Biography of Venerable Mary Potter — Continued

At the age of 19, Mary Potter became engaged to a young man called Godfrey King. Her future seemed to be assured — a young man devoted to her, and the prospect of marriage and family before her, but it was not meant to happen. Mary was a bright and vivacious extrovert, and Godfrey was serious and introverted. He had, in fact, tried his vocation as
a Trappist
, but failing in that venture, he became a coach for the Army. In his religious intensity, he endeavored to bring Mary to a more serious view of life and religion, and accordingly gave her pious books to read and study.

Godfrey’s view was that Mary was simply too frivolous and needed to develop a seriousness of purpose about her faith, and he managed to influence her considerably – a fact he lived to regret. Poor Godfrey! In his efforts to quell her Light-heartedness through spiritual reading he unwittingly opened up to her the way that led to the fulfillment of God’s plan. In his zeal he helped her to appreciate the importance and the power of prayer and to aim at perfection. The more she read the deeper became her love of God and her desire to serve Him in whatever way He called her.

Touched by his faith, Mary began to realize that religion did not simply consist in going to church on Sundays and Feast days. She began to take prayer more seriously and to participate more closely in the sacramental life of the Church. Ultimately, she broke her engagement to the young man, and came to the conclusion that she should enter religious life. Godfrey was very upset, but finally accepted the fact that Mary was being called to a greater, nobler life.

After consultation with her director, Mary tried her vocation with the Sisters of Mercy at Brighton. She began her postulancy in 1868, but by 1870 it had been decided that while Mary did indeed seem to have a vocation to religious life, it was not in the Sisters of Mercy. The Annals of the Mercy Community at Brighton state: “It was found impossible that Sr. M. Aloysius Potter should remain, her health continued so delicate.

“She was exceedingly good and holy, but quite unable for the duties, besides which, her mind was weak and she was nervous and imaginative, and this most probably would have increased in her.” Father Lambert, the Jesuit was quite grieved at the decision of the community, and applied to the Assumption nuns to receive her. She went to the convent and was introduced to the mother superior, but she was afraid to receive her.

The difficulty appears to have been that Mary had begun a journey into prayer that was not suited for the highly apostolic nature of the Sisters of Mercy. Records indicate that while her Novice Mistress and Spiritual Director believed that the young woman should be given time to claim her own contemplative nature, Mother Superior determined otherwise.

Mary potter prayingThe conflict was resolved by the action of Mary’s superior, who wrote to her brother requesting that he come and collect his sister. Mary had succumbed to the tensions of community life and her struggle against her own natural inclinations. Seriously ill, she was taken back home to Portsmouth, where she spent the rest of the year confined to her bed.

The next two years were years of painful illness and confusion. While with the Mercy community, Mary’s inclination to the spiritual life had grown. She still desired to enter religious life, but how was it to be possible? There seemed to be no answer for her there. Still convinced that God was drawing her to himself, Mary found a spiritual pathway that seemed to offer her the discipline and the structure that she wanted. This was the path of Mary as enunciated by Grignon de Montfort.

In 1872, she read Faber’s translation of the Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin. This small book challenged Mary to look at the path it suggested and after much procrastination (due to a basic dislike of the devotion as it was enunciated in de Montfort) she began to put it into practice, making her consecration to Mary in September 1872. The daily living of this consecration was to be the secret of Mary’s spiritual progress and her strength.

The long and the short of the practice was a disciplined life — seeking to live for God alone, through prayer and self-denial. She began to experience moments of union with God. Writing of her experiences, she expressed how close God appeared to be to her: “God seems to have such entire possession of me. If I was to sit and meditate as some books advise, to think for instance, there was a time, when I did not exist, it would be but
a distraction. I love to think of creation, and yet I seem to have been with God creating, but my meaning may be misunderstood. Those whom God enfolds in a similar manner alone could understand me”.

Such experiences drew her to a deep love not only of God, but of all that was of God. Her writings, both public and private celebrated the world of Creation, which she saw as ‘an echo’ of God. The task of the world, and all in it was “to reflect him, to mirror his beauty to reflect the light, the radiant loveliness of the Divinity”. The world was “one of the glories of the universe…. [and] if you could rise out of it and [be] in some [other ] part of the universe, you would see a radiant orb, reflecting uncreated Beauty, brilliantly radiant with rays of Divine Light — the Attributes of God reflected from all parts”.

This love of created beauty and the sense of the intrinsic loveliness of all created beings and things would develop over Mary’s lifetime. It was not a spasmodic thing, coming only at prayer or at intervals, but a constant joy, “a pleasure in all around, a pleasure from sights and sounds. How to express it is difficult. Many rise to the song of a bird, and to sweet music, but my soul rejoices as I look upon a poor workman, as I hear the singing of
a machine”.

Those experiences drew her to an even greater love for God and humanity. ”He [God] has filled me with his love. He has poured forth His Holy Spirit upon me, and told me to live by it, and now I live no longer in myself, but He my Lord and God liveth in me. Loving him I must love those whom he has made, not with my own poor heart but from the Heart of Jesus”.

That characteristic of great love for others would remain with her all her life. As she reflected, prayed and sought spiritual guidance, Mary lived simply within the family home. Her hopes for returning to religious life remained, but there were few to support the notion, and her mother, having, as she stated “made the sacrifice once”, was not about to let her daughter go again. Mary, however, was changing and being changed.

No longer docile to the desires of her mother, nor simply content to remain within the shelter of the family home, Mary began to put into practice some of the skills she had acquired within the Mercy community. She took it upon herself to visit the poor, to sit with the suffering. Enlisting her mother’s aid, she even began a small school, both to earn an income, but also to try to be ‘useful’. It was a desire that was to be fulfilled in a most unexpected manner.

In 1874 Mary began to experience what she later termed ‘a call from God’, not to re-enter religious life, but to bring to birth a new religious community within the Church. This ‘new thing’ was to be a community of women, whose lives would center on the mystery of Calvary. From the outset, Mary claimed that the inspiration for this new group within the Church was “a direct impress’ from God, and that its purpose was to proclaim the meaning of Calvary to both Church and world.

At first reluctant to accept that what God appeared to be saying was indeed for her to implement, and not left to another, Mary tried to interest her priest in the idea. He was not impressed. The belief grew, and by 1875, Mary had come to the realization that if God did indeed wish this new institute to be within the Church, then she had to take responsibility for its implementation. Opposition to her grew apace with her conviction.

Part of the problem lay in the fact that the apparent inspiration for this new order did not emerge from any perceived need, such as education or social or physical care of the poor, sick or elderly. Mary’s basic belief was that she had been instructed that an order within the Church that would reflect and make visible, the meaning of Calvary. In other words, to incarnate in the world, the self-emptying of the Cross.

veronica's veil
The ‘work’ perceived as integral to this institute, was a work of prayer and self-oblation, in imitation of the self-oblation of Jesus and Mary on Calvary . Particular to the vision was the offering each member would make of her own life, for those in danger of dying without knowing God’s love for them. While Mary herself was particularly drawn to prayer for and care of the dying, and while she perceived that this was a work well undertaken by those who were called to share a Calvary vocation, the element of service was not specific to the institute. What was specific was the spirit that would fill it. A life of self-offering for others – that was the first requirement.

In Mary’s mind, there was no separation between the contemplative life and the active prophetic work of the apostolate. If Jesus redeemed the world ‘less by what he did than by what he was and what he suffered’, the community had the task of emulating this in their daily lives and work. A Calvary vocation implied more than the stoic bearing of suffering. It required willed suffering, an endurance of the pain of being stripped of all things on behalf of others, and for others.

Undoubtedly this was also influenced by her own life. Mary had never enjoyed good health. She had been born with a weak heart; had contracted rheumatic fever and suffered greatly from rheumatism in later life. She had both breasts removed because of carcinoma before she was thirty three years old, and was prey to a generalized debility of body. The last years of her life were spent in a wheel chair, due to a crippling arthritic condition. Yet even this did not stop her from her work of evangelizing through word and deed, or from her ministry of prayer to the dying.

Contemplation of the Cross, and the Mother of Jesus’s role on Calvary, confirmed Mary in her concern for the dying of the world. Christ did not die alone. Two others died with him. As Mary stood beneath the Cross of her son, so she stood beneath the cross of these other deaths. For Mary Potter, this awareness of the dying of the world was part and parcel of her vocation to stand with, to pray for those who died abandoned or isolated in their own misery and/or sin.

Where possible, there should be those able to physically support them. Care for the dying as a physical ministry emerged as
a by-product of the attitude of heart such a vocation implied. It was also a genuine response to an age of acute anxiety: an age in which “We see the dark ocean on whose rolling waves we toss for a brief hour; from the great night without, a chill blast breaks in upon our refuge; all the loneliness of humanity amid hostile forces is concentrated upon the individual soul, which must struggle alone, with what of courage it can command, against the whole weight of
a universe that cares nothing for its hopes and fears.”

In the last quarter of the 19th century, such attitudes, along with the questions of death and dying, grief and loss were questions of immense proportions. If industrialization had broken the communitarian dimensions of an older society, and introduced the notion of the individual as both disposable and replaceable, the doubts and questions regarding religion itself were challenging the meaning of life. In the context of urbanization and industrialization, amid questions of the ultimate meaning of humanity, how did the individual find value? What was man anyway, a human being, or
a highly evolved species of ape?

For Mary, answers to the anxieties of the age and the quest for understanding the nature of humanity were to be found in the understanding of the value of individual human life resting in a mortal,

yet immortal beauty. Answers were also to be found in the value of Christian hope, and in the alleviation of the loneliness of the age. The meaning of the Cross was that life was infinitely valuable, utterly valued.

Mary Potter youngWhile her world view was limited by her own social position, and her poverty of education, she had seen enough of the misery of the 19th century to feel drawn to care for those who were its loneliest souls. These were, surprisingly perhaps, not the poor, but those who had none to love them. “See the homeless, the friendless”, she wrote, “My heart feels more for the friendless, than even for the loved poor. The poor are not generally friendless, but see the numbers of frail women who have no home, the governesses, servants, maids, orphans or worse – numbers of God’s children battle on alone, and this is not in the Providence of God. He has designed otherwise”.

It is interesting that Mary did not view solitude, isolation or the suffering of individuals as God’s will. It was something not to be ‘offered up’, but alleviated. People were not replaceable or disposable. The individual was unique and worthy of all love and respect.

lonely girlIf the men and women of her own time were suffering the isolation and loneliness of a world rapidly losing its old securities, then the mission of the Church, and her own mission was to bring them to an understanding of their essential beauty and intrinsic value as part of
a human family.

Her belief in her call to form a group of women in the church who were devoted to this end met with opposition from every quarter, but Mary persevered until, in 1877, the first foundation of what would become the Little Company of Mary was made in Nottingham, England.

A MARIAN SPIRITUALITY.

The spirit of this infant congregation was Marian. All members made their consecration to Mary, and were to evangelize in the Spirit of Mary – To them Mary had said: “Do Whatever he tells you”. The response of the community was to be at the beck and call of God and to respond to it without fear. In the spirit of Mary – – that spirit of ‘maternal’ care given to her on Calvary, the members of the institute were to nurture life in all its forms, and to break through the power of evil which wants to lock humanity into fear and self-hatred. To them belonged the same task given to Mary on Calvary — the care of the body of Christ in all its members.

It was, in fact, an imitation of the ‘mother-love of Jesus and Mary’ that was called for. Mary Potter’s understanding of Calvary was that it was a place of birth as well as death. Jesus, who was the ‘good Shepherd who laid down his life for his sheep’, was the exemplar of the maternal love of God for all. “God’s love is Mother-love”, she argued, and in the motherhood of Mary [and of those who would take her place in this world] was seen the “grand office of a mother –[an] exemplification of God himself.”

The women who were called to embrace this vocation, as Mary envisaged it, were called to be ‘mothers’ also. A concept that perhaps sits uncomfortably with twentieth century views. Yet, for Mary Potter, it was
a concept that held vital meaning, for it demonstrated that to the God of justice, power and might, also belonged gentleness, maternal care and tenderness.

With other women of her time, Mary was claiming the right for women to reflect the face of God. Her view of the mother of Jesus, while in part determined by Catholic tradition, rested firmly in the humanity of the woman of Nazareth. She was and remained a woman “who is one of us.” Women, whether physically or spiritually ‘mothers’, “reflected the office of God. God who is our Mother.”

Perhaps one of the most challenging features of Mary Potter’s life was its universality. There seemed nothing she would not endeavor to do, and no one she would not seek to assist. Her mind ranged across the world. She did not isolate herself from any arena of life, but sought to be and bring good news to all.

Such an open response to life automatically brought with it the tensions of misunderstanding and conflicts. Mary’s suffering was not to be only of body. It was to be a suffering of mind through the doubt and contradictions of others. In her development of the Little Company of Mary, she suffered the misunderstanding of confessors, directors and Bishops. Her God-driven desire to be with those who suffer came into conflict with the lack of vision of many with whom she had to work.

As with other women who dared to live the vision that had been implanted in them, Mary was ‘silenced’. Unable to speak with her sisters, she wrote, suffered and prayed and reached a point in her own life where it was God alone who mattered. Yet, she never lost the love she had for the Church and all those who served that Church.

The dream of Mary Potter was to bring into reality a world united in Christ. It was to that end that she devoted her life. She did not limit herself or her congregation to any one particular apostolic work. She knew that the great work to be done was the work of evangelization. This work was carried out by spreading the good news of Jesus using every possible means. From her reflection on the life of Jesus and Mary, Mary Potter saw the sanctity of human life. From her own intense experience of union with her God, she came to understand God’s longing to be so united to all his children.

Her spirituality was thoroughly grounded in the Incarnation. God had given himself to his people – become one with them in Christ, and in Mary, the mother of Jesus, Mary Potter saw the wonderful relationship that can exist if the human person is prepared to let go of all things and abandon themselves to God. In Mary – the Mother of the Lord – people could find a Mother who would lead them to the truth of Jesus. In Mary also, each person could find the example of what it meant to be a Christ bearer to the world. Evangelization was a ‘mothering forth’ of the Christ who lived at the heart of all things, and those who followed the Path of Mary were committed to that task.

MARY POTTER AND THE HEALING MINISTRY

Evangelization was the primary mission of the Little Company of Mary, and every ministry which emerged in the early years of the congregation was geared to this, but evangelization itself had to come from an intense and personal relationship with God in Christ. The works of the congregation were ministries, which were to be the manifestations of the interior life of the group. For Mary Potter, exterior works were important only in so far as they expressed the reality of the charity that lived within, they were not a substitute for it. Nor were religious the only ones called to holiness and union with God.

Her own experiences told her that all were called to share the life of God in Christ, all were born equal. All were to share the mission of the Church to spread the Good News of God’s great love. This was the one thing necessary. This was the task for all to make visible. The works would eventuate from the needs of the communities in which the sisters served, or the demands of the Church. It did not matter what was done – what mattered intensely was that the human family found in the members of this little Company,
a heart and hearth at which they could be at home.

She was so convinced of this, that the actual choice of ministries caused her little concern, although nursing seemed to her to be a natural expression of the fundamental ministry of prayer for the dying. Personal assistance of the sick would be a way of keeping the members of the Institute mindful of their essential spiritual mission, and enable them to be at the bedside of the dying, thus ensuring a unity between prayer and work.

Originally, the work of nursing was carried out in the homes of individuals, but as the Church began to feel the need to establish Catholic Hospitals, the calls came from all corners of the globe for Mary Potter to commence
a hospital ministry. This she did, and the characteristic stamp of healing as the primary ministry of the Little Company of Mary was born.

Hospitals of the ‘blue nuns’ sprang up in all corners of the globe. The fundamental concern of those who followed Mary Potter was to minister in the ‘spirit of Mary’, and no opportunity was to be lost in the service of those who needed healing. Nor was the fundamental mission of the Church to be apart from the ministry. All who came within the radius of the ministries of the Little Company of Mary were to be ‘evangelized’ – made aware of their loveliness as children of God, brothers and sisters of the Jesus. Just as the World was created to image forth the loveliness of God, so too human beings were created to shine out their inner glory. Within each, believed Mary, lay the Divinity.

Interestingly enough, Mary Potter did not see that her sisters would be the only ones to engage in nursing within the Catholic hospital situation. True to her inspiration that religious and laity work together for the formation of the world in Christ, and that all are born for holiness, Mary Potter encouraged lay participation in hospital ministry. In order to achieve this, she began Nursing training programs – the first being in 1908 in Rome.

Again, true to her conception of the collaboration between laity and religious for the good of the whole church, Mary Potter sought to ensure that those who entered the schools of nursing would have the opportunity of participating in some degree in the spiritual apostolate of the institute. She wished them to inherit the spirit of Calvary, to sanctify themselves and to assist and pray for the dying in union with their Mother.

This same spirit of collaboration with the laity was seen in the work undertaken with maternity care. Shortly after the foundation of the Little Company (in July, 1877), the Sisters had been asked by the local bishop of Nottingham to care for maternity cases in the area. This they did, but the work came to the attention of Cardinal Manning, who considered that maternity nursing was not an apostolate suitable for religious.

This brought the work of the sisters to an end. Mary was not daunted. She quickly found a substitute, gathering together a small group of associate lay-nurses, “Our Lady’s Nurses”, who would work in conjunction with the Little Company, and who would nurse any patients for whom religious sisters were not permitted to care for.

Though this arrangement proved satisfactory, Mary Potter was not satisfied. She felt that any community, whose members were consecrated to the Virgin Mother, should share in the charity which led that Mother to go in haste to her cousin Elizabeth and to remain with her until the birth of John the Baptist.
Virgin Mary visits Saint ElizabethAccordingly, Mary Potter petitioned Rome to allow ‘confinement nursing’ to be undertaken by the Little Company of Mary. Limited permission for this to happen was given in 1886, and final approbation for it given in 1905 providing they always chose “the more mature sisters”! The permission however, was only for the members of the Little Company of Mary, and not until 1936 was official approval for Religious to enter into maternity nursing made available to other religious congregations.

A MODEL FOR OUR TIMES

Mary Potter’s vision of a world united in Christ through Mary, led her out of
a world of stability and security into a life of suffering and challenge. Her commitment to the people of God enabled her to see clearly the need for collaboration and support on all levels of society. Her followers in the religious life were to be a supporting and sustaining presence in the world in which they lived.

venerable Mary PotterThey were to facilitate and make available – as Mary Potter had – the means by which all could grow into the fullness of their being in God. They were to share with her
a commitment to the exposition of a Marian Spirituality, which could provide a way of life for men and women everywhere to ‘know’ God, in a personal, loving intimacy.

Loving God for Mary meant loving all that God was and is. God was to be found in all places wondrous and strange. God lived within all. This meant that the Little Company of Mary could not be divorced from the world but rather, fully engaged with it. With her awareness of the role of the laity in the church, and the need for support and encouragement in the often lonely task of transforming the world for Christ, she provides a model of cooperation and collaboration with God and with each other, which continues to challenge us even to this today. Biography source.

Download her story from The Little Company of Mary website.

On February 8, 1988, Pope John Paul II declared Mary Potter “Venerable”. Read The Decree here.