"Into this little book my dearest wife wrote her prayers and meditations. ... All the good I may have done, all the good I may have been, I owe to her."

The final words of an old man on his deathbed would hardly be remarkable had they not come from a Catholic cardinal. They were spoken by Henry Edward Manning, one of the 19th century's main Church leaders.

The life of Caroline Sargent, to whom Manning was briefly but happily married before becoming a Catholic priest, has been veiled in near silence for 170 years. What's certain is that she had a major impact on his life, and that her early death left a wound from which he never fully recovered.

"To accuse the Catholic Church of marginalizing her would be too much," Father James Perreira, the cardinal's most recent biographer, told Our Sunday Visitor. "But remarkably little is known about her. What we do know is that she had a deep influence, and that her death was a tremendous shock which left him in floods of tears each time the tragic anniversary came around."

'Desire of his eyes'

Caroline was the fourth of five daughters of the Rev. John Sargent, Anglican rector of twin villages in southern England.

Manning met Caroline, four years his junior, in January 1833, shortly after being ordained a clergyman in the Anglican Church of England and arrived, aged 25, as Rev. Sargent's curate, or assistant. A contemporary described the daughters as having "beauty of no ordinary kind," and by Easter they were engaged.

When Caroline's father died suddenly that May, Manning was allowed to take over the parish himself. "I loved the little church under the green hillside, where the morning and evening prayers and the music of the English Bible for 17 years became a part of my soul," he later recorded. "If there was no eternal world, I could have made it my home."

The couple were married at Lavington church on Nov. 7 by Caroline's brother-in-law, Samuel Wilberforce, a son of the great abolitionist, who went on to become Anglican bishop of Oxford and later of Winchester.

Little is known about the marriage, other than that it was blissfully happy. It was also tragically short. Caroline was frail, and by early 1837, she was stricken with influenza, which soon developed into tuberculosis.

"I try to leave all in God's hands -- but it is very, very difficult," then-Rev. Manning wrote to his former Oxford University tutor, John Henry Newman, later a Catholic cardinal as well, as his young wife wasted away, running high fevers and coughing blood. "No man knows what it is to watch the desire of his eyes fading away."

Caroline was just 25 when she died. For the 29-year-old clergyman, it was a devastating blow, and he threw himself into his pastoral work. But his longing for his dead wife was "like a furnace," he confided to a friend. On the second anniversary of Caroline's death, his mother-in-law, Mary Sargent, found him "in quite an agony of tears."

'Greatest calamity'

As the years passed, Rev. Manning was at the heart of the Anglican establishment, and even tipped as a future archbishop of Canterbury.

He was received into the Catholic Church in April 1851 and reordained two months later, having concluded, after years of visits to Rome and discussions with Catholic friends, that the church of his birth was under the thumb of secular powers.

Fourteen years later, he succeeded Nicholas Wiseman as archbishop of Westminster, becoming an architect of the doctrine of papal infallibility at the First Vatican Council (1870) and a cardinal in 1875.

As head of the Catholic Church in England, he bought the site on which Westminster Cathedral was built and was credited with turning what had been known derisively as the "Italian Mission" into a social and cultural force to rival the established Church.

A friend of Cardinal Newman reputedly joked that Caroline's death had been "the greatest calamity" to afflict the English Church, by freeing Cardinal Manning to pursue his Catholic career.

Cardinal Manning himself let little out about his short-lived marriage.

In 1851, the year he became a Catholic, he talked of spending time "looking over and destroying papers" at the Lavington rectory. He appears to have removed references to married life from his diaries and notebooks.

A first biography by Arthur Hutton, published in 1892, contained only the briefest of mentions of his "young and beautiful wife," noting only that Caroline's death brought "a new and lasting sadness."

A Catholic Truth Society biography in 1896 contained just three lines about Caroline. Another, on Manning's conversion, left her unnamed.

Diving purpose

Such reticence fuelled rumors. It was said that Manning had largely forgotten Caroline, even welcoming her death for enabling him to become a Catholic priest.

Robert Grey, a more recent Manning biographer, concedes Cardinal Manning may well have seen Caroline's death as fulfilling some divine purpose.

"But there's no doubt about her importance in his life," the historian told OSV. "Perhaps some Church people would have preferred to write her out of history. But claims about his own indifference or neglect are typical of the hostility [Cardinal] Manning attracted from his opponents."

In reality, his devotion to Caroline was well attested. Witnesses recorded how he had composed sermons sitting on a wall near his wife's grave and preserved the rectory living room as she left it, with her workbox in place, and a miniature of her on his desk.

Along with her book of prayers and meditations, he also carefully preserved Caroline's letters, until they were stolen with his bag at Avignon in France during his journey to Rome in 1851.

The Catholic poet Aubrey de Vere, who was with him, recalled how the grief-stricken Manning had put up the huge sum of 100 pounds for the "lost treasure," offering to let the thief keep the rest of the bag. To no avail. "The loss was probably necessary," Manning ruefully reflected, "necessary to sever all bonds to earth."

Father Perreira believes Caroline's influence went a lot further. Although the future cardinal was close to the Anglican High Church tradition during his Lavington years, the warm evangelical faith of the Sargents, some of whom also later became Catholics, helped deepen his spirituality.

"[He] was never dogmatically evangelical," Father Perreira said. "But Caroline and her sisters added the warmth of a large, sweet, strongly united family, with its singing and devotion, to his spiritual makeup, something he hadn't experienced before."

Cardinal Manning's keen interest in Christian education also owed something to Caroline, who taught in the parish school. Her influence also could be detected in his notion of the Church's social responsibility.

His mediation on the great London Dockers Strike of 1889 and his key contributions to Rerum Novarum, Pope Leo XIII's encyclical on labor, a year before his death, could be traced back to preoccupations first nurtured at Lavington.

Perhaps the personal loss also helped confirm his belief in clerical celibacy.

Although marriage transformed Manning's life and proved deeply humanizing, Father Perreira thinks Caroline's early death had a "tremendous, seismic impact," which he attempted to cope with by closing in on himself.

Free from attachment

"[Cardinal] Manning remained a deeply emotional person throughout his life," Father Perreira said. "But he didn't let much out, fearing he could easily lose control of his feelings. Although he was very close to other women, particularly from his own family, finding great support in them, none of this ever came close to what he had experienced with Caroline."

There were hints of his own experience of intimate entanglements in one of his key works, "The Eternal Priesthood" (1883). "Our perfection of [Jesus'] friendship will vary in the measure in which we maintain our liberty from all unbalanced human attachment," the cardinal wrote. "If we be weak and wander to human friendships, we shall soon find that there is no rest anywhere else."

The collection of Caroline's prayers and meditations, which he handed from his deathbed to his successor, Father Herbert Vaughan, was buried with him.

"Not a day has passed since her death on which I have not prayed and meditated from this book," the dying cardinal told Father Vaughan.

What seems certain is that his passionate love for Caroline never faded, and that his four short years with her were among his happiest. She deserves to be remembered as someone who profoundly influenced one of the English Church's greatest leaders.

Jonathan Luxmoore writes from Poland.