It was the last day of the tour, and we were studying the Bronte family and their native Yorkshire. In the previous week, we had walked atop the walls of the ancient city of York and shopped in the Shambles, the narrow medieval street that is nearly unchanged since St. Margaret Clitherow lived there. We had hiked the dales—as lonely and achingly beautiful as I had imagined when I first read Wuthering Heights years before. We had visited the Bronte Parsonage Museum in nearby Haworth and, on the strength of our professor’s reputation, had been taken in a back room and shown a genuine treasure: one of the tiny, one-inch-by-one-inch books the Bronte children had made, filled with writing too small for adults’ prying eyes.
As we prepared to leave our accommodations at the Bar Convent, a nun approached and offered to show us one more treasure. Worried about incurring the professor’s wrath—she had gone to get the van and would be waiting for us—we nevertheless followed her into the lovely and impossibly tall chapel. Built when being Catholic was a treasonable offense, its large dome is hidden from the outside by a false roof. There is a priest hole and lots of doors that allowed worshipers to scatter if the authorities came. These were wonders enough, but Sister took us to a niche, picked up what I later learned was called a reliquary, and brought it close to our faces.
“St. Margaret Clitherow’s hand,” she announced.
I was a very new Catholic. I had heard of venerating saints’ relics and had accepted it in principle, but I certainly wasn’t ready for the reality of it. I don’t know how the other students felt. They were cradle Catholics, so perhaps it was less of a shock, but all of us were American, and body parts just weren’t on display in our parish churches—at least not severed ones.
I looked at the hand, remarkably incorrupt, but with fingers perpetually contorted in writhing pain. This Catholicism is a serious business, I thought as I struggled to remove the look of horror from my face and to replace it with—what? I wasn’t sure how I was supposed to feel. I doubted I would ever achieve the look of sublime joy on the Mother Superior’s face.
St. Margaret’s home is now a shrine located in the Shambles, which lies in the shadow of York Minster. She had lived here with her husband, a wealthy butcher, enjoying a happy and comfortable life. Yet a few years into her marriage she reverted to the faith she had known briefly as a child: before Mass was illegal, before the altars were removed and the statues smashed, before Protestantism had been cruelly and forcefully imposed by Queen Elizabeth. Her husband remained a Protestant but allowed her to organize Masses and hide priests in their home. She was imprisoned several times before being condemned to death.
Her execution was grisly. She was laid on the ground with a sharp stone in her back. A door was placed on top of her, and heavy stones were laid on it until she was crushed to death. Her last words were, “Jesus, have mercy on me.”