Project Canterbury

Harriet Starr Cannon: First Mother Superior of the Sisterhood of St. Mary

A brief memoir by
Sometime Pastor of the Community

[New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1896; 149 pp]


OF all the views on the line of the Hudson River, none, perhaps, is more striking than that presented at the point where the stream, escaping from the compression of the Highlands, expands into the broad inland lake known from old time as the Tappan Sea. Through the mountain range, cloven ages ago by some vast glacial movement or convulsion of nature, the impatient waters have forced a passage, until, as if with a sensation of relief, they pour down upon the level land, catching, perhaps, the first sound of welcome from the ocean towards which they now draw rapidly and joyously forward. The scene at the-point referred to arrests and charms the eye. On the right hand, like an outer bastion, stands a great round-topped mountain; to the left, where the shore is indented by a deeply recessed bay, appears the village of Peekskill shut in by defending hills. The ridge to the north of that village lifts a dense foliage into the air; and above the masses of maples, cedars, and chestnuts, may be descried what seems to be the bell tower of some church or chapel hidden from sight and crowning the plateau. The structure to which the tower belongs, and whatever other buildings may be there, remain invisible until the traveller has climbed the heights on which they stand, and passed through a wide gateway into an enclosure of some fifty or sixty acres presenting as he advances one object after another apt to fix the attention. A broad avenue commands the prospect over the low country, the valley in which the village stands, and the inland lake; one building after another is reached and passed, until the chapel is disclosed to which the tower belongs. Built on the rock of the plateau, itself as it were a part of the ledge, it reminds one of the church at Assisi, having, like that, an upper and a lower church, the former spacious and of noble proportions, the latter a mortuary chapel, where the Offices of the Dead are statedly sung, and to which the bodies of the faithful departed are taken to await the time of burial. Beyond, as he advances, the traveller sees to the right buildings of large size, half hidden by the trees; and, first, the school known as St. Gabriel's, from whose door it is probable that a troop of merry girls may come fluttering forth, taking their way to favourite woodland paths for recreation; still further appears the outline of the great Mother House of the Community of St. Mary, where dwell the head of the Order, some twenty Professed Sisters and Minors, and a score at least of Novices. If now the pilgrim to this home of religion, art, and letters, leaving the Chapel on his right hand, should walk some distance northward, he will come to level field, or dell, surrounded by rocky heights, the resting-place of some who have passed beyond these earthly lights and shadows. The grass-grown mounds which break the surface of the ground are without headstone, name, or inscription; on each is a simple cross; nothing indicates what traveller may here have reached the end of the journey, what weary frame is sleeping here in the peace of God; nor need this be known, save to the Community, as one by one their dead are brought here to burial. [*] But it may be questioned whether anywhere else on earth a deeper impression of the restfulness of holy death is made upon the thoughtful observer. All is still; no sound of the outer world disturbs this repose; the trees wave in the wind; the cliffs look down upon the place; lights and shadows fall, in course, across it as days and nights come and go; a woodpath leading from the side of the convent passes on to a point whence may be seen the great river flowing steadily towards the sea; not far away is a grove of pines, where, of a summer evening, the wanderer may rest, and see beyond him the military camp-ground of the State, and hear at sunset the call of the bugle and the evening gun. The sleeping place, to which we now return, seems fitted above all others for the rest of those daughters of our Lord, who having finished their course in faith, and having left there what of them could die, now expect the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come. It is not to be wondered at that, now and then, one trained at St. Gabriel's for her life work, and finding the end at hand in some far-off region, has longed for her own place among those sleepers, and asked, earnestly, that her body might be taken home and laid beside her sisters in the much-loved spot.

In that cemetery at St. Gabriel's, on the 9th day of April, 1896, it being the Thursday in Easter week, there was committed to the ground the mortal body of one of the noblest and most remarkable women of our day; a body once the earthly tabernacle of a vigorous mind, a clear intellect, a resolute will, and a great heart full of love to God and man. The world knows little of her and cares less; her life work was not that which this generation applauds; the object for which she lived makes no appeal to the restless spirits of our day; but if ever God's work has been done well and faithfully it was so done by that active brain, that devoted heart, those hands that never tired, those feet which trod for forty years the path of close and closer walk with the Lord. As, if by His special and most gracious mandate, she was called out of this world on Easter Day; at half-past three in the afternoon the exodus was made; four days later the precious body was committed to the ground, in the midst of those nearest and dearest to her on the earth, a great number of sisters, associates, priests, and devoted friends assisting at the solemn action. After the due performance of the Rites of the Church, in long procession, carried on the shoulders of four priests, followed by her spiritual children, and by many clergy from our own and distant dioceses, she was borne to the grave. It was remarked, and none could fail to notice, that the season, which had been backward, seemed to have changed suddenly; the voice of the springtide and the first prophecy of summer were in the air; the sun shone brilliantly on the little procession; light breezes stirred the trees; and, for the first time that year, the birds began to sing, as if joyfully praising the Lord. Unseen forms must have been also in attendance; visitants from another realm, to whose presence may have been due some of that impression of awe and wonder with which we withdrew from the scene.

And now that all is over on this side, and now that she has been received out of our sight, it has been felt that some memorial, some written record, should be prepared of greater length than those which have already appeared in the journals of the day, commemorative of that life. This seems desirable for many reasons; as a tribute to the woman who was with us once as a burning and a shining light; as a statement of the motives of her action during a long and memorable life; as a record of the results of the indomitable energy with which she wrought, and the reward of patience and faith conceded to her loving service; as a history of the varied experience, through which, in evil report and good report, in reproaches, misunderstandings, and opposition, she steadily pursued her way; as a gift to those of the Community founded by her, which may serve for reminder, encouragement, and warning, as they carry on the work which throve so wonderfully under wise and strong leadership, and now devolves on them the weight of an unspeakably grave responsibility. Such purposes might a memoir serve which was all that it should be; therefore the writer could wish that the task of preparing it had been laid on some one more worthy than he. There are men and women in the Church far better fitted for this undertaking, though in one point he yields to none of them; in his devotion to that blessed memory, his appreciation of that mission of which she was the apostle, his profound reverence for the manner in which her work was accomplished, his earnest desire that every thought of hers respecting it may be fulfilled. It is nearly a quarter of a century since, as Pastor of the Sisterhood of St. Mary, he knew, in the sacred intimacy of the priestly office, all that its Superior was planning, desiring, suffering. Others, since that distant day, have done the work which he was compelled to lay down, but the afterglow is bright on the skies behind us, and through that light it may be given him to write down something apt to help and teach, to remind those who were then her companions, to help those who shall come after.

"So be it: there no shade can last
In that deep dawn beyond the tomb:
And bright from marge to marge shall bloom
The eternal landscape of the past."

We move, like shadows, between a past full of visions and dreams of good, and a future where in substance these visions and dreams are to turn to unchanging realities in the heavenly city.

* Since writing this paragraph, I am informed that Mr. Le Grand Cannon of New York has made arrangements to erect a cross in the cemetery at St. Gabriel's, as a memorial to his kinswoman, to bear her name and an appropriate inscription.

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