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Dame Catherine Gascoigne (1600-1676)

God alone...




Born into a staunchly Roman Catholic Yorkshire family, Catherine Gascoigne was unswerving in her desire to embrace the religious life, in which, to use her own words, 'she might the more seriously attend to God alone than if she were among kindred or acquaintance.' After overcoming many obstacles, including, via small pox, a beauty which some thought a barrier to her chosen state, she followed Helen More [link] and the other seven young Englishwomen who had gone into voluntary exile to undertake the monastic life proscribed in their own country. Catherine joined them at Douai where they were waiting to proceed to Cambrai in Flanders in order to found a Benedictine monastery there. Hers was a quiet, self-effacing but resolute character. She sought God alone, and Father Augustine Baker OSB [link] taught her how to find him. When all abandoned his teaching in the early years of the foundation, she remained loyal for Fr Baker had shown her how to discern God's call to her spirit, and nothing would deflect her from following that.

At the English Benedictine Congregation's Chapter of 1629, the community of nuns at Cambrai was judged to be ready to be governed by one of their own number (initially they had been helped by some generous nuns from Brussels). The choice fell upon Dame Catherine who was appointed abbess and apart from a short time, when she was asked to assist another community, continued to be re-elected every four years until her resignation in 1673.

When later the orthodoxy of Fr Baker's teaching was called into question, Abbess Catherine staunchly defended him and in obedience to superiors wrote a beautiful and succinct summary of her method of prayer which helped to vindicate Fr Baker of all charges. However, 1655 brought a further attempt to confiscate the Baker manuscripts and intimidate the Cambrai community into surrendering them. Abbess Catherine stood firm, refusing to allow the documents out of the house on the grounds that all had been minutely scrutinized and declared free from error at the 1633 General Chapter. She threatened to take the community out of the Congregation rather than comply but mercifully she was not obliged to carry out such a threat: the order was withdrawn and Fr Baker's teaching has continued to guide the nuns and many others in the way of prayer down to the present day.

Dame Catherine Gascoigne is a subject of the 'Oxford Dictionary of National Biography.'

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