Illustrious Women: Sr Agnes Xavier Trail
One of Scotland's first Religious after the Reformation.
The story of Sister Agnes Xavier Trail is an extraordinary story of one woman’s conversion to Catholicism and commitment to religious life. Ann Agnes Trail was born at Panbride, Forfar on the sixteenth of February 1798. Her father was a Church of Scotland minister and she was baptised on the twenty-fifth of February. She had a great and enduring respect for her mother and father and described her father as a pious and kindly man. She was brought up in the Church of Scotland, and as a young girl, she was very devotional and enjoyed reading the scriptures. However, even at a young age, she wrestled with the ideas of the elect and the damned and her own destiny. When she was fourteen she was asked to teach her younger brothers and sisters and this occupied her for eight hours a day and proved to have a calming effect on her religious scruples. Her journey of conversion to Catholicism is fascinating and well documented in letters she sent to the Reverend Thomas Glover, SJ.
As a young woman she moved to Ireland for two years to live with cousins. Following their example, she engaged in educational work and social care. She taught poor children in the ‘ladies charity school’ for a few hours on a number of days during the week and also on a Sunday. She visited the sick in hospital, taught those who could not read how to read, delivered religious instruction and she visited the poor in their homes. She stated that she:
learned to feel for human misery, and to deny myself any superfluity, that I might have the wherewithal to relieve at least a small portion of the distressing poverty with which I was surrounded.
Ann Agnes recounts that through her close reading of scripture and deliberations she sought perfect Christianity. Interestingly, this search served to remove all barriers to those of other denominations whom she believed to be sincere believers in Jesus Christ. This openness to other denominations would help facilitate her conversion to Catholicism. At this point in her life, she also discerned that a single life was the best route for her to serve God.
She left Ireland for London to pursue her painting of miniatures under a ‘first rate artist’, Andrew Robertson and then left for Italy in 1826 to progress her skills in art. At this time, she viewed Catholicism as a mix of superstition and possibly idolatry preferring an internalised religious life to the external expressions of Catholicism. Over time she began to understand the deeper meanings behind the liturgical and para-liturgical practices in the Catholic church; beggining to recognise a sincere faith in the Catholic clergy and faithful – in some ways, in her view, a more authentic manifestation of Christianity than in the Protestant traditions. She found herself questioning why a denomination that she understood to be so full of error seemed to be ‘imbued with the genuine spirit of Christianity’ and was deeply sensitive about the divisions in Christianity perceiving them to be counter to the unity of Christianity. These divisions she encountered first in the divisions within Protestantism and then becoming offended by the anti-Catholic rhetoric of Protestants in Rome.
One evening at a party Monsignor Zacchia, later Cardinal Zacchia, offered to explain Catholicism to her and respond to any objections she might have, which she accepted.
After a number of very animated encounters she left Rome to tour Northern Italy with some friends. He asked her to read Forest’s Method of Instruction for the Protestants, to bring them back to the Church of Rome (this volume might appear anachronistic to the modern reader). In Florence she received communion at a Protestant service for the last time. She went to Parma on her own to continue her painting but with no access to a Protestant church there, she prayed in the local Catholic churches. Ann Agnes began to meet with an elderly Franciscan friar and engaged in deep conversation about the Catholic faith. While on this spiritual journey, she was constantly aware of the pain a conversion to Catholicism would cause her parents and family. Leaving Parma on All Souls day to return to Rome, she began to question the circumstances of the reformation. As part of her artistic work, she frequented St Peters every day and while there prayed at the altar of the Blessed Sacrament. This was of great significance to her journey, as the Real Presence had been a major stumbling block for her. She met Rev. Anthony Magee, a fellow countryman, who was one of the friars of SS Apostoli and who instructed her and gave her books in English. She asked to be introduced to the English Bishop, the Right Rev Dr Baines who also helped her. It was fortuitous that these two spoke in her native tongue. Mr Burgess, a Protestant clergyman in Rome tried to change her mind but to no avail. Similarly, zealous Protestants tried to dissuade her. She wrote to her parents about her intentions and they asked her to delay any decision and to return home. Nevertheless, on the 16th June 1828 she professed the abjuration of error and was admitted into the Catholic Church in the presence of Cardinal Odescalchi, Bishop Baines, Zacchia, Rev. Anthony Magee (and others). After this, she socialised with some of the leading English Catholic ladies and they supported her in deepening her understanding of the faith.
She was anxious to be a religious sister, but she wanted to return home to Scotland and live and work as a religious in her own country.
She spent some weeks in the summer of 1828 in Subiaco, returned to Rome for the winter before setting off on the sixth of June 1829 back home to Panbride at the end of August. Her family were unhappy with her decision, but in time they became reconciled to her conversion and her father, in particular, did not want to alienate his daughter. The painting of miniatures had strained her eyes and she left for London in October 1830 to consult an eminent oculist. She stayed at a Benedictine convent in Hammersmith where she remained for a number of years. She was anxious to be a religious sister, but she wanted to return home to Scotland and live and work as a religious in her own country. At that point there were no religious orders and congregations in existence in the post Reformation Scotland. She prayed earnestly that her aspirations could be realised. This was when she met James Gillis.
Rev James Gillis (later Bishop Gillis) had been sent to France in 1828 by Bishop Paterson to collect money for the repair of St Mary’s Chapel, Broughton Street, Edinburgh. Gillis, a fluent French speaker, raised a considerable sum and while in France met with the Rev Louis Marie Baudouin who had founded a congregation of religious women called Ursulines of Jesus in 1802. The congregation was founded to teach young ladies of the upper and middle classes and the poor. Gillis was convinced that the reestablishment of religious orders in Scotland would aid the recovery of the Church. He was en route to another trip to the continent to raise funds to establish the Ursulines in Edinburgh when he met Ann Agnes Trail. Gillis encouraged Ann Agnes to join the Ursulines of Jesus and help establish the congregation in Edinburgh.
By the seventeenth of April 1833, Gillis informed Ann Agnes that he has the bishop’s permission to establish a convent. Miss Margaret Clapperton, a young Catholic woman from Fochabers heard of the plans for the proposed convent in Edinburgh and she joined Ann Agnes in London. They both went to Chavagnes to become novices of the Ursulines of Jesus, arriving on the thirty first of August 1833. On the sixth of October, they were both veiled. Miss Ann Agnes trail adopted the religious name Sister Agnes Xavier and Miss Clapperton adopted Sister Margaret Teresa. There was great excitement among the French sisters about the proposed convent in Scotland and many were eager join Sister Agnes Xavier and Sister Margaret Teresa. Sister Agnes Xavier taught English to the sisters in preparation for the trip and she also taught painting. In the end a party of eleven left for Scotland in 1834. Reverend Gillis had secured a large house and garden called Whitehouse in the south of Edinburgh and he converted it for use as a convent. The sisters took possession of the convent on December twenty-sixth, 1834. Mr Menzies, a wealthy Catholic benefactor, bought Greenhill cottage nearby and took Mr Gillis there as private chaplain.
She had a great respect for the Holy See throughout her life. She was ‘artistic’ and possessed a highly cultivated intellect.
The first pupils arrived in St Margaret’s in 1835 including Helen Grant who would later help found St Catherine’s convent of mercy in Edinburgh. Four postulants also arrived - two choir and two lay sisters. On the sixteenth of June 1835, the chapel was opened, and the postulants were formally received. Some of the sisters lived in Milton House in Edinburgh and were known as daughters of charity. They took charge of the Catholic poor schools in Edinburgh in 1835. They also opened a small dispensary and provided medicine to the poor for free. These sisters also distributed food to the poor. Later, some of the sisters were asked to move to Perth to visit the poor and instruct the female prisoners in Perth prison. On the twenty-second of July 1838 Mr Gillis became bishop and coadjutor of Eastern district and remained an avid supporter of St Margaret’s till his death.
In 1840 on the Feast of St Andrew, Sister Agnes Xavier Trail and Sister Margaret Teresa Clapperton made solemn vows, with two French sisters. This was the first time religious had been solemnly professed in Scotland for centuries. Sister Agnes Xavier taught Christian doctrine and sacred history in the school and, of course, art. The descriptions of her provide a picture of a holy woman with a deep faith who was immersed in scriptures and the love of God. She had a great respect for the Holy See throughout her life. She was ‘artistic’ and possessed a ‘highly cultivated intellect’. Nevertheless, she was a strong character. She was ‘a plain speaker who never gave offence’ and had a ‘strength of mind’ . She was devoted to her life in the convent and to her prayer life and teaching duties. Her relatives became regular visitors to the convent. After the death of Bishop Gillis in 1864 her own health started to decline. On the twenty-second of November 1872, she became quite ill and she died on the third of December, most fittingly, on the feast of St Francis Xavier.
Her journey of conversion was a complicated process that involved contact with a number of key people who influenced her, careful reading of books, deep thinking, meditation, prayer and a profound faith in Jesus Christ and the message of the gospels. She became one of the sisters who helped to found the first religious house in post-Reformation Scotland and was committed to school education, as would be the case for many of the female religious who were established in Scotland after them.