Wednesday, 16 October 2013

Mary Potter - 1847 - 1913

Because not all interesting lives are lived by the wealthy

I've never even thought to wonder who Mary Potter was, though there's enough public services named after her in Nottingham. So here's someone not famous who lived a relatively small life and didn't have a stately home to live it in, but isn't entirely forgotten. 

Mary grew up with four brothers in London, raised by her Mum after Dad ran away to Australia. That must have been an impoverished and difficult childhood. After breaking off her engagement aged 20, Mary became a Catholic nun. She attributed her religious vocation to the books her fiancé had given her. Apparently it was "Instructions for Christians with a timid conscience" that tipped the balance. Poor Godfrey.

She comes to Nottingham determined to find some poor people and do some good works. In 1877, after a fight with the Bishop, Mary founds the Little Company of Mary Sisters. It's still around, and because this is modern times these nuns have their own website. The Little Company begins its work in Hyson Green, feeding the poor. Hyson Green poor in the late 19th century were particularly poor: it was a slum then and there have been repeated attempts to regenerate the neighbourhood. 

The nuns start their work from a disused stocking factory. It seems they were the practical, get-on-with-it type. Known as the 'Blue Nuns' - because of their veil, not their choice of white wine - they did the things nuns do: prison visits, pre-natal, maternal, and domestic advice, nursing, prayer. It's said that Mary had two breast cancer surgeries on a kitchen table in Hyson Green without anaesthetic. Really?

But Mary and the Bishop continued to fight. In 1882 she goes to Rome to ask the Pope to take her side. (How's that for the ultimate "I'm telling Dad"?). The story that's told on official sites is that the Pope agreed with Mary but asked her to stay and continue her work in Italy. Maybe, but I wonder whether the nicer food and climate might have played a part? Also, we haven't heard the Bishop's side of this story. Maybe he booked her travel and asked the Pope to please keep her? By 1908 she establishes the first Italian school for nurse training. This means that Mary Potter's work in Nottingham spans just five years. She has a lot of legacy for a five year career here.

By the time she died there were 16 Little Company of Mary Sisters around the world. In 1988 Pope John Paul II declares her Venerable. In 1997 her body was brought back from Rome to be buried in Nottingham's St Barnabus cathedral

Where did I get this information from? I started from the excellent Nottingham Women's History group, and googled from there. Beware the Women's History site: while the political intent is worthy, there are some woeful typos which makes dates entirely unreliable. This BBC report adds extra colour, but I'm not sure it's well sourced.

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