Mary Peterson

In the spring of 1860 Father Elzear Torregiani, a Franciscan at the Capuchin Monastery at Pantasaph, Flintshire, North Wales, was sent to take charge of the mission at Pontypool. Vowed to a life of poverty he borrowed money for his train journey south and made a detour by way of Oxford where he was required to supply the place of a sick priest for Ascension day and the following Sunday. While in the city of Oxford Father Elzear met a young woman, Mary Peterson, who two years earlier had been received into the Catholic Church. She found her new faith had exposed her to personal hardship but, undaunted, she had been seeking to devote herself to some special work to the glory of God and had been praying earnestly for guidance

Listening to Father Elzear’s account of the circumstances under which he was travelling to take up his new mission, it seemed to Mary that this could be the answer to her prayer and the cause in which she could serve. Father’s description of the Franciscan rules of poverty and simplicity, the adoption of evangelical counsels and the supernatural imitation of the life of our Lord and his disciples. All these were the disciplines by which she felt she could fulfil herself.  She said, simply, “Father let me go and help you and live like a Franciscan among your poor people.”Father Elzear, accustomed to the privations of his chosen life, tried to discourage the girl and pointed out the poverty of the mission and the difficulty there would be even of finding a suitable lodging for her. “But”, he added, “if it be the will of God, He will show us the way.”

Mary’s expectation of the Catholic community at Pontypool was a sound prophecy: they were indeed poor. Even in the boomtown with its coal ad and iron industries, working people led lives that were incredibly hard and impoverished not only in worldly goods but in spiritual wealth too. Perhaps the Catholic families were the worst of all. They were the latest arrivals, immigrants from the appalling poverty and exploitation of Ireland where, a decade before, one and a half million souls had perished in five terrible years of famine and typhus. They had travelled to Wales in the holds of coal ships as a form of human ballast and had been landed on the coastline between Cardiff and Swansea from where they had made their way to settlements like Pontypool, hoping to find work and the possibility of providing for themselves. They spoke the old Celtic tongue of their sad and lovely island, occupied and oppressed foe centuries by alien and unsympathetic land owners. To distance them further, their faith was the old one and it had largely been put down in Wales and England for over two centuries. Like all new immigrants they fared worst for jobs and for status. Such were the Irish Catholics of Pontypool in 1860.

To this mission went father Elzear with a lay brother, explaining his presence to the people, receiving alms from those with very little to give and labouring to revive their faith. Breaking down the resistance and indifference of those who had been neglected and had suffered such hardships for years was a task daunting enough even for one so resolute as Father Elzear. Deciding to get the basic structure in order despite the seemingly impossible nature of the project, he resolved to begin with the new generation and provide a school for the children. Having first secured a room for her in a ramshackle house near the church, Father Elzear wrote to Mary Peterson. His leter, short and single, is an eloquent testimony to the good Father and his faith; it went:

“Dear Miss Peterson, I have found a lodging for you; so will you come as soon as possible, as I have no one to teach the poor children? All the people here are very poor but our Lord was born poor and lived poor and died poor so here you can be like Him. Wishing you every blessing, I remain, yours truly in Christ, F.E.

His confidence in Miss Peterson was not misplaced and he received a reply by return saying that she would arrive in Pontypool he following Monday. So began the education of Catholic children in Pontypool and Mary Peterson’s recollections of her arrival – written some years later in a letter – provide a valuable document about the social conditions of her time.

“On the 30th of July I started by an early train from Oxford, leaving its ‘domes and spires, gardens and groves bathed and glowing in the morning light; and in the course of some hours I was whirled away far from its atmosphere of refinement and repose, its learning and its grand traditions, into the heart of the coal and iron industry district of Monmouthshire. My destination was Pontypool, a town tolerably well known as one of the iron trade but in those days to ask at the Oxford ticket station for a ticket to Pontypool produced somewhat the same effect as to ask for one to Kamschatka. Towards evening however, I reached this land, unknown, as it seemed, to civilised cities, and had my first view of Pontypool. At a little distance it looked picturesque enough, with houses and cottages flung here and there on the side of the hills, and clustering together in the valleys; but to traverse its streets was another matter; narrow, roughly and imperfectly paved  and filthy, the houses badly built and some in ruins, dwellings and inmates alike coated over in wet grime and grease – it looked like a slice from the worst slums of London (with London briskness eliminated) cut down and planted there amongst the wild hills and valleys.

“After toiling up a steep and unsavoury street, a purer atmosphere was reached at last; there, high above the smoke and clamour, stood the Catholic Church throned like a queen. How thankful I was to see the cross on its roof and the glimmer of the sanctuary lamp from its windows.

It is a plain substantial-looking structure without any attempt at ornamentation, but thoroughly well-proportioned and good of its kind. The priest’s house- if house it could be called- consisted then of three small rooms adjoining the church and there the good capuchin father, with one lay brother, had taken up his abode. It was like a glimpse of Ital or a vision of medieval times, to see the rough habit, cord and sandals of Saint Francis, and like a whole meditation in itself  to see the simplicity and humility enshrined in the good father’s countenance and bearing.

Altogether with the sudden plunge from Oxford to this antipodes of Pontypool, the straggling, grimy town of the wild, irregular hills, the unkempt barbarous-looking people and then this oasis of rest in the church, where monks flitted around in habit and cowl, I felt as if dreaming an incongruous dream.

My lodging was near the church and consisted of one room reached by a steep and rickety staircase and my landlady, with great demonstrations of welcome, led me upstairs and confined me to my room, kindly declaring her intention of being a mother to me!

How thankful I was to be shut in at last and my joy was great to find that the window looked straight across to the sanctuary and that I should always be able to see the glimmer of the lamp burning before the most Holy. I was alone and friendless, cut off from my accustomed surroundings, an exile in a strange world; yet here was perfect rest and the sweetness of home.

The next day Mary went in search of the Catholic children, only to find their homes and surroundings far more hopeless and wretched than the street she had passed through on her way from the station. Most of them she found on the colliery tips and slag-heaps looking for cold. She explained to the rather incredulous mothers that she had come from a faraway place to teach and instruct their children and asked them t send them to the church the next day (there was no schoolroom) with clean hands and faces.  Their first reaction, when confronted with the stranger, was of complete defiance: they had so long been treated as outcasts and Pariahs but they and Miss Peterson soon got to know each other much better.

The following morning the church door opened wide and in rushed the hopeful youth of Pontypool. The sight of Father Elzear in his brown habit soon steadied them and soon there was perfect order.  Many of them had never seen a book and the Sign of the Cross was almost unknown; some could recite simple prayers and quite a few could say their prayers in Gaelic. These had been taught to them by their parents who, a few years earlier, had arrived in Pontypool from the South and West of Ireland.

After a few months of discipline and instruction and greatly encouraged by Father Elzear and the lay brother,  such progress had been made that planning was commenced to build a new school. Soon, everyone had the great joy of seeing its completion.

The greatest delight of the first pupils was to find new playmates and bring them along to the instructions. There was also a great demand for evening classes for young adults. Many of these came down from Abersychan where there were 1300 Irish people clustered around the very extensive ironworks.

The success achieved by the school was noted in the Pontypool Free Press in June 1863

“The Catholic school was examined by J.R. Morrell, Esq, the government inspector, who passed a high eulogium on Miss Peterson, the governess, for her assiduity, attention and general management. The school is attended by 130 scholars of both sexes”.

Father Elzear and his small band of Franciscans proceeded to build small churches, which could also be used as schoolrooms, at Abersychan, Blaenavon, Cwmbran, Abertillery and Risca. Father Elzear later deservedly became a bishop.

Mary Peterson married William Hambleton. She died in April 1878, aged 44. There were two daughters: Edith who died in 1935 and Frances, who died in 1945. Some of the members of St. Alban’s well remember the daughters.

Bishop Elzear and Miss Peterson were remarkable people of their time who came together at Pontypool and made a great contribution to Catholicism in the Eastern Valley that is enduring.

Places are more than contours of landscape; it is the people who live there and have lived there that matter.