MEET MARGARET SINCLAIR, THE SCOTTISH WONDER WORKER
I first heard of Venerable Margaret Sinclair in less than ideal circumstances. I was reading about the late Jimmy Savile when I learned that Savile's mother, Agnes Kelly had prayed to Venerable Margaret when her little Jimmy was two years old and he was dying. He recovered quickly and inexplicably and his mother believed on her soul that Venerable Margaret had interceded for him. This Autumn marks the tenth anniversary of Savile's death, those who are researching his early life may read about Venerable Margaret for the first time, and may be inclined to lump sordid sinner and saint together.
Perhaps it is just me who needs to extricate Venerable Margaret from being maligned by association with a most contemptible fellow, especially among my journo friends. When I mentioned to a clever friend of mine that I'd developed a devotion to Venerable Margaret, he replied, "Ugh, didn't she have something to do with Savile?"
In order to defend Margaret, I've had to study her life. There is an added urgency in that Pope Francis is set to visit Scotland in November and His Holiness may raise the question of furthering Margaret's cause of canonization.
In March 1900, Margaret was born in a three room basement flat of a derelict tenement in Edinburgh. Five decades later, the building was declared a slum and demolished. But at the time of Margaret's birth, it was a modest but very loving home to her and her five siblings. She was the daughter of a dustman who had become a zealous convert to Catholicism at the urgings of his devout wife. They named her Margaret to thread a link with Scotland's Catholic heritage. High above their heads at a great height over Edinburgh was the stone chapel which had been the personal oratory of the Queen and Pearl of Scotland, St Margaret.
The Sinclairs had no privilege, but they had deep piety. The family Rosary was offered every night and they were seen everyday at St Patrick's, their local church. Margaret benefitted from Pope Saint Pius X's exhortation to frequent Communions and she did her utmost to receive as often as possible.
From her earliest years, Margaret had to make hard sacrifices. When her mother fell ill, she had to stay off school and earn some pennies working as a chargirl, scrubbing floors. Her mother was tempted to despair at times and Margaret would raise her spirits with her rallying cry, "Dinnae give in!" Everything intensified when her father had to leave for France to fight in the trenches of World War I.
Margaret then left school for good and became a French polisher. She was esteemed by her employers for her incredible work ethic and the quality of her craft. One day, she found a picture of Mary Immaculate on a pile of rubbish. Promptly, she dusted it, kissed it and hung it over her workshop. Her boss took it down, but Margaret retrieved it and re-hung it. But then her boss removed it again. So, every morning Margaret had to find and re-hang the picture. When she left, however, she got a glowing reference.
In spite of her grueling workload and the pressures on her to provide for her family, Margaret grew into a strikingly beautiful lass. Her hair, which was cut in a fashionable bob had a ginger sheen. She had a look of Maud Gonne, but her warm smile meant she surpassed the rather glum-faced Gonne. Soon she attracted a young lad, Pat Lynch, who had been badly traumatised in the trenches and had abandoned his Catholic faith. Margaret took pains to bring him back into the fold.
Pat, however, put the mad into madly in love, and he tried to emotionally blackmail Margaret into marrying him by threatening to commit suicide if she didn't. Margaret was almost manipulated, but she felt a calling to be a Poor Clare nun and she rebuffed Pat in a most compassionate way that did not further wound this troubled fellow. Margaret was blessed with a most astute spiritual director, a certain Fr Thomas Agius. When he asked her why she wanted to be a Poor Clare, she said it was because she wanted to suffer with Jesus. She had a particular reliance on the power of the Holy Name. When she felt herself tempted, she offered the Name ten times and always felt the temptation pass.
The Poor Clares of her beloved Edinburgh could not give her a place and so she left her clan and went to London where the sisters of Notting Hill welcomed her. Her first day was not promising. She was walking in their halls when she collapsed in tears. The more reserved English sisters kept their distance from this newcomer who was showing herself to be an emotional Celt. But as she sobbed and roamed the halls that day, she met a priest who was visiting to give the nuns a retreat. They sat in the parlor together and he comforted her, and again the other nuns were surprised at Margaret's natural resilience, that she made a friend when she was having a wobbly.
Her first day tears were soon forgotten as she settled in and amazed the other sisters with her appetite for hard graft. She was given the name Sister Mary Francis of the Five Wounds, perhaps the most fitting name ever for a Franciscan because it honors the Mother of Christ, the founder and the wounds of Christ which Francis bore.
But she wasn't universally popular. An older nun poked fun at her accent. Then there was Lily James, another young nun who had a strong suspicion of the Scotch sister's sanctity and she was hotly jealous.
Margaret's superiors gave her the post of extern which meant she had a role outside the convent. She solicited money and begged for food. She strolled around nearby Portobello Market and brought home vegetables and fruit donated by the sellers.
One day on a London bus, Margaret sat next to a woman who was horribly consumptive and coughing wildly, but rather than move and hurt the woman's feelings, Margaret kept her company but caught the white plague.
Her heart ached when she had to leave Notting Hill and go to the Vincentian Sisters in Warley where they nursed her in her last agony. Her beloved spiritual director, Fr Agius came and discovered she was having deathbed ecstasies. As she lay dying, there was one last trial when a bee stung her throat and caused her horrible pain, but Margaret said, "It is but a splinter of the Cross." She breathed her last with the Name of Jesus on her lips. She was only 25.
As she was so efficient in life, those who pray to Margaret are astounded at how promptly she intercedes for them. She is known particularly as one who helps souls to have a holy death. Margaret's close peer, Lily James nursed a resentment of Margaret's holiness all her life, until she was in her nineties and so terrified of dying that she called on Margaret to assist her in dying. Lily had a beautifully peaceful passing.
Despite a current trend to brand Margaret as "an ordinary girl", and make her relatable, this is done in contradiction to the facts. On a personal level, she had a most extraordinary charisma as well as exemplary resourcefulness. There is also the question of her exceptional holiness, pray that it were so common as to be ordinary.
I wrote this column for The Latin Mass Society Magazine, Autumn 2021 edition. You may read the entire magazine here.
The classic painting of St Francis that accompanies this post was executed by Jusepe de Ribera in 1639.