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 57-77


WE come to the beginning of a new era in this history. It is our pleasant task to trace the growth of the work done by the Sisterhood from the time when they began to build on their own foundations, to the present day. The period is one of twenty-five years; we must pass over it as rapidly as possible.

Among the objects proposed in the summary of the duties of the Community is Christian education. Mother Harriet had this much at heart; the Sisterhood should be a praying Sisterhood, a nursing Sisterhood, a missionary Sisterhood, a teaching Sisterhood: she deemed the instruction of the young one of the most necessary and valuable works of the faith; and to this she now addressed her efforts; the first thing to be established was a Christian School. A small house was rented in 46th Street between Fifth and Sixth Avenues; a few children came; and, very modestly and quietly, without parade or sensation, the work was commenced. The little school in time became a great school; among the Sisters were some women who had been trained as teachers; this was the opportunity to lift their work to a higher plane. No long time had passed before it was found that they needed more room. What should be done? It happened (if that word be appropriate to anything in this record) that a very large house had been erected by a celebrated educator of the day, who, however, through financial embarrassment, found himself compelled to give up his design. The building, just as it was completed and ready for occupation as a school, was left on his hands, embarrassed with workmen's liens, and fit for nothing but the use for which it had been planned. It was at No. 8 East 46th St., opposite the Windsor Hotel; a large and commodious-structure of about 40 feet front, and containing every appointment needed for a high class school for girls. On this property the Reverend Mother looked with longing eyes but little hope; till suddenly and unexpectedly the means were offered to her for its purchase, the liens were all paid, and she found herself in possession of the house and lot in fee. To remove from their smaller quarters was the work of a short time, and St. Mary's School was opened. It has increased and grown till it is now one of the largest in New York. The work of education has been developed, the standard of scholarship raised; its graduates easily pass the entrance examination for Barnard College and take creditable places among the students. The memory of Sister Agnes is cherished there; she was the head of the school for many years, and to her in great part is it indebted for its high reputation.

The house in 46th St. served also for a kind of headquarters of the Community; there the Mother resided, and there the novices were lodged and trained. A room appropriately fitted up and furnished as a chapel was used for the school services, and also for the devotional offices of the little Community, who recited the Hours there. Great was their content in having at last a dwelling apt for their uses, where they were secure from molestation, in the liberty of the daughters of God. I well remember those days, and especially the chapel services and the holy religion of the place. After some time the room was rearranged and enlarged; a painting by Father Derby was placed over the altar; other large pictures, also gifts, adorned the walls. The stalls were increased in number so as to make places for some thirty persons; the Sisters used to wonder whether there would ever be enough to fill them; three times the number of stalls are now in the choir of the Church at St. Gabriel's.

The next undertaking of the Community was a Hospital for children. A very modest beginning was made; a house 12 1/2 feet wide was rented at 206 West 40th St., and the work was begun. One of the Sisters who had worked at the Sheltering Arms was called in to inspect the place and give her opinion on its fitness for the purpose. This Sister had become noted in the Community for a special interest in funerals; it used to be said of her that her patron Saint was Joseph of Arimathea. When a child died at the Sheltering Arms, she would set out on foot and trudge beside the body, accompanying it to its burial at St. Michael's cemetery, at Astoria. This good Sister, after a careful inspection of the premises, announced that there appeared to her to be only one serious drawback, the staircase was so narrow that she thought it would be very difficult to carry down the body of a large child! Notwithstanding, the little house was rented and three or four children were received. How vastly, how wonderfully, that blessed work has grown! The outcome of that venture of faith is seen in the large buildings having a frontage of 92 feet on West 34th St. near Ninth Avenue. These have come, one by one, in time; and now St. Mary's Hospital for Children ranks next to St. Luke's in the Hospitals of our Church in New York. It provides for 125 patients; it has already 52 endowed beds; and it is always full. The Out-door Department, which was started in 1881, has steadily increased. By a gift of $41,000 from a lady in this city a Dispensary, Mortuary Chapel, and Autopsy Room were also erected in 1894. The Hospital has been for years in the charge of Sister Catharine; one who was, as might be said, an adopted child of Sister Harriet in her youth; the wise, tender, and calm administrator of a great trust.

The next acquisition of the Community was that of the property at Peekskill-on-the-Hudson, now known as St. Gabriel's. The school in 46th St. had grown rapidly; but its progress was checked by want of accommodation, as the house had to serve, not only for the school, but also as a residence for several of the Sisters, and particularly for the Novices, who were now coming in considerable numbers. Mother Harriet looked forward to an establishment of some kind in the country; in fact it had become necessary; and she wisely considered that the establishment of a suburban school might be an aid to that design. Accordingly, in 1872, they purchased a piece of ground, about 30 acres in extent, on the heights to the north of Peekskill, and opened a school there by the name of St. Gabriel's. When it had become thoroughly established, those of the Sisters in 46th St. who were not engaged in St. Mary's School, were transferred to Peekskill, together with the entire Novitiate, and thenceforth the Mother Superior made her residence there. St. Gabriel's has become, in time, perhaps, the most important of their possessions; partly by purchase, and partly by gifts, some of great value, it has been enlarged and enriched, till it now contains many buildings, with about so acres of land. On entering the grounds, by a gate opening from the highway, the visitor first sees on the left a large dwelling house, to which the school girls have given the name of the Castle, and in which some of the older pupils are lodged. To the right is another large building, known as the Noyes Memorial Home, opened in 1889 for the reception of otherwise homeless children from St. Mary's Hospital, suffering from chronic ailments as well as for convalescents from long illness requiring bracing air; in that Home, given by a widow in memory of her husband, formerly a clergyman of the City of New York, some 50 children are annually cared for. Passing on, the road takes a turn and ascends, commanding a view of the lower Hudson down to the Palisades; next appears the Chapel, to the left. Still farther on, at some distance, partly concealed by trees, is the school building, with accommodation for forty boarders; and next to it is the Convent, now too small, and always inconvenient. The grounds beyond are covered with the forest growth of many years; a tarn of small dimensions meets the eye, its northern side faced by a cliff known as St. Peter's Rock. Farther on is the Cemetery, and around and beyond are woods and thickets which afford a pleasant place of exercise, recreation, and amusement, where no annoyance need be feared and no molesting foot can intrude.

All that I have described has come by degrees, within the last twenty years or more; another conspicuous monument of the foresight, energy, prudence, and business capacity of the head of the Sisterhood. For many years St. Gabriel's has been the point from which the whole work has been directed, the Mother Superior having her residence and office there, and thence carrying on her large and varied correspondence.

The following year, 1873, marks another epoch in the history; then was made the first advance beyond the limits of the Diocese of New York. The Right Rev. Dr. Quintard, Bishop of Tennessee, sent an urgent invitation to Mother Harriet for Sisters to take charge of a school and a charitable institution at Memphis, in his diocese. The Mother had always an enthusiastic missionary spirit; in a letter written several years afterwards, I find these words:

"Bishop Worthington asks us to go to Nebraska; and we are asked to go to Philadelphia; and we are asked to go to China. I hope some day we may go to China."

Bishop Quintard's invitation, after careful consideration, was accepted, and three or four Sisters were sent to Memphis.

I have received from one of the Sisters at Memphis, a communication, giving full and very interesting details of the beginning and progress of the work in the South. A part of it I insert as follows:

"Sewanee, Tenn.,

"June 2d, 1890.

"Dear Dr. Dix:

"Our dear Mother asks me to send you some reminiscences of our Mother Foundress, associated with our Southern work.

"Our Mother had a deep affection for her native Southern land. Her heart was always touched by the pathetic poverty and unworldliness of its simple folk, especially the 'darkey,' and full of admiration for the fine qualities of its cultured people. She used to say ' There are two kinds of Southern ladies, the languid kind that can do nothing and the accomplished kind that can do most things better than any one else.'

"In 1869 Bishop Quintard, whom Mother had known from her girlhood, begged for the establishment of a Branch of St. Mary's in Tennessee. He brought to the Community three ladies from Tennessee, aspirants to the Religious life, and in 1873 the Southern Branch of the Community was established at Memphis. The work consisted of St. Mary's School and the charge of the Church Orphans' Home. The Mother made her first visit to Tennessee in December of that year. St. Mary's School then occupied the Bishop's residence on the west side of the little Cathedral. Mother enjoyed her visit heartily, finding much of the life new to her. She had not been South (I believe) since her childhood. During this visit Mother arranged the purchase of the property adjoining the Church on the east side, for St. Mary's School, though the permanent building was not begun till the spring of 1878 and was completed in 1888.

"Mother made nine visits to the work in Tennessee. On her second visit South she went to Mobile and spent some days with the Deaconesses in charge of the Orphanage in that city. From Mobile she went by steamboat up the Mobile River to visit her relations in Alabama, among whom was her cousin, John English, whom she loved as a dear brother.

"In 1878, when the Mississippi Valley was afflicted by the terrible epidemic of yellow-fever, Mother expressed an earnest desire to go South to comfort and aid the Sisters in their overwhelming suffering and work. But this was not thought expedient by the Community. Her loving heart was almost broken by the great losses sustained at that time, especially by the death of the beloved Sister Constance. She came South as soon as the epidemic was over and spent Christmas of 1878 with us. She gladly consented to the continuance of the Southern work, enfeebled though it was by the death of all the Southern Sisters but one. During her visit to Tennessee in 1887 Mother visited Nashville and Sewanee for the purpose of selecting a locality for a country home for the Southern Community. She chose Sewanee because it was the site of the University of the South and because of its fine mountain air and scenery. The place now known as 'St. Mary's on the Mountain,' or 'The House of the Transfiguration,' was then purchased and dedicated on the Feast of the Transfiguration, 1888. The suffering and ignorance of the poor mountain people appealed strongly to the Mother's tender heart and she interested many of her personal friends in that mission work at Sewanee."

The work in the South thus described by one of the labourers there, was undertaken with a deep sense of responsibility, but without hesitation. It seemed to be on the line of their hopes, intentions, and prayers. It has been greatly blessed, every way. Many postulants and novices have been sent to the Mother House in the North, young women of enthusiasm and devotion, and thus the gift to the Bishop of Tennessee twenty-six years ago has been returned sevenfold.

Let us turn next to New York. There is at No. 50 Varick St. a large six-story house next to St. John's Chapel, which for more than half a century was the Rectory of Trinity Church. It was built for Bishop Hobart, when the Park and neighbourhood were the Faubourg St. Germain of our city: he dwelt there and so did his successor, the Rev. Dr. William Berrian, upon whose death, in 1862, it became the residence of the present incumbent. About the year 1871, the Vestry, thinking it desirable that the Rectory should be at a more central point, proposed to the Rector a removal farther up town. To this he strongly objected, but finally assented, on condition that the ancient building should neither be sold nor leased for secular purposes but converted to some charitable use. Approving the suggestion, and acting on his advice, the Vestry of Trinity Church decided to turn the Rectory into an infirmary or Parish Hospital, for the benefit of our own poor and of others where room could be had. This having been done, it was a question how the work should be carried on; and application was made to Mother Harriet for a Sister to take charge of the new foundation, and as many more as might be needed to help her. The Reverend Mother hesitated as to compliance with the request; parochial Sisterhoods constitute a class by themselves; in no sense was the Community of St. Mary a parish organization; it formed a part of no parish; it was responsible to the Bishop only; and experience had taught the danger of entangling alliances. But considering that the Rector of Trinity was at that time also the Pastor of the Sisters, and in deference to his wishes for which he has ever been dutifully grateful, consent was given. A Sister was sent, with helpers; and thus a new branch of the work was added in the largest and oldest of the parishes of New York.

The annual reports of Trinity Infirmary, or Trinity Hospital as it is now called, show a vast amount of work done there, without compensation, for people labouring under the oppression of sickness and passing through the valley of the shadow of death: but no one has yet written, nor could statistics tell, the story of the spiritual force exerted there upon the sick in heart and the distressed in soul and spirit. The ministrations of the Sisters to the weak, the penitent, the unhappy have been quite as abundantly blessed as those of the medical staff to the bodies of their patients. It has been emphatically a mission work; the stories of persons who, during illness, have there been reclaimed or converted to Christ, are numerous and deeply affecting; the priests of St. John's Chapel have been daily visitors to the wards; many they have prepared for baptism, confirmation, Holy Communion, and death; many who entered the door with scarce a hope for this world or the next have gone forth strong in faith, new creatures in body and spirit, refreshed and well. By degrees some other branches of Christian work have been added to the Hospital service: guilds have been formed, classes instructed; by large additions to the building, room has been gained for a beautiful Chapel, where priestly ministrations are extended to people not needing medical aid, and Retreats and Quiet Days have been conducted from season to season. All this work, large in range, and most important in a religious aspect, has been under the constant and devoted observation of the Sister Eleanor, for the last twenty-two years "Superintendent" of the Hospital.

Nor are the labours of the Sisters limited to the precincts of St. John's Chapel. For sixteen years they have had charge of the Trinity Mission House, labouring in the vast field between the Battery and Chambers St., as helpers to the Clergy stationed in that part of the parish. It must suffice to have made mention of this great work, in which they have been so devotedly engaged; the glimpse will be enough for the reader, already, perhaps, becoming bewildered with the extent and variety of their labours.

But, to anticipate somewhat, I shall postpone the story of Memphis, and complete this survey of the field over which the eyes of the Mother were constantly ranging, and to every portion of which her great heart was hourly going out, by mentioning their entrance into two more dioceses, Wisconsin and Chicago.

In the year 1870, when Dr. William E. Armitage was Bishop of Wisconsin, he founded at Kenosha a School for Girls, as a memorial to his venerated predecessor, Bishop Kemper, which was intended to become eventually "a home for a Sisterhood for Church School teaching." This School, established and opened in the autumn of that year, was carried on with difficulty and indifferent success for about seven years, when it became obvious that something must be done to rescue it from impending failure.

At a meeting of the Trustees, held Sept. 15, 1877, the Rev. Jas. de Koven, D.D., offered a resolution setting forth the long entertained desire of the Board that the School should be in the hands of a Sisterhood, and alleging that the time had come when a change in the management must be made. Upon the adoption of this resolution, the Bishop of the Diocese, the Right Rev. Dr. E. R. Welles, wrote at once to Mother Harriet, and received her reply as follows:

"St. Gabriel's, Nov. 8th, 1877.


"Rev. and Dear Sir:

"I write this morning to say that, God willing, we will send two Sisters to take charge of Kemper Hall the next scholastic year. We feel that this is a great venture of faith,—still, if God calls, we must have no fears, but go lovingly forth in His Name. The Sisters whom I propose to send will, I think, in every respect prove equal to the task assigned them. I will write a line to Dr. de Koven to-day. Commending our little Community to your prayers, I am,

"Rev. Father in God,

"Faithfully yours,

"+HARRIET, Mr. Supr.,

"Sisters of S. Mary."

In June, 1878, the Sisters came, and the School opened under their charge in the following September.

So great was the success which followed under the new management, that in January, 1886, the Board of Trustees vacated their office, and turned the School over to the Sisters, by the following resolution:

"The Trustees of Kemper Hall, recognizing the thoroughness of the work of the Sisters of St. Mary, and desiring to secure their permanent care of this Institution, propose the following plan to the Sisters of St. Mary:

"That the Sisters of St. Mary become the Trustees of Kemper Hall in place of the present Trustees (who are willing to resign in their favour) and thereby to be vested with all the power and obligations of the present Corporation."

This arrangement was accepted, May, 1886. The Board of Trustees now consists of the Bishop of Milwaukee, ex-officio, the Mother Superior and Sisters of St. Mary, and some one man of business ability selected by the Sisters to be their adviser when his services may be needed.

When the Sisters took charge of the School in 1878, there was a large indebtedness, with an annual deficit, for which the Trustees provided by borrowing from time to time, thus increasing the debt. To this the Sisters strongly objected. Since they became the Trustees in 1886, the situation changed; a large part of the debt has already been paid, and the financial condition is sound. The property is beautifully situated on Lake Michigan, the incursions of which are prevented by a very large breakwater which cost a great sum to build and requires a considerable annual outlay to keep in order. The grounds are attractive, and defended by magnificent pines and cedars from the prairie winds. Many new buildings have been erected, including a large refectory, chemical and physical laboratories, studio and class-rooms, and enlarged dormitories. The School opened in 1870 with 10 boarding pupils and 3 day scholars; in 1883 it had 30 boarders, and for the last two years there have been go boarders besides a considerable number of day scholars. It is said, in the Report of the School, that there has never been a death among pupils resident at Kemper Hall since the Sisters took charge in 1878, nor any epidemic illness there. Such is the record of a work which God has blessed.

Of the spiritual work done at Kenosha much might be said. In that connexion occur the names of Bishops Welles, Knight, and Nicholson, all devoted to the interests of Church extension and Christian education at that centre of intellectual, moral, and spiritual life in their portion of the field: and with tender recollections we muse of James de Koven, Lucien Lance, John J. Elmendorff, who all laboured in the work and were in their times helpers of Kemper Hall.

From several other quarters invitations have come since that day, asking their presence and their help. Nearly all of these have been denied for want of numbers sufficient to meet the demand. How vast the force required for such a range of labours! It will be seen, when the reader comes to the Story of Memphis, how this almost enthusiastic appreciation of the work of women in Community and devoted to our Blessed Lord grew so fast and became so strong. With heartfelt pain, the Mother found herself at last unable to answer Yes to the requests which poured into her office at St. Gabriel's. One, however, she forced herself to comply with; it was that of the Bishop of Chicago, the Right Rev. Dr. McLaren, who, in 1891, asked her aid in connexion with the mission work at his Cathedral, in that enormous and most perplexing, if not unintelligible, metropolis of the West. The Sisters were already established firmly in that city.

Mother Harriet seems to have set her heart on the settlement in Chicago, fully realizing the importance of the field. A letter of hers bears on this point.

"St. Gabriel's, Peekskill, Jany. 17th.

"My very dear Sister:

"Shall we have a little chat over Chicago this morning? . . . I think I appreciate fully all the points in regard to our taking up work in Chicago, and whenever it seems to be the will of God that we should make a foundation there, I shall be not only ready but more than ready to begin it. One might make two points:

"Ist. If through any action, or want of action, on the part of the Trustees, we should be obliged to leave Kemper Hall, that moment we would be ready for Chicago.

"The other point: Whenever the Province of Illinois is ready to send for training two or three candidates, we promise a foundation for Chicago. I say, the Province of Illinois, but, of course, I intend by that, any Western Diocese. I think when we have eight Sisters for our work at the West, we may safely assume two works. I consider now that we have five, as Sister F—— really came to us from the West, and it is my intention, as soon as it can possibly be done, either to return her, or a Sister in her place, for the work at the West. Now where are those candidates? Can you not produce one or two of them? Has Bishop no recruit forces? Perhaps I ought to add a word in regard to his having other Sisters, as you mentioned the matter in your letter. Of course, if there should be other Sisters ready to go to the Bishop; and we not ready, it would be an indication that God did not intend St. Mary's for that field. The natural man has a longing for Chicago; but the natural man must not govern but be governed by the spiritual man; and so let us wait quietly for the clear light."

In the autumn of 1887 a small house was opened on the south side of Chicago in connexion with St. Clement's Church, Canon Knowles being then the priest in charge. The modest beginning grew in time to more. The Mother wrote after the settlement had been made in that city:

"I suppose Chicago is full of people of every sort and kind; and that, even in the mission work, there comes some phase of this pressure of people. One feels like saying, Oh! their souls! their souls! Pray for the multitude."

The Sisters had been in that position three years and a half, when they removed to the Cathedral, and took up mission work on the west side. In 1894 they purchased the property next door to their Mission House, for $16,000, and opened a "Temporary Home for Children"; this also belongs to the Community.

With these establishments, at Kenosha and Chicago, there was now what might be considered a Western branch of the Community, as there was a Southern branch at Memphis and Sewanee. That these might become, at some future time, in part autonomous, holding a place in the Community something like that of Provinces in the Church at large, was the Reverend Mother’s idea and earnest desire to the day of her departure.

Later, in the year 1886, the Laura Franklin Hospital in this city was placed in charge of the Sisters. This, I think, completes the list of the institutions, educational, eleemosynary, etc., now in their care, a wonderful list to have been written since the year 1867.

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