FOR 78 years, her body has lain in the relative anonymity of the city’s Mount Vernon Ceme-tery. Her marble tombstone, topped with a cross, simply reads: “Margaret Sinclair, Sister Mary Francis of the Five Wounds, died 24th November 1925, aged 25 years.”
Every autumn, hundreds of people make the pilgrimage to her grave at Mount Vernon. But this year will be the last, for her body is to be exhumed and reinterred in the chapel of St Patrick’s Church on the High Street, where she was baptised and went to pray twice a day.
Some of her belongings, including her habit and bed, are now housed by the altar in St Patrick’s, awaiting her arrival in October. Her new shrine, which is expected to attract thousands of worshippers every year, will be marked by a six-foot marble slab, with her details set into the stone floor of the church’s Sacred Heart Chapel.
The move is all on the orders of Archbishop Keith O’Brien, Scotland’s most senior Roman Catholic cleric, no less.
For Margaret Sinclair was something of a saint – literally. Indeed, the reason for stirring her mortal remains is part of a bid by the Catholic Church in Scotland to have her canonised. But just who was she? And how has it come to be that a woman who died aged just 25 is now being considered for sainthood?
One of nine children born into a poor Catholic family in a cramped basement in Blackfriars Street, Margaret was the daughter of a corporation dustman and his wife. From an early age, she became interested in religion and attended mass daily at St Patrick’s. Such was the strength of her sense of social justice that she was already touring around the city slums by her teens, offering company and solace to the elderly and lonely.
Margaret was educated at St Anne’s School in the Cowgate but went on to take a certificate in sewing, cooking and dressmaking at the Atholl School of Domestic Economy, at the same time working as an errand girl for a local business to help support her younger siblings.
She then worked as a French polisher in the Waverley Cabinet Works, a trade unionist, a factory worker for McVitie’s Biscuits and a mill worker before, at the age of 23, joining the Order of the Poor Clares in London, since its Edinburgh convent was full.
But she had already left her mark on the people she worked with.
Father Richard Reid, of St Patrick’s Church, who is currently wading through a copy of the 600-page document in Latin and Italian which has been compiled as her canonisation cause and is housed in the Vatican, explains: “In her workplace, often she was the only Catholic in the place and one might expect her to be persecuted. But she seemed to attract the admiration and respect of her fellow workers. She had a very strong sense of social justice and tried to do something about the working conditions in the factory.
“She was in her own lifetime considered saintly. Immediately after her death, devotion sprung up around her. That’s when people thought: ‘I remember that holy lassie’ and they started praying and visiting her grave.
“A good number who testified were local people. Lots of her family are still around and her goddaughter comes here regularly to mass and there’s quite a few of her nieces and nephews still in the city. In all her work, her virtue shines through.”
As a nun, known as Sister Mary Francis of the Five Wounds, she devoted herself to helping the poor and underprivileged through prayer, before she died from tuberculosis two years later.
Yet still it seems remarkable that she managed, in such a short space of time, to display sufficient virtue to be considered worthy of sainthood? After all, to qualify, you need to prove “beyond reasonable doubt” that you have performed two miracles, which must be witnessed and attested – and that’s in addition to having lived a devoted life of “heroic virtue” and piety.
One person who can vouch for her augmented virtue is none other than Sir Jimmy Savile, who says he owes his life to her after his mother prayed to Margaret when he was on the brink of death.
“I was the youngest of seven children in a house with no money,” explains the television personality. “When I was two years of age – bearing in mind things were a lot different than they are today – I had a condition which was known in those days as ‘dying’. Children died of malnutrition but they didn’t give it names; they just called it dying.
“The doctor came round and said: ‘Ah, yes, he’s dying’. So to save himself a journey, he wrote a death certificate out and left it on the sideboard. It wouldn’t be dreamed of today but that sort of thing happened in low-income areas in those days.
“If a young person was dying, they would send the parents out of the house and the grandparents had the job of overseeing the death. So the duchess – the pet name for my mother – was banished from the house and walked down to St Anne’s Cathedral in Leeds. She saw a pamphlet extolling the virtues of Margaret Sinclair at the back of the cathedral and prayed to her for help.
“She came back home expecting to be one family member less but found that I had taken an amazing turn for the better and was still there. The grandparents said it’s nothing short of a miracle and she showed them the pamphlet.”
Sir Jimmy’s story is just one of many. Margaret soon became known as the “Edinburgh Wonder Worker” for her gift and compassion.
Indeed, Father Reid says the church still receives numerous letters recounting stories where somebody was saved after praying to Margaret.
“A blind woman recovered eyesight, a woman who had chronic osteoarthritis was cured, a lady in Liverpool was cured of a tubercular infection in the lungs and a child of four was cured of pneumonia,” he says.
So it appears she has surpassed the two-miracle mark.
In the case of Sir Jimmy, there is some “hard evidence” in the form of the doctor’s death certificate.
Sir Jimmy adds: “The problem was you had a two-year-old who was still alive and a death certificate. Word got about, the priests got to know, the duchess said this is an amazing miracle and the doctor said: ‘Well, he was dead when I was here but he suddenly livened up half an hour later’.
“All this was written up and is now lodged at the Vatican – so I’m part of Margaret Sinclair’s CV.”
In June, 1965, the National Margaret Sinclair Centre was opened in Rosewell, near Rosslyn Chapel.
“The significance of this is more than coincidental,” writes Niven Sinclair on the Clan Sinclair website. “Even in her brief life, her exceptional spiritual qualities attracted attention and, after her death, her fame spread quickly.”
In 1978, she was declared “venerable” by Pope John Paul I, as it was agreed she possessed the theological virtues of faith, hope and charity, together with the cardinal virtues of prudence, justice, fortitude and temperance.
And in 1982, Pope John Paul II stated: “I fully appreciate the aspirations of the Catholics of Scotland for that singular event to be realised and I know that you are praying that it may come about.”
The next stage towards sainthood is beatification by the Pope, requiring evidence of a saintly life and proof of one miracle, while the final step requires the attestation of a second miracle, before canonisation can occur.
Father Reid certainly believes Margaret possessed the credentials to be worthy of sainthood. Her saintliness is because of her ordinariness – not because she was a nun but because she was a normal, good, working lass,” he says. “I think her ordinariness is what attracted people to her.”
There is no shortage of people who believe she is worthy of sainthood.
“Thirty witnesses have officially testified,” adds Father Reid. “There were lots of other good working people around but she seems to be on a higher plane.
“She seemed to exude something that people found attractive. She had this integrity; she had this great belief that God was present in our lives.
“I think we all need models to look up to – especially people who are within our own experience.”
The Edinburgh Wonder Worker has clearly earned her place in the historic tapestry of the Capital.
Cardinal Gordon Gray, Archbishop of St Andrews and Edinburgh, sums up her life when he says: “Margaret Sinclair may be one of the first to attain the title of saint from the factory floor.”
And Sir Jimmy – who believes his life was saved from beyond the grave by a humble Edinburgh mill girl – concludes: “Since the age of two, I’ve been very much obliged to Margaret Sinclair for whatever part she may or may not have played.
“Every time I come to Edinburgh, I always pay a visit to St Patrick’s or go out to Mount Vernon to say thank you to Margaret.”