A conversation with Mary Potter

The 18-year-old Mary Potter had just broken her engagement and entered the Sisters of Mercy where she found the life too strenuous for her delicate health. Eleven years later she ran away from home to start a religious congregation.

Sisters Anita MacDonald and Mary Scanlon, LCM, wrote this ‘Conversation with Mary Potter’ after being inspired by the story of Mary Potter’s courage in answering God’s call, in the face of incredible opposition, especially from her mother.

Mary Potter, aged 18, had been engaged to Godfrey King but, sensing God’s call to a religious vocation, had broken off the engagement. She had then entered the Sisters of Mercy. Finding the strict life was too strenuous with her severe congenital heart defect, she returned home where her mother cosseted her and refused to allow her to leave again, let alone start a religious congregation.

A conversation with Mary Potter Archdiocese of Wellington One morning when Mary was 29, she had a real ‘aha’ experience on hearing Luke’s story of the child Jesus in the Temple (Lk 2: 41-50) at Mass.

Q. I understand Luke’s gospel story of Jesus leaving his parents without explanation to follow the will of his father changed your life.

Mary Potter: Deeply upset though I was at the thought of disobeying and upsetting my mother, I felt God’s call even more strongly. God had already brought to birth within me the spirituality he wanted me to live and be, in the world.

Q. So what did you do?

Mary Potter: On our return journey I began to feel agitated and in great conflict. I remember behaving in a way that embarrassed Marguerite—praying half aloud and making the Sign of the Cross over and over. I was aware only of a great struggle going on within me. I made a quick and momentous decision. I persuaded Marguerite to go back to Portsmouth without me, and tell my mother of my decision. I then stayed overnight in London with my brother Henry and set out the next day for Nottingham.

Bishop Bagshawe was cool initially but he eventually warmed towards me and told me to, ‘Go into the city; see if you can find a cheap place which we could rent and make a beginning.’

Q. That sounds exciting and very scary.

Mary Potter: Quite by chance, I met a woman who told me about a disused stocking factory in the suburb of Hyson Green Village. This eventually became our birthplace. Despite the factory’s derelict state, a wonderful strength and joy came to me.

Q. We know these trials were just the start of a lifetime of suffering and misunderstanding. We also know that in founding a religious congregation you also founded a parish and a school.

 Mary Potter: The little sanctuary at Hyson Green was a place of grace which, as I look back, was more profound that any I experienced elsewhere. Prayer and sacrifice for the dying were the focus of our little group and we attracted people from all over the district. The convent became the nucleus of a new mission, situated as it was in the middle of newly-built streets. The people were extremely poor and there was little, if any, health care. Also there were hundreds of Catholics known to be residents and there was nowhere, other than the cathedral miles away, where Mass could be celebrated. The people used to trudge for miles to our convent chapel on Sundays and I do believe our witness was effective, for we devoted ourselves to the spiritual and material needs of these poverty-stricken people. Many returned to the faith or were received into the church through our help and instruction, so that a parish grew up around us. We were also able to bring the gospel to the school children. Meanwhile, we continued our mission of nursing and nurturing the poor, the sick and especially the dying in their homes, often cleaning their houses.

Q. Throughout this time, you and your Sisters were growing in devotion to Christ’s mother, Mary, under the title you yourself gave her, ‘Maternal Heart’.

Mary Potter: From the moment I was inspired with a burning desire to honour and serve God through devotion to Mary, I felt drawn into Mary’s role as mother and nurturer. This strengthened us as we went about our works of mercy.

Q. Mary, who are we, the Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, in the 21st century?

Mary Potter: As Sisters of the Little Company of Mary, we are called to share in Mary’s maternal and evangelising role in the church. In the spirit of Mary on Calvary, we enter into the sufferings of others, to bring about equality and dignity for all, and to join with others to create a world of justice, love and peace and thus make visible the healing presence of Jesus.

Q. Mary, how did you live out the call to be hope, to be Healing Presence, when your life experience was one of constant illness, pain and suffering?

Mary Potter: My experience was a lifetime of learning each day to offer up my whole life for the dying of the world. In accepting God’s will, I felt myself being graced to understand my mission as that of prayer and offering. You who are now experiencing ageing and illness are still, and always will be, true and authentic Sisters of the Little Company of Mary by your daily prayer, offered in union with Mary and in her spirit of hope and joy, to Jesus for the suffering of the world.

This is our spirituality; our gift given to us that we may give back to God the fruits of our lives, namely those who embrace hope, joy and serenity in their darkest and dying hours; the ‘dying sinners’ whom today you would call those who are, or believe themselves to be, alienated from God’s love and mercy.

 Q. You speak about Mary’s ‘unceasing prayer of praise and thanksgiving’.

Mary Potter: As Mary stood on the heights of Calvary, her Magnificat of thanksgiving was in her heart unchanged. She gave thanks for the great things God had done for her. When she saw Jesus risen, how did her soul then magnify the Lord? How is she magnifying God now? (Through us). In moments of gladness and in hours of trial let us thank God for the grace to bear our sorrows. We live in the glad day of Christ’s Resurrection!

Taken from Mary Potter, The Human Life of Jesus, 1892.

Written and performed by Anita MacDonald, LCM, and Mary Scanlon, LCM, for the Aotearoa New Zealand Tonga Region Assembly, March 2002.