Anyone entering St Joseph’s church will have to walk around a tall cross, surrounded by bedding plants in the front garden. It marks the burial ground of Margaret Coulston (1823-1909) – a woman of considerable means and a woman without whom there would be no St Joseph’s church, no Presbytery, and no St Joseph’s school. A small photo taken of her towards the end of her life shows her to be a formidable woman.
Margaret’s family wealth had accrued through the nineteenth century through land acquisitions, and through dividends from her family's banking and railway shares. With the death of her brother, Margaret became the sole heiress to this fortune. She outlived her seven siblings, one of whom was a priest, another was a Carmelite nun (Mother Mary Francis - more on her and her influence later), and another died in the Austrian Army in 1833.
Another line of business for the Coulston family had been the tanning trade. Using land which had been the Syke Tanyard, Margaret commissioned Pugin to design the school-chapel in 1896, before having her own house (the present presbytery) built in 1898 and St Joseph’s church in 1901.
Amongst the books at St Joseph’s, a young parishioner called Carina, recently found a copy of Margaret Coulston’s prayer journal. From the outside it was indistinguishable from the other books on the shelf, but upon opening it, the young person found a treasure trove of prayers and devotions, all beautifully written with quill and ink, which reveal much of Margaret’s spiritual life, and giving us a unique insight into the strength of faith of this woman who desired to give everything she had to the service of God and the building up of His Kingdom.
Margaret had a particular devotion to Venerable Mother Margaret Mostyn (see above), perhaps on account that this abbess shared her own name, but more likely on account of the fact that her sister, Mother Mary Francis Coulston, was a successor in Darlington to the Venerable Margaret Mostyn. Margaret Mostyn’s life takes us back to the dark times of repression and persecution for Catholics. Her indomitable faith led her on an eventful journey via Weymouth and Le Havre to Antwerp, leaving the shores of England in the mid-seventeeth century in order to found a Carmelite community in Lierre in the Netherlands which remained there until times when it was possible to found the house in England. Mother Margaret Mostyn had many mystical experiences and visions, and her fortitude in the face of persecution and faith in times of adversity was clearly an inspiration to Margaret Coulston, especially at a time when Catholicism was attempting to re-establish itself in Lancaster, long renowned for its execution of Catholic priests and people.
Within Margaret Coulston’s prayer journal, there is clear evidence of the powerful influence of her Carmelite sister’s spirituality with a transcription of the Carmelite Rule and the history of the Lierre community together with a litany to St Teresa of Avila. The European background of the Darlington Carmel is shown by a wealth of quotations from many northern European saints who would have been popular in the Netherlands and continued to be so with the Carmelites in Northern England: St Gertrude of Helfta and St Mechtilde of Magdeborg who both fostered devotion to the holy souls in Purgatory. Indeed the Sacred Heart side altar at St Joseph’s has a statue of St Gertrude to remind us to pray for the holy souls.
In the journal, there is also evidence of the influence of English convert Fr Frederick William Faber of the Brompton Oratory and Faith of our Fathers fame and many of the traditional devotions to the sacred infancy of Jesus, the passion and wounds of Christ, the sorrows of Mary, the Sacred Heart, the Divine Will, together with a novena to St Mary Magdalene, excerpts from the writings of St Francis Xavier and St Jean-Marie Vianney, the Curé d’Ars, litanies to the angels, prayers of offering and consecration, prayers for the conversion of England, and prayers for virtues, particularly that of humility. Of particular significance to Margaret Coulston are prayers to prepare oneself for a happy death.
In the Journal, there is even a special prayer for the parish priest, which I can only recommend: ‘Vouchsafe, O Lord, I beseech thee to adorn his soul with all those virtues which form a holy priest. Grant to him the faith of St Peter, the charity of St Paul, the zeal of St Charles, the firmness of St John Chrysostom, the evangelical liberty of St Ambrose, the piety of St Bernard, the penitential spirit of David, the amiableness of St Francis de Sales, the humility of St Vincent of Paul. Direct him in all his actions that after being here a prudent and faithful dispenser of thy mysteries that he may receive from thee that bright crown reserved for a priest whose whole life has been consecrated to thy glory, to the salvation of souls, and to his own sanctification. Amen’.
And finally, and mysteriously, one of the things that dropped out of the journal when it was first examined, was a prayer card (first edition), with a picture of Blessed John Bosco, who was beatified in 1929. I wonder what our four-legged friend would make of that, all these years later?
And so, when you pass that cross on the way into the church, pause and spare a moment to pray for Margaret Coulston, our benefactress, and thank God for her kindness and generosity which has done so much to help to build up God’s kingdom in Skerton. And may we be inspired by her example to commit ourselves to a life of prayer and almsgiving, devotion and service to those around us.
Eternal Rest, grant unto her, O Lord, and let perpetual light shine upon her.