Mary Potter: Detailed History

This young lady is Mary Potter. She is the youngest child of William Norwood Potter and Mary Anne Potter (Martin). She has four brothers.

In 1828 when Mary's parents married they were both Anglicans, but before Mary was born her mother became a Catholic, and against the wishes of her husband she had her four sons baptised Catholics. Mr. Potter was very upset about this and many arguments took place in the home.

At this time in the history of England the Catholic Emancipation Bill had not long been passed and catholics were only just beginning to practise their religion publicly. Up to this time they were more or less outcasts from society, so one can understand how disturbed Mr. Potter could have been. He had not received the gift of faith.

About twelve months after Mary was born in 1847 a relative made a will by which money was left for Mrs. Potter and the children. For reasons unknown Mr. Potter was excluded from administering the money. This caused him to become very angry, and one evening after a heated argument with Mrs. Potter he walked out of the home and never returned. Later Mrs. Potter heard that he had gone to Australia. At first she thought he would return, and she waited and hoped for this to happen, but he never did, nor did he even communicate with her. Years later she read in a magazine that he had died in Australia, but little is known of the details of his life after he left England.

The children, four boys and little Mary who was a delicate child, grew from childhood into adult life under the strict yet loving guidance of a mother who was in many ways over-protective of all her children, especially Mary who was the darling of the family.

It was against this background that Mary grew into womanhood. When she was about nineteen years of age she became engaged to a young man, Godfrey King. He was a friend of Mary's brother, Tom, and a very serious young man who had tried his vocation in a Trappist Monastery. Mary had a kind heart and a very happy disposition. Her brothers loved her and so did Godfrey after he came to know her. She was always kind to him and when he asked her to marry him she agreed, thinking how they would be able to do so much good together.

But one thing about her worried Godfrey - he wished that she was not so frivolous, and he asked her to read some spiritual books that he provided for her.

When he came to her home he never saw her alone, there was always someone present. Mary was full of common sense- she knew this was not normal and it worried her. She began to wonder that perhaps she was not meant to marry Godfrey.

Poor Godfrey! In his efforts to quell her lightheartedness through spiritual reading he unwittingly opened up to her the way that led to the fulfilment 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.

If not in marriage, how then?

Feeling perplexed at not being able to come to a decision by herself she travelled to Southwark to see Bishop Grant who had always been a dear friend to her and her family. She confided to him all that taken place - her engagement and the plans she and Godfrey had for their future, all the different things that had happened over the past months.

The Bishop, listening to her, realised that ma riage was not meant for Mary - at least not an earthly marriage. He advised her to break off her engagement with Godfrey because, he said, "The only spouse for you is Jesus Christ".

Mary was very sad about having to tell Godfrey that she was not going to marry him. She hated having to hurt him for she was really very fond of him. But after having listened to Bishop Grant she knew that an earthly marriage was not for her. Godfrey was very upset, but finally accepted the fact that Mary was being called to something different. Bishop Grant spoke to her mother who was very displeased with Mary for breaking the engagement. The Bishop advised her that Mary should become a nun, and that he would arrange for her to enter the Sisters of Mercy at Brighton.

Mary entered the Sisters of Mercy upon the advice of the Bishop for the purpose of discovering what it meant to be a religious. The Bishop advised this so that she should have the opportunity of living in a religious community. He spoke with the superior of the Sisters of Mercy and she agreed to take Mary into the Novitiate. Mary remained for about eighteen months. Although she did not feel an attraction to this congregation she was always an exemplary novice. It was only when the question arose as to whether she should make vows as a Sister of Mercy that Mary, after making a retreat with Father Lambert S.J., and acting on his advice, returned to her home. He advised that Mary definitely had a vocation to religious life, but not as a Sister of Mercy.

Because of the physical strain of religious life and her courageous efforts to persevere, her health, which was never very robust, deteriorated. She was very ill for two years and during these years she had many spiritual experiences.

In the solitude of her home Mary suffered greatly. She missed the Real Presence in the convent chapel, and being ill did not help her. Her mother and friends expected her to take up her life where she had left it before entering the convent and Godfrey King renewed his offer of marriage. But Mary now knew that she could never undertake an earthly marriage, and as a result she suffered much from their lack of understanding.

She spent hours in prayer and meditation before a small ivory crucifix that hung on the wall in a room where she rested during the day. It was here that she received light from God as to what He was calling her to do.

About this time a priest was appointed as chaplain at the Military Garrison, Portsmouth- Monsignor Virtue. Mary met him, for when she was well enough she used to visit the Military Chapel. He was concerned about the children at the Garrison and asked Mary to take them for christian instructions. Mrs.Potter made available a room in their home and Mary commenced to teach the children, and her mother helped by teaching some of them music. She conducted the school for three years. During this time her health improved and she grew physically and spiritually stronger. Her one aim in life was to know and do God's will.

She was looking for a book which would help her to be aware of her desire and to aim at perfection in all that she did. One day she came across Father Faber's english translation of St.Grignion de Montfort's 'Treatise on True Devotion to the Blessed Virgin'. She read it but was unimpressed, even disappointed. The only thing that stood out in her memory was the list that it contained of all the eminent ecclesiastics who so highly praised it, but she neither understood it nor wished to do so. This worried her, and so she took up the uninteresting book again and prayed for the grace to understand it and to obtain from it some help for her spiritual life.

She prayerfully read it over and over again, and each time she found more and more in it than she had imagined, so much so that after a few months she asked Monsignor Virtue's permission to consecrate herself entirely and forever to Christ through the hands of His Blessed Mother.

This she did, and the daily living of this consecration would be the secret of her spiritual progress from that day forward.

Monsignor Virtue was very kind to her, but because she felt it difficult to speak of the spiritual experiences she was having, she wrote to him.

He never answered her letters in writing, but encouraged her to continue to unfold to him what was taking place in her soul. He did not always seem to understand her, and this caused her great suffering.

At this time God was revealing to her what it was He wanted her to do.

It was a time of great confusion for Mary. Sometimes she wondered was it God or the devil inspiring her. The only way, she felt, was for her to be obedient to the one spiritually directing her.

It took a couple of years before the plan of what she felt God wanted her to bring into being was completed.

She waited to hear from Monsignor Virtue, and while she waited she wrote her first book, 'The Path of Mary'. She sent him a copy, and in a letter accompanying it she entreats him to respond to her letters.

He did one day by handing her back the manuscript of 'The Path of Mary' and telling her that under pain of mortal sin she was to put the whole plan out of her head.

Mary could not understand his change of attitude. She wondered should she change her spiritual director, but she decided against doing this. It was not long afterwards that Monsignor Virtue was appointed Military Chaplain at Malta.

Before leaving he recommended a priest to be her spiritual director but this priest did not wish to take this responsibility on himself and he sent her to Bishop Dannell who was most understanding and gave her permission to interest others in praying for the dying.

Mary asked Monsignor Virtue to return her letters to her, but he refused and told her they were to be destroyed.

Soon after this Mary was introduced to Father Selley, a Marist Priest, who became very interested and helpful to her. She confided everything to him her hopes and fears. She was very honest in every aspect, telling him what Bishop Danell had given her permission to do, yet everything went wrong. The Bishop thought that she had disobeyed him. The Cardinal to whom she went for help gave her no encouragement, and Father Selley was forbidden by his superiors to direct her.

Again she was alone except for the few women she had gathered together to pray for the dying of the world. They were her only comfort during these days. Her brothers who loved her dearly did not understand her fully, and at times in trying to be helpful caused her more trouble than they meant to by talking to the Bishop and the Cardinal on her behalf.

Father Selley had read her manuscript, 'The Path of Mary', and through her friends arranged for its publication.

This little book fell into the hands of a pious old man, Mr. Young, who offered to provide finance if the authoress would do something to further devotion to Our Lady in Lincolnshire where he lived.

Also about this time one of her brothers advised her to go to Nottingham to see Bishop Bagshawe who he thought would be interested and might help her. She tried in vain to get her mother's permission to leave home, and it is here that we meet her seated in the train on that cold January day in 1877 bound for Nottingham.

After long hours in the train, during which one can imagine Mary has some misgivings about what she had done, the train drew into the station, and as she left it the thought uppermost in her mind at that time was 'where was she going to spend the night?' She made her way towards St.Barnabas' Cathedral, and after making enquiries she found lodgings in a house in Derby Rd. not far from the Cathedral.

The next morning she had her first interview with the Bishop, who was very kind and interested. He asked her to return the next day, which she did, and he told her to go out and around to see if she could find a place in which to make a start, mentioning Hyson Green which was a poor area a couple of miles out of Nottingham. That, he thought, would be a good district to commence this work that she wished to do. He asked her if there were any others who were prepared to join her and, if so, would they write a letter to him. Mary wrote to her two friends, one Mrs. Elizabeth Bryan (a widow), and the other Agnes Bray, asking them to write to the Bishop.

Father Selley, on hearing what was happening, wrote to Mary requesting her to ask the Bishop to invite him to Nottingham, but she thought it best not to do this. Mr. Young, the old gentleman who offered finance to her, on hearing that Father Selley was not to be involved, at this stage, withdrew his offer of financial help.

Mary was feeling a little worried by this time. She was lonely and had very little money with her. She had to be careful as to how she spent it. She had to buy a little food each day and the weather was cold and windy, but she never faltered in her purpose, setting out from Nottingham one morning for Hyson Green to see if she could find a place to make a start.

As she trudged along she must have felt a bit apprehensive, for the further she moved away from the city the more desolate the area became - it was an industrial town and very poor.

As she walked up one street and down another making enquiries as to where she might find an empty house she met an Irish lady who, noticing how frail and tired Mary looked, invited her into her home to rest and have a cup of tea. Mary asked her did she know if there was any place vacant in the area, and Mrs. Tacey, for that was the lady's name, told her that there were no houses, but that the only place she knew of was an old tumble down factory nearby, saying that it was not fit to be lived in. Mary said she would like to see it, and when she did she decided 'yes, this is where we will commence our work'.

She returned to the Bishop with the news of her find, and after he inspected the proposed convent he told her to lease the property in his name and he would pay the rent and taxes and provide any furniture she would need. Mary was very happy and wrote to Mrs. Bryan and Agnes Bray telling them to come.

They arrived at Hyson Green in March 1877. The renovations were well on the way to completion. At least the roof and the windows were mended and the little chapel furnished. They had no beds at the start - they slept on the floor and carried chairs from one room to another as needed.

A third member arrived in May - Eleanor Smith. The three names mentioned later became Mother Magdalen Bryan, Mother Agnes Bray and Mother Cecilia Smith. Within a couple of weeks Edith Coleridge arrived and she became Mother Philip Coleridge.

The Bishop told Mary that she was to be the Superior of the group, and on the Feast of the Precious Blood (2 July) he gave the habit and blue veil to the first five members of the Little Company of Mary, for this was the name chosen by Mary Potter for this new congregation.

Within two weeks of doing this the bishop, who considered himself the higher superior, deposed Mother Mary, as she was now called, and made Mother M. Magdalen the local superior, and himself the director and confessor of the community, sending Mother Mary out to beg. She was later made the novice mistress under the direction and authority of Mother Magdalen.

This situation continued for about two years. With the strain of the work and the anxiety of what was happening to the ideals and charism of the Little Company of Mary, Mother Mary's health began to fail. The frail little figure was well known and loved by all the people of Hyson Green, and further afield also, for there were times when she was asked to go to more distant towns to beg for alms to enable them to carry on their work for the poor.

Mother Mary never complained, but it became apparent to Mother Philip, who was a trained nurse, that there was something the matter. It was then discovered that Mother Mary had a large ulcer on her breast. The doctor was consulted and he ordered immediate removal of the breast. It was malignant, but because of Mother Mary's poor health it was not safe to give her a deep anaesthetic, and, as a result, it was very difficult for the doctor and painful for Mother Mary. She suffered greatly but always with patience and gentle concern for those who were attending her. A few months after the operation it was discovered that her other breast was also malignant and the doctor had to perform a second operation under the same conditions.

Prior to the second operation in 1879 it became obvious to the Bishop that things were not right in the community, and on investigation he decided to summon a chapter for the election of a local superior, and at this Mother Mary received all the votes of the sisters. After she was elected she opened two small missions, one at Quorndon, the other at Eastwell.

Because of all the hardships, both physical and mental, of the past couple of years, Mother's health was at a low ebb during 1880, and whilst visiting one of the missions she contracted scarlet fever. She was very ill until the end of the year, and whilst she was ill the Bishop opened two more missions, sending the very new· members to work in them.

This caused Mother Mary great anxiety because these sisters were very young and inexperienced, but the Bishop was her higher superior and she could do nothing about it.

Mother Mary had one great desire. She longed to go to Rome to seek the blessing and approval of the Holy Father for the Little Company of Mary.

At first the Bishop would not hear of it, but after frequent requests from Mother Mary he reluctantly gave his permission on the condition that she would take two sisters with her to take care of her on the long journey. It was arranged that Mother Philip and Mother Cecilia should go.

The three of them set out for Rome on 24 September 1882 and arrived there the following month on 10 October after a difficult and anxious time for the two companions, to say nothing of what Mother Mary herself suffered.

On arrival an audience was arranged for her with the Holy Father, Pope Leo XIII, and during the audience he invited her to stay in Rome, to bring more sisters and to commence her work in the Eternal City.

This made her very happy but her health was so poor that many times her companions thought she was about to die.

Though she was so ill her one aim was to establish this work that God had called her to do - to live in spirit with Mary at the foot of the cross on Calvary - to plead that Jesus' Precious Blood may not be shed in vain- to implore God's mercy for the dying of the world, especially those mostly in need of His mercy, dying sinners.

She knew that God would support and strengthen her, for He knew that her one great desire was always to do His holy will.

The first few years in Rome were difficult ones. They had to change residence several times before finding a place near Mary Major's where they remained for twelve years.

During these years Mother Mary, with the help of Father Cardella S.J., wrote the Constitutions of the Little Company of Mary.

In 1885 a group of sisters from England went to Australia at the invitation of Cardinal Moran. Mother Mary travelled from Rome to see them when the boat called at Naples. She was so ill at that time as she was just recovering from typhoid fever, but the doctor gave permission for her to go for he knew how much it meant to her that she see those sisters as they went. They were all so young - in their twenties. She told the one in charge to get a pair of glasses and to wear them so that she would look a little older.

After seeing them off, and it was time to return to Rome, Mother Mary decided to travel to Genezzano and visit the shrine of Our Lady of Good Counsel. It was a hazardous journey, especially after leaving the train when they encountered a bad thunderstorm and the coachman refused to go up the steep climb to the place of the shrine. The sisters were desperate because Mother Mary was so exhausted and ill. They had almost to threaten the man to get him to go on.

It was at this shrine that Mother Mary received what she called a great 'Grace'. Good health was restored to her.

In 1886 Mother Mary returned to England, and on 15 September she and the first four sisters made final profession of vows. When she returned to Rome that year she began to close all the small outlying houses in England, bringing the sisters back to the Mother House at Hyson Green, Nottingham.

In 1888 a house was opened in Limerick, Ireland. She went there for the opening, but on arrival had a lung haemorrhage, and was ordered back to Nottingham. Her doctor there said that the cancer was making rapid progress and a winter in England was not to be considered. He ordered her back to Rome.

Bishop Bagshawe was not happy about her returning there. He thought she should remain in England because the Mother House was there. The doctor and others urged her to return to Rome. She was torn be tween the two and sought guidance from her spiritual director, believing that whatever he advised would be the will of God. Always for her the will of God was all that mattered.

Despite her ill health she was needed in Rome at that time, and so she set out on the long and trying journey once more.

It was not until 18 April 1893 that the Decree of the Final Approbation of the Rule was issued, and a couple of months later the Mother House was established in Rome.

In 1903 Mother Mary purchased land in San Stefano Rotondo, and there was built the Mother House. It took three years to build and was opened in 1906.

As the years fled along new foundations were made - Florence 1885, Fiesole 1889, Chicago U.S.A. 1893, Malta 1894, Port Elizabeth South Africa 1904. Apart from these distant foundations others were made in England and Australia and two were promised by Mother Mary, one in New Zealand and the other in Argentine, South America, but they were not opend until after the death of Mother Mary in 1913. After this the Little Company of Mary continued to expand all over the world, but always has it remained the ' Little' Company of Mary - the numbers have never been great. Mother Mary always likened it to the small group who stood with Our Lady at the foot of the cross on Calvary, for it is there that they live out the spirit of the congregation in the company of Mary, pleading that the Precious Blood of Jesus may not be shed in vain, that God's mercy may be shown to those who are dying all over the world, especially to those who are in need of His mercy.

This is the heritage, the charism, the life to be lived out always in union with Mary our Mother.