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 78-93


THE story of Memphis has been told in full already; [1] it must be too well known to need repetition. And yet some mention of it must be made, so great is its importance in this history. Before the memorable year 1878, many spoke against these faithful and devoted women: after that year, the tongue of calumny was silent, while men looked on with beating hearts, and eyes dim with tears. For God then gave to His faithful the crown of martyrdom; their names became sacred thenceforth, ennobled by the love which shrinks not from death, in appalling form. The light is still shining on the graves in Memphis, where they rest who laid down their lives readily, joyfully, eagerly, for God, for the brethren, and for those who had no strength nor courage left; who thus filled up the measure of their calling, and were nailed to the Cross with; Him who, for our sakes, became obedient unto death. The sacrifice was at once accepted by all beholders as the vindication of the immolated, the test of their motives, and the proof of the power of their faith. It could not have come more opportunely. A voice seemed to say, of them: "Thou shalt hide them privily by Thine own Presence from the provoking of all men: Thou shalt keep them secretly in Thy tabernacle from the strife of tongues."

It will be remembered that in the year 1873, on the request of Bishop Quintard, and with the consent of Bishop Potter, some of the Sisters were sent to Memphis, to found a school for girls, and to take charge of an institution already existing, known as the Church Home. In August of that year, a little band arrived, consisting of Sister Constance, who was to be the Sister Superior and to take the headship of the school; Sister Amelia, one of the original five, Sister Thecla, who had just made her profession, and a novice known as Sister Hughetta, a young lady of a distinguished Southern family. Sister Amelia was set to work to organize the Church Home, then in deplorable disorder; a task for which she had a natural aptitude, with the advantage of her experience in the Sheltering Arms and House of Mercy; the other three were to be specially engaged in the educational work. Sister Constance [2] was a young woman of culture, intelligence, and ability, of great personal attractions, of exquisite grace, refinement, and loveliness of character—in short, qualified in every particular to train the daughters of the South, of whom a considerable number were at once readily confided to their care. Sister Thecla was a woman of a noble type, strong, able, thoughtful, a great soul. It will be at once conceded, by those who knew them, that they who were sent to Memphis in 1873 were the flower of the Sisterhood of that day.

Scarcely had they commenced their work, when that terrible disease, the yellow-fever, appeared in Memphis. They immediately wrote to New York, and asked permission to remain at their posts and nurse the sick. It was granted; and so these three or four, of whom not one had had experience in epidemic disease, and whose special work was that of teaching, found themselves in the novel position of hospital sisters in a plague-stricken community. The summer passed; the fever ceased; and they resumed their proper work in the school, of which the opening had been postponed till late in the autumn of that year.

But worse things were to come. Five years later, as the summer of 1878 crept in with stealthy tread, there were rumours of a new visitation of the enemy; and in the month of August of that year, the yellow-fever was once more pronounced epidemic in Memphis. This time it came with tenfold force and fury.

Sister Constance and Sister Thecla were absent. At the closing of the School they had gone North, for greatly needed rest and change of air. On the 15th of August, the news reached them at St. Gabriel's, that Memphis was in confusion, and that thousands were flying from the place. This was two weeks only from the time of their arrival in New York: and without the loss of an hour their preparations were made, their farewells were said, and they were on the way back to Tennessee. A priest had hardly time to commit them to the mercy of God, when they were gone.

It was a striking contrast: on the one hand, crowds flying in terror, escaping by carriages, wagons, carts, and even on foot; moody men, trembling women and children: on the other a few brave souls, with equal resolution, speeding into the valley of death; men of the medical profession, clergymen helping to assist the dying, hospital nurses, and the calm-faced daughters of the Lord seeking Him in His despairing people.

The little band on whom this storm burst consisted of the following persons:

The Rev. George C. Harris, D.D., Dean of St. Mary's Cathedral;
The Rev. Charles C. Parsons, Rector of Grace Church, Memphis;
Sister Constance, Superior;
Sister Thecla, teacher in St. Mary's School;
Sister Hughetta, teacher in St. Mary's School;
Sister Francis, in charge of the Church Orphan Home;
Mrs. C. Bullock and Miss Margaret Murdoch, both residents at the Sisters' House.

To these were subsequently added:

The Rev. Louis S. Schuyler;
The Rev. Wm. T. D. Dalzell;
Sister Ruth, and Sister Helen, sent from Trinity Hospital;
Sister Clare, of St. Margaret's, East Grinstead.

The Sisters' House was turned into a dispensary and store-house of supplies; the Orphan House was similarly utilized. At the request of the Relief Association, they also took charge of the "Canfield Asylum," on the 29th of August.

The work was incessant, like all work in time of violent epidemic disease. There were daily celebrations in the Cathedral; the blessed Sacrament was reserved, being constantly needed for the dying. In the narrative already referred to, many letters are given, pathetic, harrowing, terrible, descriptive of the scenes about them and the awful distress. Sister Constance kept a little diary, up to August 31st, when it ended. At that time Sister Thecla had been down but was better and at work again; 119 new cases had just been reported; and memoranda of death after death are strewn over the sad pages.

At last they sent to St. Gabriel's for some help. Mother Harriet would have gone long before, was eager to go, but was positively forbidden to take the risk; the General commanding is not the proper person to lead the forlorn hope. Eager volunteers besought permission to go; two were selected, Sisters Ruth and Helen, whose training at Trinity Hospital, as nurses of the sick in that house, and in the worst places in the Fifth Ward seemed to have fitted them for that honourable service. Sister Ruth was in a retreat at St. Gabriel's when the summons came; she left it at once, and on the 31st of August, set off on her journey, with Sister Helen and Sister Clare. They arrived, Sept. 2d, and plunged at once into the tide of that fatal flood.

On the 7th of September the Rev. Mr. Parsons died; the first to fall. Up to the time when he became ill, the daily celebration was made in the Cathedral. Dr. Harris was already down; they had no priest; they were alone with God. When this was known, many priests offered their services to the Bishop of Tennessee; of whom the first to arrive was the Rev. Louis S. Schuyler, truly an elect soul. It happened that he was at St. Gabriel's holding a service, when the news of the death of Mr. Parsons and the doubtful state of Dr. Harris came: he learned it as he left the Chapel early in the morning. On the 8th of September he was in Memphis, arriving on the day after Dr. Dalzell.

The end was now near for Sisters Constance and Thecla, who thus far had borne the heaviest burden. On the 7th they were both stricken and reported as very ill: that was the day on which Mr. Parsons died. A full account has been given of their passing.

Sister Constance died September 8th, Sister Thecla's only fear being that she might be stricken before her Sister's soul should have entered into rest.

On Thursday, the 10th, the brave soul of Sister Thecla departed.

On Saturday, the 14th, Dr. Armstrong, a faithful and beloved physician, died.

On Monday, the 16th, Mrs. Bullock died.

On Tuesday, the 17th, the Rev. Louis Schuyler died.

On the same day, a few hours later, Sister Ruth died.

On the 4th of October, after recovery and a relapse, Sister Frances died.

So the little band dwindled away.

On that 18th of September, they received, at Trinity Hospital, New York, this despatch:

"Sister Ruth entered into rest last night.
"Beati mortui.
"Only Sister Helen remains to be smitten of the fever.
"Sister Hughetta and Sister Clare are doing well."

It would be impossible, without long extracts from the letters of that period, to give an adequate idea of the beauty and dignity of those translations to the place beyond this vale of sorrow; of Sister Thecla, suffering greatly, but patient through it all, her whole soul set on the Lord, chiding those about her who would have helped her in her agony, with the remonstrance, "I was with Jesus and you have disturbed me"; of the dear little Sister Ruth, beloved of all who knew her, dear to the children and poor in the New York slums, so quaintly mirthful, so bright, so cheery; of Schuyler, and Parsons, brave men as ever lived; and finally, of Sister Constance, whose name, now after nearly twenty years, is a great power for devotion and righteousness wherever it is known.

She described with her own hand, soon to be relaxed in death, one of the last pictures seen by her in this world:

"Yesterday I found two young girls, who had spent two days in a two-room cottage, with the unburied bodies of their parents, their uncle in the utmost suffering and delirium, and no one near them but a rough negro drayman who held the sick man in his bed. It was twenty-four hours before I could get those two fearful corpses buried, and then I had to send for a police officer to the Board of Health before any undertaker would enter that room. One grows perfectly hardened to these things—carts with eight or nine corpses in rough boxes are ordinary sights. I saw a nurse stop one day and ask for a certain man's residence—the negro driver just pointed over his shoulder with his whip at the heap of coffins behind him and answered, 'I've got him here in his coffin.'"

Sister Ruth, ere she followed her, gave some graphic sketches of her dear Superior's death. She spoke often of the children, the orphans; sometimes she repeated Latin verses; sometimes it was her accounts that disturbed her mind; but in her delirium she was sweet and gentle, her voice always soft and low. She received the blessed Sacrament from Dr. Dalzell, who had just arrived to relieve the dead or dying priests: her eyes lit up. At the foot of the chalice were some white roses, almost the only ones then to be seen. At intervals she repeated the V and R, "O God, make speed to save us. O Lord make haste to help us." About midnight she cried aloud, "Hosanna"; at 10 A.M. it was all over.

This is, in brief, the story of Memphis. It may be imagined how deep were the pain and anguish of those who, from a distance, looked on, unable to help save with their prayers. But in the record of the Community this is the page most brilliantly illuminated with the colours and the gold.

Were there a similar trial to be sustained today, no doubt the Sisters would embrace the occasion with the same enthusiasm: they know the value, the help, the moral and spiritual power flowing from such instances of devotion to the divine Master. As for the Southern Branch of the Community, they have felt, more deeply perhaps than it has been felt elsewhere, the benediction of that bitter baptism of suffering and pain: a very profound religious impression seems to give a peculiar tone to their work, a marked cast to their habit of mind. Those who fell on the field of duty may have been permitted to aid and strengthen others who never saw them, but to whom they were more a reality of the present than a memory of the past.

And now I shall add some words about a strange affair, which, if what we have been told is true, illustrates the power of a name and the force of an example. It is just to the Sisters to state that they have not desired that anything should be said outside on the subject, and that I proceed on my own responsibility, taking the risk of their disapproval. I refer to certain circumstances attending the death of a Sister who departed this life at Memphis, on the night immediately following Christmas Day, in 1887, after a distressing illness of a year's duration. There are several statements of what occurred, with some details which may be set down as fantastic, and unworthy of repetition; but after carefully winnowing and sifting the mass, we come to the following particulars involving dates and matters of fact and not of fancy. It seems that during the month of November, in the year mentioned, this Sister had what she believed to be a revelation, made to her through Sister Constance, informing her of the precise date of her death, with minute specifications; that she related this at the time, and that her death did actually occur exactly as predicted. On or about the 15th of the month, after having received the Blessed Sacrament, she informed those present that she had seen Sister Constance in her room near her bed. Some days later she further stated, after a night of great suffering, that Sister Constance had come to her again, and sat beside her, and soothed her pain; and that on being asked how long she had to live, she was told, "Until Christmas." She then said to Sister Constance, "I hoped to make my Communion on Christmas"; and that Sister Constance replied, "You will do so." Having further expressed a fear lest her death might cast a cloud on the children's festivities she was told: "You will not die till late on Christmas night, and before then you will be better, and suffer less, and the time will not seem long."

They tried, it seems, to persuade Sister Isabelle that this was a hallucination, and the effect of excited nerves; but she insisted that it was not a dream, but had occurred precisely as she had related it. And in that conviction she became composed and calm, and so spent the time; and everything turned out exactly as had been predicted. On Christmas Eve she was well enough to sit up in her bed, and help to prepare the decorations for the Cathedral, and dress dolls and fill cornucopias for the children. On Christmas morning she received the Sacrament with great joy; soon after she became unconscious, and in the ensuing night, at 2.20 A.M., she died.

That night a Sister dreamed that she saw an angel standing over against the city who announced that he had come to bear away the soul of Sister Isabelle; she awoke and said a prayer for the dying, and looked at her watch, noting the time as 20 minutes past 2. A little child who was devoted to Sister Isabelle awoke her mother in the night, exclaiming that she had seen in her dream Sister Isabelle entering into Paradise. One of the younger Associates, living in Constantinople, dreamed that same night that she saw the heavens opened and our Lord receiving Sister Isabelle.

These are the particulars of that strange case. Let each reader make of it what he will. It may be set down as a psychological incident, or a spiritual experience, or the result of imagination, or a delusion. Members of the Community have taken different views of the matter, as was to be expected; we quarrel with no sceptic, and do not insist on conformity with our own opinion. But considering the nearness of the visible and invisible worlds, and what is included expressly or by implication in the doctrine of the "Communion of Saints"; considering that the Religious Life where faithfully led, must act to loosen the bands of the flesh, and open the eyes of the spirit; considering that there are things in heaven and earth not dreamed of in our low and material philosophies; considering, to use the words of Keble, that those "pure spirits" beyond may and do "soothe and haunt us night and day"; considering that God has often revealed things in dreams and visions, and that His angels are in close and intimate relations to the pilgrims of this night; we take leave to avow our belief in these and many like things, as having actually occurred, and are not ashamed to stand in the company of John Mason Neale,[3] Father Maturin, Frederick George Lee, [4] Wm. J. Knox Little, [5] and other firm believers in the Unseen World and in the possibility and likelihood of intercourse between the inhabitants of that world and us who are living here for a season.

The Reverend Mother was very much interested in this matter both as a psychological incident and a special experience; but what her opinion about it was, she never told me, nor might it have been discreet to enquire too closely.

The Mother Superior never ceased lamenting the loss sustained by her and her children in the taking away of those noble and holy women. For years Sister Constance and the rest were an abiding memory, like the habit of a perpetually present sorrow. Again and again has the writer heard her lament, as one bereaved indeed, the loss of such daughters as those whom the Heavenly Bridegroom removed from sight for a while. The following summer was one of great anxiety lest the terrible scourge should be again inflicted on that unhappy place. A letter on that point, written in 1879, illustrates what all were dreading:

"I try not to think what the summer may be, only to be prepared, as far as may be, for whatever it shall please our Great High Priest to send us. Keep me informed of everything, which may seem to speak of the fever. I would not think it best for Sister E—— or Mrs. M—— to be exposed to it, if it is possible to save them from such exposure without injury to others. My own dear Sister, I understand so well what is in your heart when you say you can think of a long time of suffering with a wish to suffer. I should not dare to say it was presumption in your case. May our dear Lord give to you, and to me, what we most need for our sanctification: may we so yield ourselves to the operation of the Holy Ghost as in all things to be, and do, what He would have us be, and what He would have us do.

"With dearest love for all,
"Affectionately your Mother in our
"Blessed Lord."


[1] See a pamphlet entitled The Sisters of St. Mary at Memphis. With the Acts and Suffrerings of the Priests and others who were there with them during the Yellow Fever Season of 1878. By the Rev. Morgan Dix, D.D

. This pamphlet, privately printed, was, by permission of the Mother Superior, reprinted in Church Work, a monthly magazine for Church work, edited by Mrs. A. T. Twing, vol. ii., No. 12, October, 1887. New York, M. H. Mallory & Co., 47 Lafayette Place.

[2] Miss Louise Caroline Darling, of Boston, Mass.

[3] "The Unseen World; Communication with it, Real or Imaginary." By J. Mason Neale, D.D. 2d ed. Joseph Masters, London, 1853.

[4] "Glimpses of the Supernatural." By the Rev. Frederick George Lee. 2 vols. London, 1875.

[5] "The Broken Vow. A Story of Here and Hereafter." By W. J. Knox Little, Canon Residentiary of Worcester and Vicar of Hoar Cross, Staffordshire. 3d edition. London, Chapman & Hall, 1887.

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