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 18-29


AT the time of which I write the Church of the Holy Communion, on Sixth Avenue and Twentieth St., was one of the most important centres of Church work in the City of New York. Its Pastor was William Augustus Muhlenberg, of blessed memory, one of the great powers of his day. Dr. Muhlenberg may be said to have had at heart two things above all others: the extension of charitable work among the poor, and the restoration of visible unity among the Christian bodies around us and their unification in one Catholic Church. He was the founder of St. Luke’s Hospital, a magnificent monument to his memory, an institution which will be, to the end of time, associated with his name. The Church of which he was the Pastor, and which was built for him, was regarded, at that time, or rather somewhat before that time, with the same apprehension with which people now look upon the ritualistic churches of our day; it was the "advanced" parish of the moment. Dr. Muhlenberg loved the beautiful in the externals of religion; music, architecture, ceremonial, and all that makes divine worship impressive. I have heard old men who were scholars of his at College Point long before he came to New York, describe the services in the chapel at that place, and tell how they used to hold their Christmas Matins at early dawn, the place fragrant with incense, the picture of the Madonna and Child above the altar decorated with flowers, and the service sung, in carol and chant, in Latin. [1] There was much in all this to attract, delight, fascinate the ardent souls of the young, who no doubt imagined beneath this exterior some things which did not exist. For to say that Dr. Muhlenberg had his limitations is to say what might be said of most great and holy men. His theology was rather of the Lutheran than the Anglican type. In his devotion to the cause of Christian unity he might perhaps have taken down some defences which to other appear necessary to the safety of our own Church. Beautiful as was the order of the services, he stopped short of the sacramental system as taught by the Oxford school; and he had no sympathy with views in advance of the point which he had reached in working out his own parochial, liturgical, and charitable ideal. I do not write this in disparagement of that noble soul, that great heart, but because the fact has a bearing on the story which I am telling, which will presently appear.

It was fitting and right for an ardent nature, filled with love for God and man, and seeking the way of complete dedication to our Lord, to turn to William Augustus Muhlenberg as the one who might be supposed to know more about the ways and means thereto than any other man. It was, above all, natural for a woman like Harriet Starr Cannon to look to him, because he had already taken a new departure in the line of woman's work in the Church. It was a part of the original scheme of St. Luke's Hospital, that the sick in its wards should be nursed by women consecrated by a religious motive and special obligations to the performance of that duty. Another jewel in the crown of that good man was that he gave the first impetus to the cause of Sisterhoods in our Church. He had already organized a little band of women for that purpose: regardless of the fears and prejudices of the time, he had boldly called them by the title of Sisters: the "Sisterhood of the Holy Communion." As the work of the Hospital grew, recruits for these nursing sisters, or as we should now style them, Hospital Nurses, were in demand; and devout women were readily and gladly admitted to the number. The principal spirit in this little band was Anne Ayres, "Sister Anne," as she was called, a woman as remarkable in her way as the Pastor of the Holy Communion in his. Here then were all that Harriet Cannon needed: a place in the Church, a work to do among the poor and needy; the supervision of a spiritual father; the help and animating influence of a woman of undoubted sanctity and larger experience, as guide to the higher life. She made application and was kindly received. After some test she was enrolled in the Sisterhood: she writes (Feby. 7, 1888):

"Yesterday was the 6th of February; the 6th of February, 1856, was also Ash Wednesday. On that day I was received as a candidate for the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, in the Oratory of the Sisters' House and by Dr. Muhlenberg; just 3 years ago, and I was then thirty-two years old."

On the Feast of the Purification, Feby. 2, 1857, she was admitted into full membership, in the new Sisterhood, and there, in the parish and in St. Luke's Hospital, she worked assiduously and lovingly for nearly seven years. [2]

The years thus spent brought practice and experience; they brought something else, the impression, dawning dimly, growing slowly, but attaining finally to full conviction, that what Sister Harriet wanted she had not found, and was not in the way to find. She had, no doubt, from the first her own ideal of life work; it could not be realized in the position in which she now found herself. The works of Christian charity do not lie on the same level, there are grades in that department of human activity as in all others; ruder forms, and complete organisms towards which the lower naturally lead the way. From the woman of the world, who gives what of time she can spare from its pressing demands to some benevolent institution or charitable society; thence to the Bible reader or parish visitor, who, living on her modest little salary, devotes so many hours per diem to looking up and ministering to the poor of her district; and on to the Deaconess, or member of the parochial Sisterhood who serves with a fuller consecration and yet with reservations; step by step may women pass till they reach a point of unreserved surrender when the world and its concerns are left behind as completely as though they were dead to it and it was dead to them. Such progress will be accounted legitimate by the wise; each grade has its own grace and merit; yet some are lower and some higher; there are here, as elsewhere, a first and a last. The highest point of all was that at which Sister Harriet was aiming; like a dream of good it possessed her mind and soul. The idea of a life of complete and unconditional surrender to our Lord, led by a number of women in community, bound to God by vow, and to each other by a Rule, forming a family and a household, governing themselves, under the sanction of Church authority but holding no allegiance to earthly master, board, or trustee, or to any other but the Sovereign Himself; realised in institutions for carrying on all works of mercy that woman can do, and living a retired, sacramental life, in abstinence, discipline, prayer, and constant worship: this was the end of aspirations and desires which nothing less could satisfy and fill. Already such organizations could be seen, in England; the great and growing communities at Clewer, East Grinstead' and elsewhere; the thing was no dream but an accomplished fact; why should not fruits of faith like these grow on our American vine? That this ideal was not to be realized where she was, became year after year distinctly evident. Not that a person was wanting to lead such a movement. The remarkable woman who was known as "First Sister" in the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion had the qualities which fit for headship; she might have made an Abbess, with iron will and hand. But Sister Anne Ayres had also her limitations; her sympathies were not with those who desired to reproduce the Anglican, or, let us say, the Catholic, type of the Religious Community in this country and in our Church: her ideal of woman's work was of a less pronounced and more free type. In this respect also she was in accord with the man whom she venerated above all others in this world. Reading what she has written, we see the perfect harmony, the singular unity in view, opinion, and mode of action, between the head of the Sisterhood and the venerable priest who had founded it. [3] The Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, if it was to continue and grow, must grow on lines which they approved; no one could serve there unless in accord with the two who had begun and would direct the movement. This was the position in which certain ladies found themselves who had joined it with different aspirations: they saw themselves barred out from the hope of realizing what was to them the complete ideal of the Religious Life. They came to that conclusion in great sorrow and distress; but they came to it as one which was inevitable. Watching them, at that moment, we sympathize with their discomfiture: we do more; we feel, that as there are many operations of the same Spirit, so it must be, in this world, that some are called to work on one line and some another. I will venture another suggestion. No society is patient of two very strong and very positive heads. It is impossible to imagine the woman whose career we are considering as passing her life as a hospital nurse, or a semi-detached deaconess; she had abilities, powers, a mind, a will, marking her out for larger things: she was called of God to greater work. One cannot imagine two such strong characters as Sister Anne Ayres and Sister Harriet Cannon dwelling together harmoniously in the somewhat indefinite relation of a parochial society. It was inevitable, it was for the best, that they should part, each taking her own way according to her conscience and her light.

There were other women in the same position as Sister Harriet; women moved by the same desire of consecrating themselves in the true Religious Life; women who had been attracted to the work of St. Luke's Hospital and had come to join the labourers there. Such as these had every facility for working among God's poor, where they were; but beyond lay something which they perceived that they could not attain. They had been drawn into a position from which they must retire; the alternative being to remain at the sacrifice of the promptings of conscience, the strong desire for an advance, and the mature conviction of their enlightened understanding.

The end came in the year 1863. Some troubles which had existed for a considerable time then came to an issue, and the First Sister resigned. She appears to have done so because she thought that her ideas in regard to governing the other Sisters were not approved by most of them. She said to one of them, who recorded her words at the time: "There were only two things for me to do—either to rule with greater strictness than before, or to withdraw. I chose the latter course." Her companions, distressed at her action, refused to accept her resignation; but Dr. Muhlenberg, to whom the matter had been referred, gave sentence that the Sisterhood had been dissolved by the withdrawal of its head, and proposed that its members should now form themselves into "a Company of Christian Ladies, and work under Miss Ayres as Matron of the Hospital." Four of the little band found themselves more closely united than ever by this action, and more earnestly resolved to find the way to the goal which they were seeking. In sorrow they relinquished the work in which they had been happy and hopeful, and went back to their own homes; not abandoning their faith in the Religious Life and their longing for it, but not knowing how, or when, or where they were to attain the desire of their soul. They went out not knowing whither they went, but strong in faith in Him who is invisible.

The sorrows and disappointments of that day belong to a distant era, and the grave has closed over nearly all the actors in that little drama. But Christian charity soon healed the wounds, of which not even scars remain. All was of God. Sister Harriet spoke often and with interest of her apprenticeship served in the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion; reverently and affectionately of its saintly founder and its first head. She was one of those who cling to early friends; never have I heard from her one word of criticism or unkindly comment on those with whom she first trod the way of the Cross. When Sister Anne, after many years spent in seclusion, was called to her rest, the Superior of the Sisterhood of St. Mary was among those who stood nearest to her bier, and watched with full and tender hearts the committal of dust to dust. "Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord: Even so, saith the Spirit."


[1] On the ritualism and services in the school, see "The Life of Dr. Muhlenberg," by Miss Anne Ayres, pages 18, 148.

[2] The following incident is related by Anne Ayres in the Life of Dr. Muhlenberg: it occurred in the Infirmary connected with the Church of the Holy Communion, when a malignant contagious disease had gained a foothold there: referring to Dr. Muhlenberg's frequent visits to the ward, she goes on to say:

"On one of these occasions he found a young probationary Sister, rocking, as he lay wrapped in a blanket within her arms, a little boy very ill with the loathsome disease. She was singing a hymn for him, and the poor child smiled as be looked up to her face, and forgot his pain and restlessness. Dr. Muhlenberg came down from the ward enamoured of the picture—'The very ideal of a Sister of Charity.' It was Sister Harriet." (See p. 276 of the "Life.")

[3] The views of Dr. Muhlenberg on the subject of Sisterhoods are given fully, and, I doubt not, with perfect correctness, in the very interesting volume entitled "The Life and Works of William Augustus Muhlenberg," by Anne Ayres. (New York, Harper & Brothers, 1880.) It seems that he approved of them, "not as ecclesiastical organizations but as simple evangelical associations"; he thought that they ought not to exist as corporations in the legal sense of the term, nor to have a central government, nor to be bound by any vow or rule, nor ever to hold property in their own right. (See page 251 et seq.)

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