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The Wigan teacher who bore the stigmata

Teresa Higginson: singled out by God

Teresa Higginson was oblivious to the blood trickling down her neck and on to her white scarf as she emerged from the church where she had been praying. A colleague spotted the stain and quietly advised her to change before returning to teach in a nearby school, later saying she would never forget Teresa’s expression when she realised what was happening.

Yet it was not the blood that horrified Teresa, but the fact that someone noticed the wounds of Christ that she strived to conceal.

She first received the stigmata in Wigan, Lancashire, on the Good Friday of 1874, and by summer of 1880 her head and hands were bleeding several times a day, including in the classroom of St Alexander’s School in Bootle, Liverpool, witnessed by pupils and teachers alike.

The stigmata was something of a humiliation to her. She prayed to Jesus to give her more pain in exchange for staunching the flow, only to then reproach herself for her “ingratitude and selfishness”, understanding that what she was experiencing was part of a divine plan.

Teresa had always been different, singled out for a special purpose. This was evident in her precocious understanding of the Trinity as a small child and her desire to suffer in reparation for the sins of other children.

As a young woman, she felt a vocation to teach and she joined the staff at St Mary’s, Wigan, sharing adjacent lodgings with two other teachers. Soon, all hell would break loose.

Teresa found herself subject to the obsessive attacks of the Devil, who, she reported, would spit and vomit over her and throw objects around her room, sometimes breaking them. He would taunt her and laugh at her mockingly, and on some occasions the attacks were violent, with Teresa answering a knock on the door only to receive a blow from an unseen fist. She was also hurled from her bed as she slept.

By then, Teresa was subsisting on the Blessed Sacrament alone. She was often so weak in the morning that her friends would carry her to the altar during Mass. But once she had received Communion she recovered her strength, and worked cheerfully throughout the day, giving catechism classes that were so good that adults would attend as well as children, who adored her.

She started receiving apparitions of Jesus and felt increasingly invited to share in his Passion. She fell into ecstasies, which only Fr Thomas Wells, the parish priest of St Mary’s, could call her from.

Fr Wells witnessed the stigmata on her hand the first time she received it. He was summoned by Susan Ryland and Margaret Woodward, Teresa’s housemates, to find her lying on her bed in the shape of a cross, entranced and bleeding.

At the time, Teresa was practising extreme self-mortification. She burned herself with hot irons, tore out her toenails and wore chains of twisted wires around her waist and arms which cut into her skin.

Her critics have claimed that such practices might suggest she was mentally ill rather than experiencing supernatural phenomena, with the implication that the stigmata might have been self-inflicted.

This was not the view of those closest to her, however, some of whom gave evidence of her sanctity when her Cause for canonisation was opened by the Archdiocese of Liverpool soon after her death on February 15, 1905 at the age of 59.

In fact, scholars of ascetical and mystical theology understand such phenomena well. One expert, the Spanish Dominican Fr Antonio Royo Marín, notes in his book The Theology of Christian Perfection that diabolical obsession is one of three types of attack by the Devil, the other two being temptation and possession.

Targets of obsession, he says, are almost always “advanced souls who are scarcely impressed by ordinary temptations”, among them St John Vianney, St Pio of Pietrelcina and St John Bosco. God permits the attacks because such souls are able to gain greater purification from withstanding them.

Obsession is not only external, however, but comes with violent and enduring temptations internally. Teresa wrote that in Wigan she suffered “temptations against every virtue”, and ways to resist such temptations of course included self-mortification and fasting. The absolute fasting, or inedia, practised by Teresa was seen in the lives of Ss Catherine of Siena and Angela of Foligno among others, and, according to Fr Royo Marín, is “a presage … of the glorified body”.

Assuming that Teresa’s experiences were supernatural, it would be fair to conclude that she triumphed over her trials. Her ordeal in Wigan concluded with a “mystical betrothal”, when, she recalled, Our Lord placed a ring on her finger, and told her that she must regard herself as “the Spouse of the Crucified”.

Teresa left the town soon afterwards and later joined her widowed mother at Neston, near Chester, where she received the first of a series of private revelations from Our Lord which continued when she took up a new teaching post in Bootle.

There, at the behest of Fr Edward Powell, her spiritual director, she wrote down everything she was told by Jesus concerning the Sacred Head as the Seat of Divine Wisdom – a devotion, she said, urgently desired by Our Lord as an antidote to “infidelity and pride of intellect and open rebellion against God and His revealed law”.

Jesus, she said, wanted His Sacred Head to be publicly worshipped and honoured as the Seat of Divine Wisdom, and the Friday after the feast of the Sacred Heart should be “dedicated as a festival in its honour, and special reparation and atonement be then offered to Him”. The devotion, Teresa said, would be the completion “not only of the devotion of the Sacred Heart but the crowning and perfecting of all devotions”.

Finally, on October 27, 1887, Teresa entered the “mystical marriage”, the transforming union which, according to Marín, “is the highest degree of perfection that one can attain in this life and the prelude and immediate preparation for the beatific life of glory”.

It could be argued that with this mystical union the Devotion of the Sacred Head as the Seat of Divine Wisdom was confirmed by God through the final purification of the messenger.

Teresa died 17 years later at Biddlecombe in Devon, following a stroke. Her nurse recalled how, as her body was dressed for burial, “there was an exquisite perfume coming from her, filling the room with a sweet odour”.

Canon Alfred Snow, her spiritual director for 22 years, later said he was convinced that Teresa “was not only a saint but one of the greatest saints Almighty God has ever raised up in his Church”.

She was buried beside her mother at St Winefride’s in Neston. The grave is today a place of pilgrimage, with her cult enduring in spite of the Vatican pronouncement in 1938 that her Cause was non-expedire – in other words, it should not proceed at that time.

Bishop Mark Davies of Shrewsbury, the diocese in which Teresa is buried, is among the many senior Catholics who are sympathetic to the devotion of the Sacred Head, while in Liverpool sources say that Archbishop Malcolm McMahon has taken a recent deep interest in her life.

Perhaps it is not too fanciful to imagine that eventually her Cause will once again advance and the devotion that Jesus assured her would come will be allowed to flourish. This devotion, with its call for atonement and reparation for the sins of a world in which God is rejected, surely complements the messages of Fatima and of Divine Mercy, while the “Spouse of the Crucified” appears herself to be every bit as heroic as St Margaret Mary Alacoque and St Faustina Kowalska.

Teresa’s sufferings may be reserved for the rare type of holy individual called by God for such a unique service, but her obedience offers a lesson to us all. She deserves to be taken seriously.

Simon Caldwell is a freelance journalist

This article first appeared in the October 26 2018 issue of the Catholic Herald. To read the magazine in full, from anywhere in the world, go here