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]

pp 9-17


SO now let us take our work in hand, and show what God wrought, in one consecrated life, in those seventy-four years, between 1822 and 1896. What years they have been, whether we look upon them from the secular side or from the precincts of the Kingdom of Heaven! How strong the contrast between the action of the Spirit of God in souls and hearts reverent of the truth, and aiming at union with him and fulfilment of His will, and the working of the Spirit of the Age, in souls equally in earnest but misled by the chimeras of the day and dreaming of progress apart from religion! We have seen, and are now seeing, strange sights; revolts and revolutions, the phantasmagoria of experiment, the agitation caused by sensitive and nervous men and women, crazed by excitement, and stimulated by the wish for the impossible: and this we recognize as the work of the Zeit Geist. On the other hand we see a revival of the life hidden with Christ in God: fruits of divine charity; building on a sure foundation; help meet for a world which lives in God and cannot get away from God: plainly the work of that Lord whom it is light and joy to follow and sin unpardonable to reject and deny. My story is that of a woman's life, led in the grace of the Gospel, and growing from more to more; a woman who turned her talents to account for the Master of the house; who exalted the ideal of true womanhood; who saw, first and always, the overruling Providence which guides the course of time, who was reverent of the Supernatural, and strong in that faith which is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen. Had it been possible for such a thought to pass through her humble mind, she might have appropriated to herself the saying of the Ever Blessed, "For He that is mighty hath magnified me: and holy is His Name."

My story begins with that of the Cannon family, of which the progenitor emigrated from France early in the 17th century. The Cannons were a family of rank and wealth, Huguenots by religion, and, for that reason, refugees; passing first into Holland, thence to England, and thence to the Colony of New Netherland, into which they came about the year 1632. We have few details of their history for the first fifty years; no record can be traced of births and deaths, but if tradition may be trusted they held a high social position in the town and province. The first authentic record brings before us John Cannon, then known as "Jean Canon," a merchant in the city of New York in 1693. In 1697 he married Marie Le Grand, daughter of Pierre Le Grand; he resided in Pearl St. between State and Whitehall Sts., and carried on a large and prosperous business until 1720, when he was succeeded by his son John, Le Grand Cannon, son of John, and grandson of the first John Cannon, a distinguished man of his day, resided for many years in Stratford, Conn., and died there in 1789. Further information on the subject of this family may be found in the New York Biographical and Genealogical Register, in Orcutt’s work on Stratford, and in Valentine's Manual of the Common Council of New York for 1864, in which latter work, in a list of baptisms in the Dutch Church, 1697 to 1720, appear the names of several children of John (or Jan) Cannon. The names of Pintard and Schermerhorn also occur in this large connection. I have before me a drawing of the family coat-of-arms; the field has a figure of an artilleryman, in the costume of 150 years ago, applying a lighted fuse to an equally old-fashioned gun; for a motto, the words, Firmior quo Paratior. An old family Bible containing records of the Cannon family was long in the possession of the late Reverend Mother Superior; she sent it, in 1892, to her kinsman Le Grand B. Cannon, Esq., of 311 Fifth Avenue, New York. From a letter of his, acknowledging the gift, I am permitted to make the following extract:

"I duly received this morning (Dec. 15, 1892) your kind note announcing your Xmas present, and by special messenger your gift of the Old Family Bible, and also your photograph and Dr. Dix's letter.

"I greatly prize the gift, as quite independent of its antiquity and family associations, the impulse which governed you in making me its inheritor and possessor enhances the value of the gift; and for all this you have my earnest thanks.

"The condition that your own mortuary shall be the last record in the Bible will be observed if I survive, or the obligation transmitted to my son."

In the early part of this century in the city of Charleston, South Carolina, lived William Cannon and Sally his wife. Mr. Cannon was the son of Lewis Le Grand Cannon; his wife, Sally Hinman, was the youngest daughter of Isaac Hinman. Two daughters were born to them, Catharine Ann, Sept. 23, 1821, and Harriet Starr, May 7, 1823. On or about the 24th day of November, 1824, both parents died at Charleston, of yellow fever, leaving the little girls helpless and all but alone among strangers. Fortunately, Capt. James Allen, brother-in-law of Mrs. Cannon, arrived in the port of Charleston about that time, on a trading voyage in his own sailing packet; having been advised of what had occurred, he found the children, living, but divested of everything that they possessed, and in a position of great danger. They were taken at once on board the vessel, and brought to Bridgeport, Conn., where they were gladly received by Mrs. Fowler, their aunt, a sister of their mother's, and taken to that home which was thenceforth theirs until they attained to womanhood. The children received a good education, and were carefully brought up. Their attachment to each other appears to have been singularly strong and devoted. Harriet is described as a girl of lovable disposition, and attractive and charming manners, a general favourite, always bright and cheerful, making every place happy in which she appeared. She was a proficient in music, and gave lessons in that art to the children of her relatives and friends.

Time passed on; and in 1851 the elder sister Catharine was married to Mr. John Ruggles, and went out to California, to make her home on the Pacific coast. Her one desire appears to have been that Harriet, her beloved sister, should be with her; arrangements to that end were made, and all was ready when, only a week before her departure for the West, the fatal tidings came that Mrs. Ruggles was dead. This was in 1855. The blow overwhelmed the survivor of that devoted pair. It formed the crisis of her life. Left, as she felt herself to be, alone, her purposes defeated, her plans broken off, and herself free to take her own course in the world, she little knew that God, in the mysterious order of His Providence, was drawing her away from earthly ties, and nearer to Himself. Vocations are determined in many and diverse ways. Some go to God, from the unclouded brightness of happy morning hours; some through the heavy shadow of sorrow; some after bitter trial of the instability of temporal things, and some without one painful memory to darken the retrospect. In this case it was intense sorrow which prompted action. The penumbra of that sorrow lay, for many years, upon the chastened soul. In a letter written thirty-one years afterwards, she recurs most touchingly to her bereavement. Writing from St. Gabriel’s, June 8, 1886, to one of the Community, she says: "I have your plaintive letter; and I feel that I know it all, that I understand it all; at the same time I know that you are ready to learn the lesson God would have you to learn; that He has given the loneliness only that He may fill the void with a double portion of His Spirit. I can look back to one period of my life when I scarcely knew whether the sun rose or the sun set; when for days there seemed to be no one in the world but myself. That time was, when God took to Himself my only sister, whom I loved with a love which words can hardly express, for she was my all. Having neither father nor mother nor brother, we were almost like one person. God had a purpose for me. Had she lived, I doubt if I could have had the courage to respond to His purpose. God in His good time will show you too what He would have you to do and to be, because of this voice." In another letter she refers to the same subject, as dwelling on a life-long and vivid memory.

"Aug. 1, 1887.

"My dearest Sister:

"A thousand thanks for your dear note. The day it reached me I was thinking of the events of fifty years ago, events brought to my mind by an invitation to be present at a ‘Golden Wedding.’ I remembered (I was just fourteen then) how I stood in a certain spot to witness the marriage ceremony. Oh how little do we know what our lives are to be! We plan for one manner of life, while God plans for us altogether another plan of life. It is a great rest to me never to have doubted His will in my regard. It cannot be long now before I shall go to Him, before I shall see Him as He is."

"Ever lovingly yours,


It may be inferred from these letters that some thought of a dedication of her life to the immediate service of God had been in the heart of this young girl; an idea yet crude, an immature purpose. But the crushing sorrow cleared up the matter; she saw her way, she took her course; she held it thenceforth, steadfastly, step by step, as the Spirit led on, even unto the end.

Assured, now, that the Lord had called her, she began to look about and consider how and where to find the means of obeying that summons. And here, in the record of her life, we come upon the figures of a man and a woman, noted in their day, who helped her, and left the impress of their influence upon her career. Let us turn to them, and see how the strands of those three life histories were woven together, and how, later on, these faithful servants of the Master drifted apart, when the Divine purpose had been fulfilled.

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