A great grandmother has spoken of her joy as her aunt was placed on the road to canonisation by the Diocese of Rome.
Sister Katherine Flanagan and Mother Riccarda Beauchamp Hambrough were declared Servants of God at a ceremony at the Vicariate of Roma on Monday, marking the first step toward canonisation.
The London-born pair both belonged to a revived order of Bridgettine sisters nicknamed “the hot cross bun nuns” because of the distinctive crosses covering the tops of their wimples.
The niece of Sister Katherine said she was still shocked to learn that she might have a saint in the family.
“I am still just recovering,” said Mrs Whitehead, 72, who lives near Shaftesbury in Dorset. “You just can’t take it in. This is just so odd. This is really, really strange.”
She said that her father, Hugh, was convinced that his elder sister was a very special person, however.
“My father was desperately fond of her,” said Mrs Whitehead. “He thought she was a very holy person and what she was doing was wonderful. He seriously looked up to her.
“She was equally fond of my father and he was the only brother she ever saw.”
She added: “I just wish I knew more about her. I have her rosary beads that she would have worn around her neck.”
Born Florence Catherine in Clerkenwell in July 1892, Sister Katherine was eldest of five children to a solicitor’s clerk, William, and his wife, Florence.
She became a dressmaker before she left the family home in Wimbledon Park for Rome, at the age of 19, in November 1911 with the aim of becoming a nun.
She went on to become the first prioress of new convents in Iver Heath, Buckinghamshire, Lugano, Switzerland, and Vadstena, Sweden, where she died in 1941.
Mrs Whitehead, who visited her aunt’s grave at the convent in Sweden with her parents in 1980, said the efforts of Sister Katherine to re-establish the order often met with hostility. She said that her aunt and her nuns were spat at in the street on their arrival in Stockholm.
The order has since spread to 19 countries, however, and today has thousands of members.
Sister Katherine thought she had said farewell to her family for good when her father, William, decided to emigrate to Australia between the wars. But her parents and one of her brothers – Mrs Whitehead’s father – later returned and would visit her while she was prioress of the new convent in Iver Heath.
Mrs Whitehead said that when her father visited his sister’s grave the family was struck by the sense of reverence among the nuns for Sister Katherine.
She said they were continually approached by people who wanted to tell her father how honoured they were to meet the nun’s brother.A year after Sister Katherine joined the order the future Mother Riccarda – born Madaleina Catherine in 1887 – also journeyed to Rome to become a Bridgettine nun.
She became deputy of the Order of the Most Holy Saviour of St Bridget and remained at the mother house in the Italian capital.
In the early years of the Second World War she worked with refugees and casualties of the fighting. But when Italy changed sides and Rome became occupied by the Nazis she found herself at the centre of an enterprise which could have cost her life.
In October 1943 the SS began to round up the city’s Jews for deportation to the gas chambers of Auschwitz but Mother Riccarda began to smuggle them into her convent. Jewish people have given evidence to the Catholic Church of Mother Riccarda’s kindness towards them. They say they nicknamed her “Mama” and felt they could ask her for anything.
Yad Vashem, the Holocaust remembrance authority in Jerusalem, has already honoured the work of the Sisters by naming their foundress and superior, Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hasselblad, as a “righteous gentile”.
Mother Riccarda finally became the head of the order and died in Rome in 1966 at the age of 79. Her body lies in the convent where she hid Jews from persecution.