British nuns who saved wartime Jews on path to sainthood

Tucked away on a side street on the east bank of the Tiber, the Casa di Santa Brigidia guesthouse has specialised in welcoming weary travellers for much of the past century.

Run by the Bridgettine nuns, it is a place of tranquillity in the heart of Rome. During the Second World War the guesthouse's reputation as a sanctuary was cemented when the nuns risked their lives to harbour more than 60 Jewish refugees following the arrival of German troops in 1943.

Now, more than 65 years after the nuns opened their doors to those refugees, the Vatican has signalled its plans to put three of the order's most prominent figures, two of whom were British, on the road to sainthood. On 5 July the Vatican will declare Mother Riccarda Beauchamp Hambrough and Sister Katherine Flanagan as "servants of God", the first official step towards sainthood.

If their saintliness is proven – a process that can take decades and requires at least two miracles to be attributed to each of them – they will become the first female British Catholics to be canonised in four decades.

Along with Blessed Mary Elizabeth Hasselblad, a Swedish-born Lutheran who converted to Catholicism, the three sisters set about reviving the Bridgettines, a Swedish order of nuns that was once highly influential in medieval Europe but was decimated during the Reformation. Sister Katherine was away from Rome during the war and could not help with Jewish refugees, but the Vatican believes all three women have enough of a cause to be considered for canonisation.

Much of the evidence collected so far has concentrated on how Mother Riccarda and Blessed Mary Elizabeth hid scores of Jewish families in their own quarters as Nazi troops, with their Italian fascist allies, scoured Rome for Jews. Joanna Bogle, a British author who is writing a book about the two nuns, said they took an enormous risk in hiding Jews.

"Although orders of nuns were given a certain level of diplomatic immunity, the punishment for hiding Jews would still have been death," she said. "There was a police station just opposite the guesthouse and the Jews could have been discovered at any minute. Although no one was caught, everyone suffered together because food had to be shared out amongst all those hiding there."

Much of what is known about the nuns' actions comes from a single testimony by Piero Piperno, who was a teenager when he sought refuge with the Bridgettines. The 80-year-old is now one of the only people who was old enough at the time of the war to recall what happened. He has testified to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints, although much of his evidence remains sealed.

Last year he explained how Mother Riccarda, who had arrived in Rome from Britain in her early twenties, was dubbed "mammina" (little mother) by the refugees. "[Mother Riccarda] was all sweetness and sympathy," he recalled. "She was always around, and everybody went to her when they had any kind of problem. She was very comforting."

The only known photograph of Mother Riccarda shows her wearing glasses and the Bridgettines' trademark striped habit which has caused the order to be dubbed "The Hot Cross Bun Nuns".

Little is know about her time in the UK other than that she was born into a Protestant family on the Isle of Wight, baptised into Catholicism at the age of four in Brighton and later went to school in Cumbria.

Compared to John Henry Newman, who will be beatified by Pope Benedict during his visit to Britain later this summer, the Bridgettine nuns have had few champions for their cause outside of their order. "There has been very little lobbying to make the nuns saints," said Mrs Bogle. "I think that is a bit of a shame. They were a remarkable bunch of women who did extraordinary things."

How the church names a saint

* The process can take decades or even centuries. In the 11th century, Pope John XV began laying the foundations for a series of official rites that all potential saints had to pass.

* Technically, a person can only be considered a saint five years after their death, although Pope Benedict XVI waived that particular rule for his predecessor John Paul II, who also waived it for Mother Teresa.

* The first step is to be declared a "servant of God". Officials draw up highly detailed studies of everything a candidate said and wrote, as well as a biography. The documents are then passed to the Congregation for the Causes of the Saints.

* Successful candidates are declared "Venerable" as investigators look for evidence of miracles, usually unexplained medical cures caused by praying. Candidates are then beatified, which amounts to a public declaration that the person is in heaven. Only when the miracles are officially "approved" is the candidate made a full saint.

On the Vatican's files

Elizabeth Prout

The founder of the Passionists order of nuns, Sister Prout (1820–1864) spent her life working in Manchester's sprawling slums. She has already been declared a Servant of God. Vatican officials are reportedly investigating two "miracles".

Mary Potter

Like Sister Prout, Mary Potter (1847–1913) founded her own order of nuns – the Little Company of Mary Sisters. She was declared "venerable" in 1988 by Pope John Paul II but little has since been heard of her canonization cause.

Margaret Sinclair

Sinclair (1900–1925) moved to London from her native Scotland in her early twenties and joined the Poor Clares, but died two years later of tuberculosis. Jimmy Saville's mother claimed her son was healed from a fall because she prayed to Sinclair.

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