Teresa Higginson was a devout Catholic Christian who served as a teacher and was an inspiration to many of the people she met during her lifetime. Although the petition for her to be canonised as a saint was unsuccessful, she was officially recognised as a 'Servant of God' in 1938.
As with hagiographies (accounts of the lives of saints) the details of the story of Teresa Higginson's life depend on who did the telling. Teresa herself wrote of her mystical experiences in letters to the priests who were her 'spiritual directors'. Biographies were written in 1924 (by Rev Adalbert O'Sullivan) and 1927 (by Lady Anne Cecil Kerr). These were followed by various pamphlets in the 1930s to the 1980s. In 2010 The Devil in Bootle by Richard Whittington-Egan was published, detailing her life (including her struggles with the Devil and her encounters with Jesus), the evidence for and against her canonisation, and testimonies from people who had known her.
Teresa Ellen Higginson was born on 27 May, 1844 in Holywell, North Wales. Her mother was unwell during the pregnancy, so had travelled there to visit the Holy Well of St Winifred for healing.
The family home in Lincolnshire included an 'oratory' room where the family and fellow Catholics in the area to celebrate Mass (although the Catholic Relief Act had been passed in 1829, there were few Catholic churches in England at that time). In their early years, Teresa and her surviving brothers and sisters1 were given religious instruction by their parents and were taught by governesses. In 1854, Teresa was sent away to the Sisters of Mercy School in Nottingham. She was homesick at first, but settled in - she experienced periods of ill health, but when she was sent home, she was keen to go back to the school as soon as she had recovered.
In 1859, she became very ill, and was even given the Last Rites as the nuns of the convent school thought she might die. However, she recovered and pledged to 'work and suffer for the salvation of souls'.
Teresa stayed at the convent until 1865, when her father became bankrupt after losing various investments following the American Civil War. The family moved to Liverpool, and Teresa earned money as a needlewoman. Her sister Louisa trained as a teacher. During an outbreak of smallpox, more teachers were needed, and Teresa was invited to take on a temporary role at a school in the Bootle area of Liverpool. Although she had contemplated becoming a nun, after the temporary role ended she took the examination to gain a teaching certificate and moved to work at a school in Wigan. She taught at various schools between 1872 and 1879, but then experienced another period of ill health (including fainting and fits) and returned to her family, who were living in St Winefride's Cottage in Neston on the Wirral - Louisa had become Headmistress of St Winefride's School there, and the cottage was close to St Winefride's Catholic Church that had formally opened in 1843.
Teresa recovered by October 1879 and again went to teach in Bootle. It was there that she began to gain fame (or infamy) as a mystic - she stayed in lodgings with other women, and they heard her nocturnal struggles with the Devil. People began to gossip about her. The new headmaster of the school where she had been working decided he would rather employ male teachers, so dismissed her in 1886.
In 1887, Teresa went to stay at St Catherine's Convent in Edinburgh. She did some teaching, but mostly looked after visitors to the Convent. She left Edinburgh in 1899 and returned to Neston as her sister Fanny was ill. When Fanny recovered, Teresa went back to Liverpool to look after her friends Margaret, Annie and Alfred Garnett, as Margaret had become ill. In 1900, Mrs Elizabeth Fleck invited Teresa to go on a trip to Rome for an audience with the Pope - Elizabeth and Teresa had met five years earlier in Scotland while doing charitable work. As well as seeing the Pope, they visited the church of St Francis at Assisi, and the tomb of St Clare in San Damiano, plus other places of interest. In 1901 Teresa took Margaret Garnett to Bruges in Belgium. Margaret died in 1903 but Teresa had secured a shop for Annie and Alfred to work in and support themselves. Thus Teresa was able to move to Chudleigh in Devonshire in January 1904 to teach at a small Catholic school there.
On 14 December, 1904, Teresa was preparing to travel back to Neston for Christmas when she had a stroke. A nurse, Agnes Casey (who later became a nun) was employed to care for her. Teresa died on 15 February, 1905. She was taken back to Neston by train in a private carriage and was buried in her mother's grave in St Winefride's Church.
Teresa first became aware of sin at the age of about four, when she pretended not to hear her mother calling to her, and made a confession to a priest. She also began to practise mortification, inflicting pain on herself so she could have sympathy with the sufferings of Jesus. Some aspects were small, such as tangling her hair so combing it hurt, sleeping on the floor rather than in a bed, or putting wire mesh around her arms, but other aspects were more severe. For example in 1854 she launched herself into a pit full of wood and sustained bruising, then soon after she fell from a tree when helping the nuns at the Sister of Mercy School to gather foliage for decorative arrangements - the resulting inflammation was so serious, she was sent home for several months to recover. Another time, she took a piece of coal from the fireplace and set her dress on fire - she made the sign of the cross and the flames went out.
When Teresa became a teacher, her colleague and friend Susan Ryland (who later became a nun) witnessed some of her mystical experiences. In 1874, during Lent, she saw Teresa had Stigmata - wounds similar to those that Jesus received during the Crucifixion (the wounds occasionally reappeared in subsequent years). Susan heard the sounds of Teresa being slapped and dragged across the floor in her room during battles with the Devil, and also heard the voices that Teresa deduced were the Devil. Susan also helped Teresa to go to Mass and take Holy Communion when she was ill and too weak to walk there by herself, and looked after Teresa when she became unconscious during episodes of 'religious ecstasy'.
For a time Teresa claimed to live only on 'the Sacred Host' Communion wafers - after being carried to church, she would take Communion and recover her strength. However, her critics were suspicious - she had admitted to her spiritual director that she sometimes pretended to eat so as to avoid drawing attention to herself, and sometimes indicated that either her Guardian Angel or the Devil had impersonated her at meal times. She liked to 'gargle' with a cup of tea and often stored food in her room for the purpose of giving it to needy people. On some occasions when she was unable to go to church, her fellow teachers saw her receiving a Communion wafer that materialised in front of her.
Some of Teresa's work caring for sick people was deduced to be bilocation - being in two places at once. For example, one night while she was staying with the Garnett siblings, she was also seen in a hospital praying at a boy's bedside - the boy had previously been getting weaker before her visit, but went on to recover. In letters to her spiritual director, Teresa described being instantly transported to other countries, where she helped to make medicine for tribes of 'savages' and baptised them.
In 1874, Teresa experienced 'The Mystical Espousal' when a Stigmata-like ring of thorns joined with a cross appeared on the third finger of her left hand and she had a vision of Jesus. On 3 October, 1887, she had another vision, and took part in 'The Mystical Marriage':
He has really and truly united Himself to me in the presence of the whole court of heaven, presenting me as His beloved Spouse to the Eternal Father and the Holy Spirit, and His blessed Mother, St Joseph, the Cherubim, and Seraphim, etc, etc.
- Teresa Higginson, letter to Father Edward Powell, October 1887
A particular cause Teresa embraced was the Devotion to The Sacred Head:
We have a new devotion here which is I am sure most pleasing to our dear blessed Lord, it is to honour the Sacred Head as the seat of 'Divine Wisdom', the reason that overruled all the motions and affections of the Sacred Heart, and the shrine of the three powers of the holy and immortal soul of Jesus Christ.
- Teresa Higginson, letter to Susan Ryland, 12 July, 1880
This devotion was to affect the consideration of whether Teresa was a candidate for canonisation. Her letters and testimony from witnesses were sent to the Sacred Congregation of Rites in 1933. In 1938 the Congregation referred to her as a Servant of God, but the verdict was 'non expedire' so the process towards canonisation was discontinued. One reason given was that the Devotion to the Sacred Head was 'not yet introduced into the cultus of the Church'2. As women were judged to be more prone to hysteria and mental disorders than men, her case, and the testimonies of the female witnesses, were also subjected to stricter scrutiny.
Even in the 21st Century, more than 150 years after she was born, people visit St Winefride's Church and leave flowers or rosary beads on her grave - although Teresa Higginson was not made a saint, her saintly devotion has meant she is still remembered.