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 30-41


THERE are men who are helps, and men who are hindrances, at the turning points of life. It was fortunate for those three or four women, anxious, depressed, uncertain what to do, that they had a friend in the great bishop, Horatio Potter, who at that time was over us in the Diocese of New York. He heard of what had taken place, and came to the aid of the refugees, with the offer of a work in which they might at once engage. The House of Mercy had been founded by Mrs. William Richmond, as a reformatory for fallen women. She was a woman of indomitable energy, with an enviable faculty for obtaining money for carrying such projects into effect; and she had acquired, for the purposes of her work, the fine old Howland mansion, which stood at the foot of 86th Street on what is now Riverside Drive. This property, including the large house and some twelve city lots, was held for her by trustees; a very valuable purchase; and there some forty or fifty unfortunates, for the most part young, were housed and cared for, in the hope of converting them from the path of sin and bringing them home by the way of penitence, to the great Shepherd of souls. But Mrs. Richmond, incessantly engaged in raising the means to carry on the institution, and most of the time absent, could give no attention to the task of ruling and directing a class so turbulent and desperate as that within the high enclosures of the House of Mercy, where, indeed, things were in a state of confusion. The Bishop of New York, deeply interested in the work, and perceiving the need of able and competent governors of those wild waifs of civilization, bethought him of the three or four women who, having been trained in St. Luke’s Hospital, and being then desirous of an opportunity to resume their labours in some mission field, might be open to a call to that hard and delicate service. The result was an invitation to take charge of the House of Mercy; its glad acceptance; and the prompt appearance of Sister Harriet and her companions at the institution. In all this they were cordially welcomed and aided by the noble-minded foundress of the House. This was in September, 1863.

When the Sisters took charge of the House of Mercy, they were desperately poor: the sum allowed to each of them for their support, from the common fund, was only eight cents per diem. The work was difficult and trying; it had, however, a comical as well as a serious side. The Howland mansion, like old-fashioned dwellings of an earlier age, was one of those which ghosts might haunt and in which strange sights might appear. From the entrance, flanked with lofty columns, one entered a very large hall, surrounded by rooms of proportionate size, used as parlors, reception-rooms, dining-room, etc. Out of the hall a broad staircase led to the stories above. One of the rooms on the hall floor was turned into a chapel. As the day went away, the old place took on a shadowy and weird look. Among the rooms were some which could be lit up only by the help of candles; dark shadows hid much from view; children could have found no better place for hide-and-go-seek; uncomfortable sensations were not wanting; the occasional rat might go scooting boldly from one dark corner to another. In this old-fashioned place Mrs. Richmond had collected a considerable number of girls from the streets of New York. They were wild as hawks, impatient of constraint, often dangerous, and always planning the means of escape. Such was the place, and such the charge of which these women had undertaken the interior government. In a very short time results began to appear. Strong hands, loving hearts, compassionate souls took up the case of these unfortunates, in the Name of Christ; under the influence of the new, and to them strange, power, the more violent spirits were curbed and refrained; order began to take the place of disorder; the acts of religion, if they did not yet avail to change the hearts, at least compelled a reverence for holy things to which these unhappy creatures had been strangers. Nothing is so discouraging as the work of reformation of fallen women; evil passion were enough of itself to wreck the moral nature, but to this must be added the craving for strong drink which always accompanies lust; until the physical system becomes impregnated with vile potations to such a degree that it seems next to impossible to revive the moribund powers of conscience and the wish for reform. In the noble army of Christian workers, the honourable position of forlorn hope is held by those who labour for the reclamation of the fallen and lost.

From one of those who went at that time to the House of Mercy, and worked there till transferred to another field, I recently received a pleasant account of the life of the Sisters at that place, and their varied difficulties in carrying out their trust. This I shall transcribe, as an original contribution to this history. It will be observed that she speaks of Sister Harriet as "the Mother," though she had not then the title or the office. It will also be observed by what steps and by what judicious measures the work was brought into shape. Some of these reminiscences relate to days much later than those of which I am writing; but they help to fill out the picture and inform the reader of the mode in which the reform proceeded.

"The life of Mother Harriet at the House of Mercy was, from the beginning, marked by a strict devotion to duty. Her great kindness of heart, courtesy of manner, and good judgment led the rest of us to look to her for guidance in all matters of difficulty. Unfailing patience with the infirmities of others, and even with their serious faults, was one of her marked characteristics; things should be set right rather than punished. She had that flexibility of character which smooths difficulties. The lovely traits of Mother Harriet's character were, perhaps, nowhere more apparent than at the House of Mercy. She possessed, as few do, the faculty of discovering what is best in every one and bringing out the bright side of every person with whom she came in contact. She seldom found fault in words; a displeased look and silence had oftentimes more effect than anything she could have said; and the impression given was, 'I leave all entirely in God's hands.' She was ready to measure the capabilities of those who with her were devoting their energies to the good of the unfortunate inmates in the House. What could each do to secure the best results in the work? This was to be tested. The Mother shrank from no work however menial that work might be. She showed that rare quality which was so evident in all her after life,—of assigning to each one the work best fitted for her. Those who were with her well remember her industry. Great and absorbing as the mental work was, her hands were never idle. Her self-denying acceptance of the actual poverty, which at first existed at the House of Mercy, when the Sisters were deprived of what are usually called the necessaries of life, and the unfailing humor that enlivened those days of straitness and want, has formed the stock of many amusing stories related by the Sisters to those of subsequent times. A merry heart makes a continual feast; it was indeed true of her. Her influence over the unfortunate inmates was very soon felt. Her unfailing amiability, her strong faith in the good in another's heart, in spite of the sin of which that heart may be guilty; her winning sympathy, her beautiful example of true devotion to her ever-present Lord, could not fail to attract. Many of those whom she influenced in those early days, thirty years ago, have stood loyal to her through all the changes of their subsequent lives; and among the great number of persons who gathered at her grave, it is joyous to think were some of those penitents, whom she had won for the Master's glory.

"Mother Harriet's poverty of spirit was always marked by her acceptance of what was inferior whenever a choice was given to her. It was touching to find after her death, that of the garments which came to hand to clothe her many were those of departed Sisters, which she had preferred to use instead of new ones.

"It was our custom to hold three services, morning, noon, and evening; the last just before retiring. Mother Harriet, being passionately fond of music and possessing a beautiful voice, led the singing at these services, in which the girls heartily joined.

"The ringing of the chapel bell was the signal for the girls to run away; among their various hiding-places, the cow-house (for in those days we kept a cow) was the place best adapted for that purpose. The Sisters would therefore be compelled to start out in search of them and gather them into the chapel; not succeeding in getting them altogether, they were brought in late one by one. The absence of a Sister from the chapel was the inevitable sign that she was looking up some runaway girl. When the girls were left alone they would delight in getting up the greatest possible excitement to see what effect it would have upon the Sisters.

"Having no chaplain at the House at first, we were dependent upon those who would come occasionally, or else were obliged to take the girls out to service. On one of these occasions Bishop Coxe came, and, at his request, the household was gathered together and a brief service held; it was a great comfort to the Sisters and an equally great help to the girls, and left a lasting impression.

"After the house was partly in order typhoid fever set in and six of the inmates were very seriously ill. All, however, recovered. On our first Christmas (for we took charge in September) we had the blessed privilege of having an early celebration, by the Rev. Dr. Charles Adams. That was one of the marked things to be thankful for, and we were thankful, too, for the recovery of our patients.

"As the early spring and summer came we were able to give out-door pleasures to the girls, which helped them very much, for their confinement in the House during the entire winter was a little irksome to them.

"In the early days of the Institution we did not know the best way to manage them. We gave ourselves more trouble and them more care than was really necessary. For instance, if any of the girls got away we would think it our duty to spend our time in search of them: entire days were spent by the Sisters in looking up a girl. Now, of course, it is quite different. We have only to send a description of the missing one to a police station, and she is very soon returned.

"After a time the order of the House was changed and the girls were separated and classified. They were promoted, as in a school, from one class to another, as they merited it. After a time they became deeply interested in the teaching; they were particularly fond of one of the Sisters, now departed; she was of great service to them and had great success in taming and calming their unruly spirits.

"After a time it was thought best to seek some of the girls at the courts before they were committed to the Island, where the tendency was to sink lower and lower. Girls of the better class were met who would gladly commit themselves to the House of Mercy for two years or longer if necessary, to fit themselves for a respectable life; and many of the most satisfactory cases brought to the House were self-committed.

"It was the aim of the Sisters to give religious instruction at night, reading and talking, so that they might go to bed with some serious impression in mind, to drive out whatever wayward thoughts they may have had during the day.

"As the work went on, improvements were made, and means were freely given to the Sisters to enable them to carry out their plans for the good of the inmates. St. Mary Magdalene Day, the 22d of July, was looked forward to with pleasant anticipations. On that day they were taken for a drive; the carnages of Central Park, which held a considerable number, were engaged for the occasion and the day was spent pleasantly and happily by all. Their dinner was enlivened by ice-cream and a liberal amount of candy, and that day there was, above all, no work. However, the girls did not dislike to work. It was always the aim of the Sisters to bring out the encouraging and loving traits of Mary Magdalene and our Lord's deep compassion for that class, which had a great effect upon them.

"Easter and Christmas were high feasts for the girls and looked forward to with joy. Privileges were granted and feasts given.

"In the Institution there was a class called the 'Honor Class,' to which the girls were promoted according to their standing. The Sister having that class under her special charge did everything within her power to work a permanent reform in those under their charge. They had a piano; and there would be music, reading of stories, and relating pleasant incidents. Girls would often come back to the House and ask particularly for that one Sister, that they might tell her how well they were getting along in their better life.

"It was soon found that the girls would improve more if they had some work to perform and to this end they were assigned to housework, laundry work, garden work, and the like. We also had, for a time, a school where they were taught to read, for some of them were unable to do so. We found, however, that it was irksome for them to keep still for any length of time; active work was best fitted for their life, in which they were left with no time to think.

"The House of Mercy was not only a home for that unfortunate class of girls, but it has also been a refuge and reformatory for many who were addicted to drink and unmanageable."

This is the history of the House of Mercy in its beginning. I have only to add that it was removed from its old site, several years ago, and that a new House of Mercy stands on the Bolton Road at Inwood, a conspicuous object on a wooded height overlooking the Hudson River. The work has greatly increased; new departments have been added, and nothing has been omitted to render it complete for its various purposes. It is still served, as it has been from the time of its foundation, by members of the Sisterhood of S. Mary; no words are adequate to express the value of their assistance, and no other persons could have accomplished what they have wrought. The praise and honour for the successful labours of the last thirty-three years belong to those Sisters who had the House in their care through all that length of time.

In this connexion mention may be made of the first death in the Community. Sister Jane, one of the original five, and in charge of the House of Mercy, died there, after an illness of several months, on St. James’ Day, July 25, 1868. She had an exceptional power over the girls and was devotedly loved by all who knew her. She departed at 9 o’clock in the evening, the house when Compline is said. It is the rule that, after Compline, silence shall be kept throughout the House, no word being spoken till the morning. With an exquisite fitness, so often remarked in the histories of God’s people, deep stillness, even the silence of death, fell on the House and its inmates as the soul passed. Unseen visitants would no doubt have helped to enforce the rule, had the survivors ventured to break it. The hush was awful: the Lord was in that place, and all, dead and living, kept silence before Him.

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