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 42-56


THE successful administration of this first trust soon led to another invitation to Sister Harriet and her companions. In 1864 they were asked to take charge of the Sheltering Arms. This institution, founded by the Rev. Thomas M. Peters, D.D., stood, at that time, on the old Bloomingdale Road, at 100th St., not far distant from St. Michael's Church, of which Dr. Peters was Rector. Into this house were received children for whom there was no provision in other charitable institutions; not orphans, nor half-orphans, nor crippled, nor sick, but such as were even more destitute and helpless, owing to peculiar conditions; children of vicious or brutal parents, neglected, waifs, friendless: such as these found shelter there in the arms of Christian love.

The episode of the "Sheltering Arms" was at once painful and profitable. I shall tell the story plainly, because it shows that the development and splendid advance of the Sisterhood, and all that came thereafter, were the result of the discipline of a petty persecution which they then passed through.

But first it is to be noted, that a great step was taken, soon after that time, in the way of organization into an incorporated society. The four who went out from St. Luke's Hospital had been held together thus far merely by the bond of a personal attachment and a common aim. But Sister Harriet felt that the time had come for settlement upon a stronger basis, and for the development of what was in the hearts and minds of all. The aid of the Bishop of New York was sought; he was asked whether he would sanction the formation of a Sisterhood, to be under his own supervision, but with the power to work out, under rule, the full ideal of Community Life. To this request the venerable prelate gave careful attention; a scheme was drawn up and submitted to him; principles were settled, broad outlines drawn; the plan, after having been submitted to a committee of presbyters for consideration, met his approval; and he announced his readiness to meet the wishes of his daughters in Christ. The Feast of the Purification, 1865, was a memorable day in the annals of our branch of the Church. On that day the Sisterhood of St. Mary came into existence. In St. Michael's Church, in the forenoon, five devout women were formally received by Bishop Potter, as the first members of a society for the performance of all spiritual and corporal works of mercy that Christians can perform, and for the quest of a higher life in perfect consecration of body, soul, and Spirit to our Lord. [1] It was the first instance of the profession of Sisters by a Bishop since the time of the Reformation, in our communion: it was a step beyond any that had been taken up to that time in England. There the great Sisterhoods were not under Episcopal control, nor had they the advantage of direct Episcopal sanction. Their members were admitted by priests, and the management of their affairs was entirely in their own hands. It was the wish of these faithful women to have the Bishop for their father, and be permitted to look to him as their spiritual head. That wish was granted, to their great joy, and all was now happily begun in conformity with the ancient Catholic rule, that nothing be done without the Bishop.

Manifestly, some great things were to come of this beginning. Let every point be reverently noted. The day, the place, the hour have been recorded. The names of the five then professed were as follows:

Harriet Starr Cannon,
Jane C. Haight,
Sarah C. Bridge,
Mary B. Heartt,
Amelia W. Asten.

The Feast of the Purification has been kept ever since as the anniversary of the foundation of the Society.

An act of incorporation was obtained from the Legislature of the State of New York, conferring on the new Society, in addition to the usual statutory powers, others peculiar to themselves; a special charter covering everything that could be desired for growth, government, and efficiency in work. Perhaps the most important provision was that no change may be made in the fundamental law of the Institution without the joint consent and approval of the Bishop of New York on the one side and the Sisters assembled in Chapter on the other.

The act of incorporation bears date in May, 1865; it was granted soon after the founding of the new Sisterhood. Early in the month of September in the same year, in the sacristy of St. Luke's Church, Hudson St., an election was held, at which Sister Harriet was chosen, by the unanimous vote of her companions, to be Superior; an office to which she was repeatedly re-elected, and which she held on the day when she entered into rest. Henceforth the title of "Mother " shall be applied to her as I continue this narrative.

One word more as to the event of Feby. 2d, 1865. It illustrates the humility of Sister Harriet and her devotion to her duties. On that day she was engaged in nursing a child ill of the smallpox. When the time for the ceremony at the church arrived, she with great reluctance laid down the child, and went off to St. Michael's. As soon as the service was over she returned with all speed to the church, and resumed the charge of the little patient. In one of her letters I find her recurring with some amusement to the incident:

"I remember the day just twenty years ago, when we five stood before the altar at St. Michael's, and how I slipped away from my smallpox patient to be professed!!"

A Rule was subsequently drawn up, containing the provisions necessary for carrying the design of the incorporation into effect. It owes its character to the intelligence and wisdom of the founder. It deals with the work of the Community, its form of government, its officers, and members, its mode of transacting business, its property, and the general regulation of affairs. The supreme power is vested in the Chapter, composed of professed Sisters. The Superior is a constitutionally appointed officer, chosen for a fixed term, and eligible for re-election. This is the Outer Rule. There is, in addition, an Inner Rule, which relates to the religious observances of the Community, and their devotional life and spiritual discipline.

To proceed with our narrative. The Sisters took charge of the Sheltering Arms in 1864: their connexion with it was not dissolved till 1870. In the meantime further demands upon their services were made. St. Barnabas' House, in Mulberry St. near Bleecker, an institution under the charge of the New York City Mission Society, needed an efficient interior management, and in the year 1867, on the request of that Society, it was also placed under their care. Of this latter institution they had charge for nearly two years.

In the Sheltering Arms the development of that life which the Sisterhood had so long been seeking began. The day had dawned. They recited daily offices; they observed the seven canonical hours. One writes of that time:

"In these things a lovely trait of dear Mother Harriet was plainly seen and felt. Her deep devotion of spirit, however pressing were the labours of the day, brought peace. Her voice would sound out far beyond the little oratory, and many of the children and workers would look forward with pleasure to the Vesper hour; and eagerly would the children expect the nine o'clock service, which the Mother always led, when Ps. xv. was sung responsively. Her heart was full of love and tenderness for these poor little ones. As usual she was always seeking the comfort of others, and bearing personal inconvenience with an uncomplaining spirit."

The work at St. Barnabas' House was of a different character. Mrs. William Richmond had opened a house under that name for the temporary care of infants and homeless young mothers. The Sisters managed to take care of the infants, for a short time, at the House of Mercy, and this was the beginning of what is now an Infant Asylum. At a subsequent date the City Mission Society opened St. Barnabas' House for homeless women and children; of this, on the invitation of the trustees and with the consent of the Bishop, the Sisters now took charge. Women seeking employment and situations were allowed to remain there one week, until they could obtain work or be transferred to other institutions. Many who had been discharged from the hospitals were received there and cared for during their convalescence. Daily morning and evening services were held in the Chapel, and it was understood that the duty of the Sister was not only to relieve bodily wants but also to give spiritual help and aid. A work for the rescue of the fallen formed a part of the general plan. A room was hired on Broadway and 11th St., in which evening service, with short addresses and singing, was held; a carriage was in readiness; and those who could be persuaded to make an effort to forsake their evil life, were at once taken to St. Barnabas' House, received by the Sisters, and, whenever it seemed desirable, transferred to the House of Mercy. The great work done then, and ever since, to this day, at St. Barnabas' is too well known to the citizens of New York to need further description here.

During the sojourn of the Sisters at the Sheltering Arms, Mother Harriet was taken ill of typhoid fever. Her strength, and all her powers had been overtaxed. For many weeks the result was doubtful. A long rest was ordered, after her recovery, until she had completely regained her health.

With the House of Mercy, the Sheltering Arms, and St. Barnabas' House in their charge, the Sisters had all they could desire in the way of active employment. And yet, if things had remained in that position, the object of their organization could not have been fulfilled. Those institutions were under the charges of managing Boards and Trustees, to whom all must defer, and by whose wishes they must be controlled; independent action would have been impossible, and the development of their plans for the restoration of the Religious Life in Community would have depended on the assent and approval of persons perhaps not in sympathy with their views and intentions. To be released from a possibly unfriendly restraint, and to build on their own foundation, was necessary, if the Community was to become a power in the Church. We think that the hand of an overruling Providence can be plainly seen in what next occurred. To tighten the bonds by which they were already held was the way to bring about a removal of the obstacles in the way of advance, and to send these toilers once more from quiet places, poor but free.

The trouble began at St. Barnabas' House. The reception of the five Sisters by Bishop Potter, the impressive scene at St. Michael's Church, and the growth of the little society—for others had bee added to their number—at length attracted public attention. The journals of the city had given highly coloured accounts of the new society, its objects and aims, and the Protestantism of the day at last took the alarm. What was this thing thus growing up amidst us? What were these so-called Sisters, these "nuns," these "Romanists in disguise?" What had the Bishop done? And what more might be coming ? Was it true that there were to be Habits, and a Rule, and Vows? Little by little, curiosity led to inspection, and inspection to serious disquietude. The trouble began at St. Barnabas' House. Among the most active of the trustees was the estimable pastor of a prominent city parish, a lovable man, of warm heart and.great zeal, but nervously sensitive to censure on the part of the "evangelical" public. In the parish of which he was the Rector before he came to New York, there were many Irish Orangemen: these good people were greatly scandalized by the discovery of little crosses engraved on the chalice and paten of the Communion service: the Rector, to propitiate them, sent the vessels to a silversmith and had the objectionable symbols carefully erased. It may be imagined with what anxiety a person of this disposition would watch the proceedings of those to whom the care of St. Barnabas' House and its beneficiaries had been intrusted. In the manner in which the services were conducted there was nothing to reprehend; nor yet in the ministrations to the poor or the instruction of the ignorant. But the question was raised: what might the Sisters be doing in the privacy of their rooms? What prayers did they say there? What offices did they recite? What manuals of devotion might be on their tables? These questions led to a formal demand that the Trustees should have the access to the Sisters' private apartments, as visitors, with the right to inspect all books and manuals used by them in their prayers, and that no books should be so used except such as were approved by the Trustees. Once satisfied that the alternative lay between submitting to such inquisitorial interference, or withdrawing from the House, they promptly made their choice, and, one morning, quietly took their few and scanty belongings and went away.

So then there were left in their charge only the Sheltering Arms and the House of Mercy. The Sheltering Arms had been recently founded, and was dependent for support on the contributions and donations of its friends among the Church people of the city. It was a popular charity; but its helpers were of that class who will aid only what pleases them, and may be easily influenced to withdraw their subscriptions. The feeling against the Sisters grew, and spread more widely on the report that they had been forced (for so the adversary put it) to leave St. Barnabas' House. And now began what amounted to a persecution on a small scale illustrating the acrimony of religious prejudice and the violence of Protestant antipathy. The Sisterhood became the object of comment, criticism, and animadversion; it was discussed in the fashionable circles of New York society; an intense curiosity to see those strange and dangerous creatures led to visits of inspection to the Sheltering Arms. Ladies of high social position took up the matter; it was no uncommon thing to see them, of an afternoon, driving thither in their handsome carriages, entering the building, demanding interviews with the Sisters, examining them as if they were wild animals in a menagerie, questioning, browbeating, catechising them, and even sometimes going so far as to pluck at their garments to see of what material they were made. Thus the excitement grew and spread, until it became apparent that the presence of the Sisters was detrimental to the interests of the institution, and that many subscriptions and contributions would be withdrawn if they continued in charge. It was impossible to resist the pressure; in due time Mother Harriet and her associates found that their presence was no longer desired; and with sad hearts and a burning sense of injustice they withdrew.

This is a pitiful story; but at this distance it awakens no regret except that religious bigotry should at any time have had such sway among us. To the Community, the persecution was most helpful; it threw them on themselves; it made some warm friends for them; it showed them that to be done efficiently their work must be done in houses of their own, subject to no nagging interference and secure from molestation; and so it led, under the Providence of God, to all that came after, step by step, and year by year, until now we see them, increased tenfold in number, firmly planted in half a dozen dioceses of the Church, holders of a very large amount of valuable property in houses and land east, west, and south, having their own schools, hospitals, and Mother house; growing in the possession of all things needed to a vastly extended work, and in favour with God and man.

Nor let me omit to add that if, at that time, the "society women" of New York displayed a spirit unworthy of themselves, they have amply atoned for the errors of that past day. Those bitter prejudices are dead, and beyond the chance of revival; a generous and gracious appreciation of all good has grown up in their place. I myself have recently seen, in the reception room of one of the finest mansions in Madison Avenue, a great assemblage of ladies of high social position brought together to meet a poor lay brother of Nazareth in quest of help for his work. I saw him face to face with that fair and friendly assemblage, in his brown habit with the knotted cord about his waist; and I saw the generous and broad-minded Rector of St. Bartholomew's standing beside his humble brother and affectionately and earnestly speaking in his behalf. Thus hath God wrought in our time; and blessed be His holy Name.

The storm which beat upon the Sisters at that time did its best to drive them from the House of Mercy, as it had done from the other institutions in which they had served; but here its force was stayed and broken. Some agitation occurred, but a large majority of the Trustees had the courage and independence to stand, unshaken by the clamours and criminations of the hour. They never lost their confidence in Mother Harriet, nor did they ever consider the question of withdrawing what they had committed to her and her devoted companions. Beneath the surface ripples was a great depth of appreciation, affection' and confidence. The House of Mercy is still in the charge of the Sisters of St. Mary as it has been since the year 1863. [2]


[1] A provision embodied in the original report to the Bishop states that the work of a Sister is to be held to "include all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy which a woman may perform, and that the idea as well of a contemplative life of prayer and devotion, as of an active life of labour, be included in the office. But especially that she be devoted to the care of the sick and to the work of educating the young."

[2] See an interesting communication in the Church Eclectic, of April, 1896, entitled: "Mother Harriet of the Sisterhood of St. Mary. A Sketch. By the Right Rev. George F. Seymour, D.D., L.L.D., Bishop of Springfield. Young Churchman Co., Milwaukee, Wis." Dr. Seymour was Chaplain of the House of Mercy for several years, including the year 1867. He states that "when the Sisters were removed under coercion from the Sheltering Arms, in obedience to a published protest against them, with an implied threat that supplies would in future be withheld from the institution if they were suffered to remain in charge, the House of Mercy opened her arms to receive the fugitives; and then the further effort was contemplated to drive us all, sisters and chaplain, from the House of Mercy and leave us without shelter." But it failed, most fortunately for the work.

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