Just under 169 years ago, a frail baby was born in a rented property in Old Jamaica Road, Bermondsey.
The child was weak and pathetic, with many heart and lung problems, and a bad cough that she would carry for the rest of her life. Her father, an erratic man, named her Mary before promptly fleeing to Australia, never to return.
It was an inauspicious start to life for a girl who would grow up to be described as “heroic” by the Pope.
Mary Potter was a person defined by contradiction: feeble of body yet incredibly strong of mind, a girl abandoned without thought by her father, who would go onto dedicate her life to faith and loyalty to God.
Her religious servitude began with a bang in around 1866 – an unfortunate fact for her hapless fiancée. Godfrey King, a friend of her brother, became smitten with Mary after they met aged 19.
Despite her frailty, Mary was a witty and intelligent young woman and Godfrey fell head over heels. They became engaged and were very happy – up until a point.
Godfrey was concerned that Mary was perhaps a bit too flighty – a worrying trait passed down from her father. He encouraged her to read some spiritual books to ground herself. To put it lightly, they had the desired effect.
In fact, the books did the trick so well that the pair fell in love all over again: Godfrey with Mary, and Mary, unfortunately for Godfrey, with Jesus Christ. Seeking advice on her unusual love triangle, Mary contacted the Bishop of Southwark, Thomas Grant – a reputable authority figure, certainly, but someone who surely had something of a vested interest in this sort of battle of the soul.
True to form, he told her in no uncertain terms: “The only spouse for you is Jesus Christ.” Godfrey was unceremoniously dumped soon after.
Mary, perhaps realising that Bermondsey was not an ideal place for a pious young woman, hopped on a train to Brighton, where she became a nun at the Sisters of Mercy.
Her health deteriorated by the coast, however, and her protective mother swooped down and collared her not long after her first year was up. To the shock of the other sisters, her mother tore into those present, declaring that her poor little girl was never to leave her side again – something that must have been somewhat embarrassing for Mary, who was put onto the first train back home to Southwark.
She spent two years recovering her health and seeking meaning in life. Godfrey, still single after more bad luck with women, renewed his offer of marriage.
Once again it seemed that his luckless affection merely pushed Mary further towards a life of religious servitude, and she spent many months in deep prayer at her Old Jamaica Road home. When she had recovered her health she made a startling announcement: she was going to create her own convent and, despite her ill-fated stint on the south coast, would spread the world of Christ across the world.
Her poor mother and the ever-smitten Godfrey must have been dismayed at her globe-trotting ambitions but there was no stopping her.
The ‘Little Company of Mary’, as she called her movement, began in Nottingham. Channelling the faith and devotion of the Virgin Mary, her group sought to ensure that “Jesus’ precious blood may not be shed in vain.”
She travelled to the Vatican, where Pope Leo XIII invited her to remain in the city and help the church – an incredible invitation that she rejected, instead helping to set up new Little Company of Mary groups in America, Italy, Australia and New Zealand.
All the while she suffered a variety of diseases, both exotic and mundane, from a haemorrhaging lung to typhoid fever.
She was also diagnosed with breast cancer after years of pain and underwent mastectomies in 1878 and 1878 – incredibly suffering the excruciating surgeries without anaesthesia due to the danger the sedative may have on her weak heart.
She continued her work despite her numerous ailments, vowing: “The day that I can no longer receive Our Lord in Holy Communion, Our Lord Himself will come to take me.”
That day finally came in 1913, when her body could take no more punishment and gave out due to a variety of medical problems. Her supporters continue her work to this day, while also pushing for her to be recognised as a saint.
In 1988, Pope John Paul II decried her ‘venerable’, the first step in the lengthy canonisation process.
The Holy See said: “It has been made evident that the servant of God, Mary Potter, foundress of the Little Company of Mary, practiced in a heroic decree the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity towards God and towards her neighbours, as well as the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, temperance and fortitude.” Not bad for a frail girl from Bermondsey.