Petre, Maude (1863–1942)

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Petre, Maude (1863–1942)

English Catholic modernist writer and activist who championed the excommunicated Jesuit George Tyrrell. Born in Coptfold Hall, Essex, England, in 1863; died in London, England, of a respiratory ailment in December 1942; one of ten children of Arthur Petre and Lady Catherine Howard Petre, a Catholic convert; never married; no children of her own.

Joined the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, the Filles de Marie (1890); took vow of perpetual celibacy (1901); published book Catholicism and Independence and left her leadership position in the Filles de Marie (1907); papal condemnations of modernism with encyclical letters Pascendi and Lamentabili (1907); death of George Tyrrell (1909); published Autobiography and Life of George Tyrrell (1912); published Modernism: Its Failure and its Fruits (1918); published her spiritual autobiography, My Way of Truth (1937).

From the Reformation to the early 19th century, Roman Catholics were a small and despised minority in England, subject to punitive fines for non-attendance in Anglican churches, barred from voting, office-holding, military service, and other civil privileges, and often suspected by their neighbors of disloyalty to the crown. The old religion was kept alive largely by a group of landed aristocrats and gentry, among whom the Petre family was one of the wealthiest and most distinguished. In 1829, Parliament "emancipated" Catholics by giving them the vote and abolishing other civil disabilities, and in the following decades English Catholicism began to flourish, but now the lead was taken by a group of intellectually powerful converts from Anglicanism, led by John Henry Newman and Henry Manning. The "old" Catholics, despite their religion, were suspicious of Rome, and tried to keep Vatican directives at arm's length whereas many of the converts were eager "Romanizers," who aimed to build up Roman authority as a counter-weight to government power. Maude Petre, true to family tradition, spent much of her life opposing the spread of Roman influence in British Catholicism, and in trying to reconcile her faith with modern intellectual life, rather than seeing it become isolated as an intellectual backwater.

She was born in 1863 in Coptfold Hall, Essex, England, the daughter of Arthur Petre and Lady Catherine Howard Petre . Maude's father was a younger son of the 13th Lord Petre, and Maude was herself one of ten children. They grew up free of material worries, conscious of being set apart from society because of their religion, and rarely in the company of outsiders. Petre wrote later:

I did not attract men as a young girl; had I done so my fate might have been different; for I was exceedingly inflammable myself, though I did not kindle the flame in others. Of course I was not beautiful; I was badly dressed whereas I required careful dressing. I was overwhelmingly shy with outsiders, especially with men near my own age. We had not been taught to bring our goods to the market, and I had a crushing sense of propriety. All this was enough to keep me in the shade.

As a teenager she suffered from religious doubts, feared death and damnation, and was told by her confessor that she could settle her conscience once and for all by studying scholastic theology in Rome. Following his advice, she took rooms with a Roman widow for a year and began to study under a priest (with a chaperon sitting in on all lessons), showing exceptional skill. Rome itself was not to her liking: "How well I remember my visits to the different shrines in Rome, and how I endeavoured to find devotion before statues that actually repelled me. What a horror I conceived of that great statue of the Madonna of St. Agostino … and yet how I prayed before it in spite of my dislike!" English Catholic devotions tended to be far more sober than the flamboyant baroque style she found there.

For a time, Petre's studies had the desired effect of settling her scruples, and, when she returned to England to become a religious journalist, she delivered some solid blows for orthodoxy against the "fashionable intellectual fog" of her era, wrote Clyde Crews. In 1890, aged 27, she entered a religious community of women, the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary, not planning to enter a convent, but rather to bear witness to her faith while still working in the world. Rising rapidly in the organization, she became its superior in 1896 and dedicated herself to helping new converts to Catholicism, and to social work in settlement houses and orphanages around London. Petre was at the same time a prolific contributor to the English Catholic periodicals and, in 1896, published a biography of Peter Claver.

In the late 19th century, the Catholic Church under popes Pius IX and Leo XIII rejected many recent advances in science and opposed much of the political transformation of Europe. It tried to build for itself a fortress against the outside world. Just as the pope walled himself into the tiny Vatican State rather than join the newly unified nation of Italy, so his coreligionists tried to insulate themselves against evolutionary theory, historical-critical study of the Bible, comparative religion, and modern philosophy and psychology. One symbol of this Catholic effort was the declaration, at the First Vatican Council (1869–70), of papal infallibility on questions of faith and morals. Another was the Syllabus of Errors (1864), which aimed to prevent Catholics from reading about the most creative theories of their non-Catholic contemporaries. When a few priests and scholars, unhappy with the fortress mentality, tried to adapt their faith to the changing world, the Vatican reacted by silencing and excommunicating them, placing their works on the index of prohibited books.

The most prominent Catholic modernists in England were George Tyrrell, an Irish-born convert to Catholicism who had trained as a Jesuit priest, and Baron Friedrich von Hugel, an Anglo-German aristocrat and scholar. Maude Petre first met Tyrrell in 1896, and they rapidly developed a firm friendship, with him acting for a time as her confessor. Petre appears to have fallen deeply in love with Tyrrell, and he became the central figure in her life. Under his guidance, she began to write a detailed diary of her spiritual development and her increasing openness to intellectual currents in the wider world. As his biographer Nicholas Sagovsky has shown, Tyrrell was often unkind to Petre; at times, he found her attentions cloying and almost stifling. At other times, however, he was appreciative of her intense concern for him. In a letter of 1900, for example, he explained his current difficulties with his superiors at length to her, adding:

I tell you all this because your heart is mine, and I want at least one confessor in whom I can trust. You just prevent me turning into stone, and then when I think how inaccessible you must always be, I feel harder than ever and put you out of my mind lest you should weaken my ruthlessness to no purpose.

They were both aware of the barriers between the fulfillment of their love, and no impropriety marred their long and ardent relationship. She admitted to herself that her love for him was so intense that "nothing else mattered on earth or in heaven" and that for his sake she "could accept slavery or ill-treatment."

To add a safeguard to their relationship, she took a vow of perpetual celibacy in 1901 and struggled to sublimate her feelings: "I pray that God may give [Tyrrell] those spiritual embraces, that spiritual closeness, which I desire, not perhaps carnally, but tangibly and sensibly." She longed to be close to him, and when the Jesuits sent Tyrrell from London to Richmond, York-shire, Petre went to live in lodgings close by, accompanied by her two nephews. Villagers soon began to gossip about the Tyrrell-Petre relationship, abetted by Petre's sister-in-law, who disliked her. Tyrrell, already in trouble with his superiors for his modernist writings, reluctantly asked Maude to leave Richmond to silence the rumors, but wrote at the time: "I never felt anything more deeply than the pain of telling her … nor did I ever realize before how much I really cared for her and depended on her companionship and sympathy. I am almost afraid the separation will kill her."

Through the following years, Petre befriended the other principal modernists, including von Hugel and Henri Bremond, a French Jesuit, and entered into extensive correspondence with them. She was at this period following Tyrrell into "immanentism," the idea that in our everyday lives we find manifestations of the divine; that, for example, the love of two people for one another is an avenue of God's love for mankind. That insight encouraged her to explore widely in the contemporary world for religious insight, rather than confining herself in the much narrower scholastic channels approved by the official church. Two books she wrote in the early 20th century, Where Saints Have Trod (1903) and The Soul's Orbit (1904), were adventurous and outward looking by the standards of her era, encouraging her readers to question their faith, using it as a springboard to their experience of the outside world rather than just accepting it passively and shying away from the unfamiliar. Petre also took a new look at asceticism, praising it as a form of self-mastery in God's honor, but criticizing the self-destructive forms it sometimes took and the distorted vanity it often contained. She now contributed frequently to the Catholic press in America as well as England, and in 1904–05 was writing about contemporary European philosophers, including a six-part series on Friedrich Nietzsche, for The Catholic World, a journal of the American Paulist Fathers. Her diary from this period shows an intense self-education in the major philosophical and religious authors of the day, along with prolific "modernist" responses to them.

The climax of Catholic anti-modernism came with Pope Pius X's encyclical letter Pascendi and a new syllabus of condemned propositions, Lamentabili (both 1907), which prohibited Catholics from reading, writing, and speculating on a broad range of "modernist" issues, and required of all priests an oath of loyalty. This was also the year in which Petre published Catholicism and Independence, urging the priority of the individual conscience over the authority of priests and bishops, and contrasting the "visible Church," with its fallible human material, to the "invisible Church," immortal and unfailing. The archbishop of Westminster, Cardinal Bourne, urged her to withdraw the book, but she refused, and this defiance led to her dismissal from leadership of the Society of the Daughters of the Heart of Mary. She wrote to an Anglican friend that "a reign of terror" had begun in the Catholic community, adding that she felt "downright ashamed that such mean and ignorant men should be able to do such harm."

Despite all her efforts to preserve Tyrrell in his priesthood, he refused to accept the pope's terms; he was dismissed from the Jesuit order in 1906 and excommunicated in 1907. Petre offered him a house on the grounds of the convalescent home she had founded in Storrington, Sussex, and emphatically refused to evict him when her bishop said she should not be harboring a condemned modernist. Only two years later, in 1909, he was dead, of Bright's disease, the affliction which had also killed her father. Petre was with him to the end, and the drama of his deathbed was increased by the presence of Norah Shelley , another of Tyrrell's female admirers, whom Petre bitterly resented. As soon as he had breathed his last, Petre wrote to several prominent newspapers to declare publicly that although he had willingly received the sacraments he had not recanted his ideas on his deathbed. She feared that the Jesuits would circulate rumors to the contrary. Certain of Tyrrell's rightness, Petre did not want his life and death turned into a pious tale of ultimate submission. Bishop Amigo of Southwark, the ordinary for Sussex, retaliated by denying Tyrrell a burial in the Catholic graveyard. Instead, he was laid to rest in the Anglican churchyard nearby.

Church officials punished Petre by denying her access to the sacraments until she signed a declaration of submission to Pascendi and Lamentabili, which she resolutely refused to do. Instead she published a long open letter, "To my fellow Catholics," in the London Times, reasserting her commitment to intellectual openness in the Church, defending the memory of Tyrrell, and accusing the hierarchy of persecution. French and Italian journals translated and reprinted the open letter and made her the hero of the modernist cause, but chief villain in the eyes of the Vatican party. The bishop of Southwark never lifted his ban, though Petre was able to take communion in the neighboring Catholic Archdiocese of Westminster. For the rest of her life, she never ceased trying to have the ban lifted, arguing that it was unreasonable to single out one member of the laity, trying to compel her to swear oaths of allegiance to papal declarations which were not covered in the definition of papal infallibility, and which in her conscience as a Catholic she believed mistaken.

Petre published Tyrrell's history in 1912, using his own autobiographical fragment for the first part of the book and then finishing the biography in her own words. She became the first historian of Catholic modernism with her 1918 book Modernism, Its Failures and its Fruits. Modernism, she said, had been the attempt to respond to contemporary Catholics' anxieties and spiritual hunger, by making a "synthesis between the essential truth of … religion and the essential truth of modernity." Without such a synthesis, she believed Catholicism was doomed to become an increasingly marginal religion, yet the unfolding political horrors of the 20th century were showing it to be more necessary than ever.

Petre worked as a nurse in the First World War, at the former abbey of Pontigny in France, where she had earlier attended conferences with other modernist intellectuals. Dismayed by the shattering effects of the war, like so many members of her generation, she was nevertheless loyal to her country. She argued in wartime articles that the English and French battle against German autocracy was the political counterpart to the modernists' battle against Vatican autocracy. At war's end, she wrote Democracy at the Cross Roads, a book whose title echoed Tyrrell's Christianity at the Cross Roads, in which she argued for preserving, in the hoped-for new democratic world, the best virtues of the dying aristocracy, the class from which she sprang. Among these qualities was fearless adherence to one's own convictions, held in good conscience, the quality she continued to show in the face of Church indignation.

I am not enclosed in the sense of thinking that only the Church can speak to us of eternal truth, for I know that she herself has sat at the feet of teachers that never bowed to her authority.

—Maude Petre

In the interwar years, Petre continued to write prolifically, but although she engaged many political questions, she always circled back to the religious underpinnings of society. Her writings were often elliptical, and even those which purported to be descriptive frequently wandered into religious meditations. Many of the famous converts to Catholicism in the previous century had written books about their religious journey; the most famous being John Henry Newman's Apologia Pro Vita Sua (1864). When Petre came to write the story of her religious life, My Way of Faith (1937), she remarked that, unlike converts' books, "my tale is to be one not of change, but of adherence; not of conversion, but of stability." Its drama, she added, consisted of her efforts to preserve that faith in the face of constant challenges, "an almost unresting process of transformation." In it, she insisted that whatever her critics might say, she was and would remain a member of the Church, and added that the Church itself, however much it tried to insulate itself from the world outside its boundaries, could not avoid constant engagement: "I am not enclosed in the sense of thinking that only the Church can speak to us of eternal truth, for I know that she herself has sat at the feet of teachers that never bowed to her authority."

Petre was in her late 70s when the Second World War began, but stayed in London throughout the Blitz of 1940, working as a fire lookout. She developed a respiratory ailment and died after a short illness in December 1942, defiantly asserting her place in the Catholic Church right to the end. She was buried beside Tyrrell in the Anglican churchyard at Storrington, with no Catholic priest in attendance, making in effect a farewell bid of defiance to the Church to which she had always clung but which, for much of her life, had viewed her as more a menace than a friend.


Crews, Clyde F. English Catholicism: Maude Petre's Way of Faith. Notre Dame University Press, 1984.

Petre, Maude. Modernism: Its Failure and Its Fruits. London: J.M. Dent, 1918.

——. My Way of Faith. London: J.M. Dent, 1937.

Sagovsky, Nicholas. On God's Side: A Life of George Tyrrell. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1990.

Ward, Maisie. Insurrection versus Resurrection. London: Sheed & Ward, 1938.

Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia