Mother Mary Joseph of Jesus, the foundress of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion, was born on 2 September 1820
Mother Mary Joseph (Elizabeth Prout) brought the Sisters of the Cross and Passion into what is now the Archdiocese of Liverpool in 1855 when, at the inspiration of Father Bernardine Carosi CP, rector of the Passionist monastery in Sutton, the Misses Orrell of Blackbrook asked her to open a convent in Parr Hall; to take charge of Parr Hall girls’ academy; and to open day and Sunday schools for working-class children in Blackbrook, as well as taking charge of St Anne’s day and Sunday schools in Sutton.
Reducing fees at Parr Hall to open the school to middle and upper working-class girls, Mother Mary Joseph admitted day pupils as well as boarders and introduced a school uniform to eradicate class distinctions in dress. She opened a convent in Sutton where she personally taught in St Anne’s school and in 1857 opened St Joseph’s school, Peasley Cross. Apart from a break from 1979–84, the Sisters of the Cross and Passion have remained in Sutton to the present day.
They were also in Warrington from 1899, teaching in St Mary’s girls’ and infants’ schools from 1899–1967; St Benedict’s from 1901–75; St Alban’s 1902–70; St Oswald’s from 1929–88; St Stephen’s from 1957–83; and English Martyrs’ from 1959–84. After retiring from the schools, they stayed in Warrington, playing an active role particularly in St Oswald’s parish from 1988 to 2016.
The Sisters of the Cross and Passion have been in the City of Liverpool since 1909, teaching and doing parish work in St Hugh’s. As a result of war damage in 1946, however, they had to move their convent to North Drive, Wavertree. That area was in Our Lady’s parish and so some Sisters continued to teach and do parish work in St Hugh’s while others arrived to do parish work in Our Lady’s. The Sisters continued to teach in St Hugh’s school until 1990.
In 2013 they opened another convent, with two Sisters working in schools and in St John’s parish, Kirkdale. In 2017, with the rearrangement of parishes which joined Our Lady’s parish to Christ the King, the Sisters in Wavertree left their convent in North Drive to be nearer the church of Christ the King and Our Lady, where they remain today.
All the Sisters of the Cross and Passion throughout the world have a special affection for St Anne’s parish, Sutton, because it was in their convent there that their foundress, Mother Mary Joseph, died on 11 January 1864 as the Servant of God, Father Ignatius Spencer CP gave her Final Absolution. After a Requiem Mass sung by the Passionists and Sisters in the Sutton monastery church, she was buried in the adjacent graveyard. In 1973 her coffin was exhumed and her remains were placed in a sepulchre on the right of the tomb of Blessed Dominic Barberi CP in the new church of St Anne and Blessed Dominic. The remains of Fr Ignatius Spencer are in a sepulchre on the left of Blessed Dominic’s tomb.
Elizabeth Prout had been born in Shrewsbury. By 1842, however, she was living in Stone, Staffordshire when Blessed Dominic Barberi CP arrived there to found the first Passionist retreat in England. Previously an Anglican, Elizabeth became a Catholic between 1842 and 1848, when she entered a convent in Northampton. She became ill, however, and had to return to Stone.
In early 1849 Father Gaudentius Rossi CP gave a mission in St Chad’s, Manchester and heard that the parish priest, Father Robert Croskell, was looking for a schoolmistress to direct St Chad’s girls’ school in George Leigh Street in Ancoats, Manchester. When Elizabeth had recovered from her illness but was being pressurised by her mother to abandon her Catholic faith, Fr Gaudentius suggested she take that post. About early September 1849, therefore, she arrived in Manchester and lodged in a house in Stocks Street beside St Chad’s new church at Cheetham Hill. Shortly afterwards Fr Gaudentius invited her to cooperate with him and Fr Croskell, with the approval of Bishop William Turner of Salford, in founding a new Congregation to give a contemplative and active religious life to women who could not afford the dowry required by the established Orders and did not wish to be lay Sisters. She agreed and founded the Congregation with six other Sisters at St Joseph’s convent, 69 Stocks Street, on 21 November 1852. Fr Gaudentius presided over the first clothing ceremony.
The first group of Sisters professed their vows before Bishop Turner on 21 November 1854 in their convent in Levenshulme. Then, at Bishop Turner’s request, on 1 January 1855 Mother Mary Joseph opened a second convent in Ashton-under-Lyne. It was from there that she came to Sutton.
We can imitate Elizabeth Prout in many ways and pray to her with confidence. She was such a practical person; so entirely God-centred; so forgetful of self; so generous in giving herself to others; so willing to suffer in union with Our Lord’s Passion, always so that God’s will might be done; and so charitable in protecting the reputations of even her enemies, even at great loss to her own. Pray to her about a practical difficulty and it will be solved in the twinkling of an eye. It need not surprise us that even her mother became a Catholic, nor that her father too returned to his Catholic faith.
At present all the material for her Cause presented to the Holy See has been accepted by the competent authorities, including a committee of theologians in Rome, but we still await the verdict of the responsible Cardinals and Bishops that she should be entitled ‘Venerable’. After that only our successful pleas to her for miracles can raise her to the honours of Beatification and Canonisation. And so please pray to her and when she answers your prayers, send an accurate detailed account to Father Paul Francis Spencer CP, vice-postulator, c/o Sister Dominic Savio Hamer CP, Cross and Passion Convent, 19 East Beach, Lytham, Lancashire, FY8 5EU.
In the meantime, it is possible to visit the various places connected with her: Shrewsbury, Stone, Aston Hall, St Chad’s and Sr Mary’s, Manchester as well as Sutton. Also the 'Definitive Biography, Elizabeth Prout, 1820–64, A Religious Life for Industrial England' is available in paperback, written by Dr Edna Hamer (Sr Dominic Savio CP), the historian for the Sisters of the Cross and Passion on the historical commission appointed by Archbishop Derek Worlock in 1994 to investigate the Cause for the ultimate Canonisation of the Servant of God. It was published first by Downside Abbey in 1994 and since 2011 by Gracewing Publishers, 2 Southern Ave, Leominster, Herefordshire, HR6 OQF. In 2008 Gracewing published a shorter, more popular life: ‘With Christ in His Passion, Elizabeth Prout (1820–64), Foundress of the Sisters of the Cross and Passion of Our Lord Jesus Christ’, also written by Sr Dominic Savio; and in 2009 the Catholic Truth Society, London published a booklet: Sr Elizabeth Prout.