Project Canterbury

Mother Kate

London: The Catholic Literature Association, 1933.

KATHERINE Anne Egerton Warburton was born in the Parsonage of a small village on the banks of the Mersey, on March 24, 1840. Her father was Vicar of the parish, the younger son of a great Cheshire family, to which the land for miles around had belonged since the days of the Conqueror.

The earliest portrait existing of her is interesting and characteristic. She appears in it as a little girl, about eight years old, with thick, short golden hair hanging down on each side of her resolute little face. There are fire and energy in the poise of her head on the slim shoulders, in the glance of the dark eyes; and strength and great tenderness in the small finely formed hands, which are clasping a collie puppy to her heart. This fire and energy, this tenderness for all God's creatures, remained with her to her last breath.

Speaking of her own childhood in her Memories, she says that she used to love to run wild about the garden with the dogs, and that she cared more for horses than anything in the world, a taste inherited from her mother, who had been taught to ride anything, and, as the expression went, 'to hold on by her eyelids.'

The head of the family was Mr. Rowland Egerton Warburton, 'Little Rowley,' the steeplechase rider, the poet laureate of the hunting field. The young squire, after leaving Eton and Oxford, had thrown all his heart into the Catholic Movement. When he rebuilt Arley Hall, he had attached a beautiful chapel to it, and here he and his household gathered for daily service, even on hunting mornings, when he appeared in all the glory of his pink and buckskins; and it was on her visits to Arley that the child Kate first learnt something of the Catholic Faith. She remembered the choir boys in white surplices, carrying lighted candles and singing Dr. Neale's carols in the hall at Christmas, and it was here she first met some of the clergy connected with the Movement, and was specially thrilled by seeing some Mission priests who had been doing heroic work in Leeds during the cholera outbreak. Here, too, she came in touch with the Rev. Charles Gutch, then Chaplain at Arley, who prepared her for Confirmation and heard her first Confession; but even now, though vaguely impressed by what she saw and heard, her heart was not really stirred by religion. It was not till she was seventeen that there came to her that 'one clear call' which we name Vocation, and which she herself speaks of in her Memories. 'Something suddenly seemed to come into my heart that put everything in a different light before me. I can tell the very day, February 23, and the very place--I was out on the Mere in a boat with my cousins, pulling up weeds.'

From the moment of that day she entered on a new life with all the vigour of her ardent nature. With her, then as always, to see a thing clearly was to act on it with all her heart, and at once. She had heard of a priest working amongst the roughest and most degraded people at the London Docks. His love for souls, the poverty of the mission, appealed directly to her heart, and she denied herself to be able to send some help for this work; and hearing of Miss Neale's Sisterhood of the Holy Cross at Wapping, was immediately on fire to join it. Her mother consulted Mr. Gutch on the subject, and he was strongly against the girl's own desire, holding that she was too young and headstrong for such a life or work. 'Kate,' he writes back, 'would be as wild and unchastened as she has ever been,' and his advice was that she should join the Society of St. Margaret's at East Grinstead. Her mother took the old priest's advice, and entered into correspondence with Dr. Neale, the Founder and Chaplain of St. Margaret's, with the result that in the August of 1858 Kate arrived at the little convent in Sussex to try her vocation.

She was little more than a child in years when she left Cheshire. She had never been to a ball, never entered a theatre, knew little or nothing of the world beyond her own quiet home and county. Gay and sweet in manner, warm-hearted, overflowing with fun and high spirits, she must have been immensely attractive at that time. The pleasures of youth seem just to have rippled over the surface of her heart, but nothing stirred its depths until she was called by the love of God himself. The call had come to the heart of a child, had come as it came to the Apostles, when she was 'out in a boat' close to her old home in the Cheshire marsh-lands, a Voice which drew her, like them, to forsake all and to follow wherever it might lead her.

It had been a bitter disappointment not to throw herself, as she had felt so drawn to do, into mission work in London slums, but she had bravely made up her mind to follow where she was led. 'Hope confidently, do valiantly, wait patiently,' was the motto she had so often looked at over the gallery of Arley. Hope, confidence, valour were already hers, but the patience to wait had yet to be learnt through this first crossing of her will; and this lesson which she tried so hard to learn had its reward, for the very year she went to St. Margaret's, Dr. Neale undertook mission work in London, and she was one of the little band sent there.


When she entered on her noviciate at St. Margaret's she was only eighteen. The poverty and simplicity of that first convent delighted her: the little dormitory with its plaster walls and narrow beds, the refectory in a brick shed, and the Oratory, once a workshop, a poor place outwardly, yet filled like Nazareth with the infinite riches of heaven, since the Blessed Sacrament was already reserved there on its humble altar.

It was in this Oratory that she drank in some of those marvellous sermons of Dr. Neale on the Religious Life, which are now among the treasures of Catholic literature. A distinguished scholar, a poet, a man of great originality and intense spirituality, above all, a most holy priest, ever striving after the very highest, and demanding it from others, the founder of St. Margaret's, by his life and teaching, left his mark for ever on the heart and mind of the new aspirant. A new world seemed to open before her, a mystic world, peopled with God's Saints, and filled by his own presence; and her intense realization of the Communion of Saints, her habit of unbroken prayer and union with God date from that time. To her there seemed scarcely a veil between the two worlds. She passed from one to the other as one passes from one room to the other in the same house.

Sister Kate was clothed in the habit of St. Margaret on September 23, 1858. It was hi the same year that she was sent to work in a small mission amongst the poor of St. Mary's, Soho. The parish abutted on the notorious Seven Dials, and was a network of courts and alleys, the vilest perhaps, in the London of that day. Here, at last, was what the young Sister had dreamed of and longed for, and, as usual, she flung herself into the fight with all her heart, with all her soul, and with all her strength.

She and the other Sisters did a great deal of visiting in that Dickens-like labyrinth of courts and alleys, often at the risk of their lives, for the people were sometimes hostile and even violent when, as so often happened, they had been drinking, and the foetid dens in which they herded together were frequently infected with fever and smallpox. On one occasion, Sister Kate and another Sister had to carry a poor child's coffin through the streets to the mortuary in the dead of night, and many another painful work and weird adventure fell to the lot of the young Sister. During her mission there she went back to St. Margaret's for a short time to prepare for her Profession, and she took her life-vows the day after her twenty-first birthday, on the Feast of the Annunciation, in the year 1861.

The mission to Soho was later withdrawn, and the Sisters who returned to St. Margaret's were almost immediately sent back to London to start a new mission in the East End hi St. Augustine's parish, and it was in April of 1866 that Sister Kate's eyes first beheld the desolate little grey streets of Haggerston, which were to be the field of her labours from that spring morning until her death.


The Sisters first took up their abode in a small house in Ash Grove, and this Priory, dedicated to St. Mary, was formally opened on Holy Cross Day, May 3. It was constituted an Affiliated House of St. Margaret's, having its own Mother, electing its own Sisters, and finding its own funds, but bound by the same rule, and wearing the same habit as the Mother House. Dr. Neale was at this time already stricken by a mortal illness, and the Priory was his last foundation. In the following August he died, and the future held a yet more searching calamity for Sister Kate.

In October, 1867, she had been called for a time to mission work at St. Peter's, Plymouth, where again, as in Soho, she exercised a marvellous influence over the rough lads of Devon. Shortly before she left the Priory, the Chaplain of the Community had joined the Roman Communion, and during her absence the first Mother of the Priory, and all the Sisters except two, and three Novices, had followed his example. It was early in February when, in the midst of her happy mission work at Plymouth, the news of this disaster was sent to Sister Kate.

The blow fell upon her heart and stunned her. She speaks years after of that moment of ' utter bewilderment, utter horror, the sensation of loneliness, of being left behind'; but, in the very midst of the pain of losing the Superior she venerated and the Sisters she loved, her brave heart, her loyal conscience never faltered. For her, then and always, it has been truly said, 'Loyalty to the English Church was a passion as well as a principle.' She wrote off at once to Father Mackonochie, who was then Chaplain. Her letter has not been preserved, but his answer shows what had been its spirit: 'My dear Sister: Your letter is the first comfort I have had. I cannot tell you what a help it has been to me to read your promise that you, at least, will be faithful. God bless you for it!' He wrote again, begging her to leave the Plymouth mission and return at once to Haggerston. Many thought that the whole work would have to be relinquished, and the tiny band of faithful Sisters once more absorbed into the Mother House. But, although the Priory might seem to have crumbled to the earth, Father Mackonochie was determined that it should rise again from its ruins. And in Sister Kate, so young in years and experience, he found beneath all the impetuosity and light-heartedness of her nature, amidst all the confusion of her grief at this crisis, a strength of purpose, a courage and a loyalty as resolute, as rock-like as his own--and on this rock St. Saviour's Priory was built.

Sister Kate had only returned from Plymouth on February n, and on February 18 she was received as Mother Superior of the Priory. According to the Constitutions of St. Margaret's a new Mother may be elected every three years, but by the will of the Sisters, and amidst their love and veneration to the end, Mother Kate bore the burden of this office for fifty-five years in succession, until of her own act she laid it down upon her death-bed.

At the time of her first reception as Mother Superior she was not yet twenty-eight. Her shoulders were young, but they were strong, and she had need of all her strength. When she returned from Plymouth that February, she found herself and her little Community practically destitute. The seceding Sisters had kept possession of the Priory in Ash Grove, of most of the furniture, and of all the funds.

Father Mackonochie had secured a temporary refuge for the Sisters hard by in Ash Grove, and after a hurried search another home was found for them in Kingsland Road. To this small house Mother Kate and her two Sisters, the Novices, and a few orphan boys now migrated. They were so closely packed in the new quarters, that four Sisters slept in one room, their beds touching each other, their only dressing-room the shelf of a cupboard door, whilst the Mother herself, having no bed, slept at night on a table in what was by day the refectory, common-room, and guest-room all in one. The funds were so low that one day they consisted of a farthing, found in a coat which had been sent in a parcel of old clothes, and one of the Sisters used to sally out to sell old bottles at the rag and bone shop to procure a meal of cabbages.

Added to these material difficulties, and far more acutely felt by the Sisters than the want of funds, was the want of friends, for, as was natural, many regarded the small Community with suspicion, feeling they would not have the strength to stand out, and would eventually follow the first Mother to Rome. However, Mother Kate had been trained by the Founder of St. Margaret's to believe that 'what is possible may be done, and what is impossible must be done,' and she faced the difficulties with her brave young heart, 'hoping confidently and doing valiantly.' It was this light-heartedness which carried the little Community through the days of want and sickness and over-work which followed. It was soon found that the distance from their work hi St. Augustine's and St. Chad's parishes was telling on the Sisters' health, and fortunately a small workman's dwelling on the site of the present Priory was found, and to this the Community moved on May 19, 1870.


Troubles were, however, by no means at an end for the Sisters, for in the autumn of this year, as they went visiting from house to house, they came across occasional cases of smallpox, and before many weeks were past a great epidemic was raging from one end of the parishes to the other, and disease and death were busy among their people.

The Shoreditch Vestry had run up a temporary wooden hospital in a disused burying ground, and four of the Priory Sisters undertook the nursing there. The remaining Sisters, including the Mother herself, gave themselves up to visiting those who were stricken by the disease in their own wretched homes, many of them in a dying condition, some already dead. They nursed the living, consoled the dying, laid out the dead, hurrying all day from call to call. Winter came; still the epidemic raged, and the suffering caused by the intense cold increased the universal distress. Mother Kate and the Sisters stripped their own beds of blankets for the poor sufferers, but, work and deny themselves as they might, they felt powerless before the gigantic task they had undertaken. In despair they turned to that great layman Mr. Robert Brett, always a noble friend of the poor, who at once sent an appeal to The Times, raised funds, organized a system of relief, and adopted vigorous measures to arrest the spread of the disease.

By the May of the following year the epidemic was completely stamped out, but as far as the Priory went its effects remained, not only in the large number of new friends gained among the poor people, but also in a growing circle of kind and good friends beyond Haggerston, who from that time rallied round the Sisters, and began to take an interest in their work and in different ways to assist it.

A comparatively quiet and peaceful time now followed, fresh work was undertaken, and new nets let down to draw the souls of Haggerston to shore.

One may say that the rest of Mother Kate's life was less a series of events than a development of its inner spirit and its outward activities. She had, as we have seen already, laid the foundations of the mission in Haggerston, and by her hands was also gradually built up that strange spiritual edifice, that many-sided house for God and his poor, which is known as the Priory.

Fresh works were undertaken as fresh needs arose and as fresh parishes pleaded for help from the growing community. Mother Kate's own wonderful work amongst the men and boys of the neighbourhood found its home in the Lodge, and in the early eighties the first of the seaside Homes of Rest, a work specially near to her heart, were opened at Herne Bay and Brighton.

As the Sisters increased, and the work in their hands multiplied, the buildings they lived in had long been outgrown, and as the old workmen's dwellings, of which that first Priory was formed, were crumbling to pieces, and, moreover, were found to be full of sewer gas and overrun with rats, they were condemned by the sanitary authorities; and Mother Kate was faced by the necessity of building a new house. She and the Sisters had always lived in great poverty, from hand to mouth; there were no funds whatever for such an undertaking, and, of course, none could be raised in such an abjectly poor neighbourhood as Haggerston. Mother Kate was never daunted by money difficulties nor, indeed, by any material obstacles, looking upon them as so many fences to be 'taken' as they came. Certainly the present fence towered formidably high, but at the crucial moment up came the three Vicars of the Haggerston parishes, and gave a splendid lead by writing off an appeal to the newspapers.

The response was wonderful from friends old and new, and in 1888 the present Priory was built upon the old site, and was blessed by the Bishop of Argyll and the Isles. Mother Kate, with her deep love of poverty and her spirit of charity, felt very strongly that the Priory did not belong either to herself or the Sisters. It had been built, she felt, first of all, for the sake of the poor people, for the work amongst them, and she wished they should always feel that it was open to them at all times.

It was therefore a real delight to her when, during the worst air-raids of the war, the people rushed to the Priory for shelter, and its doors were opened to about seven hundred poor souls, in every stage of entreaty, deshabille, and panic. They soon calmed down once inside the Priory walls, and a powerful help to their order and comparative happiness was, no doubt, the sight of Mother Kate, then in her seventy-seventh year, sitting so tranquilly in the hall outside her door, and welcoming her poor guests with the same unruffled, kindly courtesy as she would have shown to them at one of her Christmas parties.


These active works, besides the burden of an immense correspondence and the continual claims of a large Community, were carried on with all her might and love until the very moment of her last illness. On the last day of July, 1923, she had arranged to go down to Brighton to spend a few weeks, as she did every summer, at the Hostel. She had been working at high pressure until the night before starting, and seemed so exhausted the following morning that the Sisters were anxious for her to delay her journey. She was determined, however, not to break her promise, and travelled down on the appointed day. Once arrived, it was hoped that the comparative rest at the Hostel she so loved would soon restore her; but during the weeks there the state of weakness and exhaustion increased so alarmingly that the doctor sanctioned her return to the Priory, and she reached home on Holy Cross Day, September 14.

There was no organic disease, no real illness, only a state of intense weakness and collapse. Her faculties were clear to the end, but it seemed as if some spring had snapped; the old energy was used up, the fire extinct. As with some brave horse who has worked to the last and borne the strain until it dropped in harness, so it was with her. And she would not have wished it otherwise. To work for God and his poor to the very uttermost had been the ruling passion of her life. Now the night had come in which no man can work, and into the shadow of this rest she was already entering.

On September 23, the 65th anniversary of her reception into the Society of St. Margaret, she made her decision to resign, and expressed her desire that the Sisters should elect a new superior before her death. It was her last act, and, like all her acts, was full of dignity and vigour. The words 'I have power to lay it down' came to one's mind. The time had come, she felt, to pass on the torch she had held so firmly; and she herself willed that it should now be placed in younger hands, to bear aloft and keep alight that flame of love to God and man which she had kindled and kept clear until the very end.

It was an untold relief to her when, on October 10, the election of the present Mother took place. Two days later, the Last Sacraments were administered, and on the sixteenth she received her Viaticum. After this she seemed only to be waiting for the new Mother to be received. This was to take place on the seventeenth, after Vespers, and all through that day when the chapel bell rang Mother Kate asked if it were yet time. The instant Vespers had been sung, and the reception was over, the new Mother hastened to her deathbed.

The evening had come, the hour of the Nunc Dimittis for her who had waited in long patience, and who now, with her heart's desire fulfilled, her work finished and commended, turned her dying eyes towards her Saviour, seeking him and no other. The night wore away, and at two o'clock in the morning the new Mother, kneeling at her side, said the Litany of the Holy Name, and she joined quite clearly in the responses. Two hours later the end was drawing very near, and all the Community gathered about her bed. Her eyes were closed, and she lay very still, but was evidently conscious. Again the Litany of the Holy Name was said, and, to the music of that Name which was to her above every name, her great soul passed in peace to him 'whom she had seen, whom she had loved, and in whom she had believed, whom with her whole heart she had always desired.'

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