Higginson claimed to have experienced revelations of a previously unknown devotion to the ‘Sacred Head’; this was meant to complement existing devotions to the sacred heart, and was said to cure schoolchildren.

After a number of unexplained illnesses, Higginson left Wigan in 1876. She taught at Seacombe near Birkenhead and St Alban's, Liscard, in Cheshire, where she was soon given notice. In 1877 she went to a Jesuit mission school in Sabden, near Clitheroe, but left for Neston, Cheshire, 'on account of illness' (Kerr, 89), on 15 July 1879. On 24 July she began a series of letters to Powell which described further mystical experiences. Shortly, she joined him at Bootle, where she was to remain for eight years. An inquiry was launched by Bishop O'Reilly of Liverpool, and in 1883 Powell was ordered to stop directing her; he was replaced by Father Alfred (later Canon) Snow, who had been at St Alexander's since 1874.

In 1886 Higginson was accused of fraud and hypocrisy by local people, and was asked to leave her shared lodgings in Ariel Street; she repeatedly complained that priests in Bootle refused to bring communion to her home. When her housemates left for St Peter's, Newchurch, Higginson soon followed. There Father John Mussely was willing to bring her communion, and his housekeeper, Margaret Murphy, thought her a saint. Father Snow, who had continued to correspond with Higginson and her circle, expected that she would soon enter the mystical state of ‘espousals’. She duly claimed this experience in a letter to him dated 24 October 1887, which described revelations of the previous night. Snow arranged for her to go to Edinburgh, where his sister was superior of St Catherine's Convent. Higginson spent the next dozen years in and around Edinburgh, based at St Catherine's, but without entering the order. In 1899 she went to live with the Garnett family in Liverpool, with whom she was able to visit Rome in 1900 and Bruges in 1901. In 1904 she moved to Biddlecombe, on Lord Clifford's estate near Chudleigh, Devon, where, after a stroke, she died on 15 February 1905. She was buried at St Winefride's, Neston.

Teresa Higginson's cause began to be taken up after Snow's death in 1922. Selected letters were published in 1924 and a hagiography by Lady Cecil Kerr in 1927. Works which aimed to promote her beatification followed. Her case, which was viewed with scepticism by many, was presented to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in Rome on 7 December 1933, and refused in 1938. Thereafter, she was almost forgotten until the 1980s, when her cause began to be revived through the persistent efforts of a minority in Bootle and Neston who were convinced that she was a local saint.

Sources

  • C. Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson, Servant of God … 1844–1905 (1927)
  • A. M. O'Sullivan, Teresa Higginson, the Servant of God, school teacher, 1845–1905 (1924)
  • B. Honnor, Appreciations of Teresa Helena Higginson (1986)
  • B. Plumb, ‘Teresa Helena Higginson, 1844–1905: a bibliography’, North West Catholic History, 18 (1991), 40–45
  • H. Thurston, ‘The case of Teresa Higginson’, Catholic Medical Guardian (July 1937), 65–70
  • H. Thurston, ‘Hagiography past and present’, The Tablet (20 Nov 1937), 683–4
  • M. C. Boúváaert, Nouvelle Revue Théologique, 63/9 (Nov 1936), 1088 [review]
  • Letters of Teresa Higginson (1937) [by a monk of Ramsgate]
  • Life of Teresa Higginson, the teacher mystic (1937)
  • K. O'Maola, ‘Teresa Helena Higginson’, The Harvest (May 1940)
  • ‘Biographie succincte de Térésa Héléna Higginson’, Sagesse, supplément A

Archives

  • Lancs. RO, Roman Catholic Records (Liverpool Archdiocese)
  • priv. coll.
  • St Augustine's Abbey, Ramsgate, Kent
  • St Alexander's Roman Catholic Church, Bootle, Merseyside

Likenesses

  • photograph, 1900, repro. in Kerr, Teresa Helena Higginson
  • photograph, 1900, repro. in Honnor, Appreciations

Wealth at Death

£99 10s.: administration, 31 March 1905, CGPLA Eng. & Wales