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 128-145]


THE voices of Nature speak directly to the ear of man. None, perhaps, are more expressive than those heard towards the declining of the day by one who, having still with him in the body some dearly beloved and venerated friend, or more than friend, reads in the sunset skies the presage of parting. The day going away, the shadows of the evening stretching out, the golden glory flaming in the west announce the nearness of the end; near as is the end of the day, so near is the end of life; and, with a sudden anguish and a grip at the heart which only they can comprehend who have felt it, men realize the pain of separation, the shortness of the time, and the nearness of the hour when other words will cease in that last word, farewell.

Step by step we have followed one in her earthly pilgrimage: it remains only to muse of the time and the manner of her passage from this scene.

Notwithstanding the prevailing tone of cheerfulness in her letters, there is reason to believe that the last two years were full of anxiety and trouble. Perhaps this was to be expected, considering the wonderful growth of the Sisterhood, the intricacies of its business and work, the occasional clashing of interests, the proceedings of some thoughtless and difficult members, the mishaps and misadventures encountered in every large society, and the advancing age and declining powers of its head. It is a rule of the Sisterhood that the Superior shall be re-elected after an interval of three years. For several terms, the Mother was thus re-elected until at length the formality was omitted through the wish and intention of her companions that she should continue in office all her life. Notwithstanding she often expressed the conviction that it might be better for her to withdraw, and to seek time for undisturbed preparation for her change: that wish was overruled by the Chapter, and for her the day of rest was put off until she was taken to it in Christ through the portal of the grave.

In the spring of 1894, the Mother made her last visit to the South. A letter from a Sister now at Memphis gives a pleasant account of the visit.

"During her stay with us we celebrated the 70th anniversary of her birth. She was as delighted as a child with everything done for her pleasure. On the morning of her birthday the School children brought her a large silver tray of roses. ‘There must be fifty roses here!’ she exclaimed on receiving them.

"‘There are just seventy,’ the little children replied, and Mother was delighted. On the evening of the same day the Academic Classes entertained the Mother with an excellent rendering of ‘The Merchant of Venice.’ She was full of enthusiasm over the play, declaring to the great amusement of the students, that she herself could not have done the part of the Jew half so well. To which one of the children replied, ‘We did not suppose, Mother, that you could have done the Jew’s part at all.’ At this the Mother laughed heartily.

"As Superior General of ‘The Guild of the Holy Child Jesus,’ she took great pleasure in the work of the Southern Branch of the Guild. We always arranged to have a reception of new members into the Guild at the time of her visits. Once while viewing the long procession of beautiful white-veiled children returning from the Cathedral to the School after their joyful musical service, she expressed her pleasure, commenting upon some special features of the service. It is the custom with us for the children received into the Guild to wear wreaths of white roses as a distinction from the other members; and for two children to accompany the Cross-bearer carrying slender banners of white satin and gold bearing the words ‘JESU King of kings’ and ‘JESU LORD of lords.’ Mother was delighted with all and said to me, ‘How little did Sister E—— , Sister M—— M—— and I think that the little Guild we organized in 1869 would grow to be anything so beautiful and good as this!’

"Mother was always lovingly interested in our Orphanage. "These dear little children," she would say, "have no one but us to look to: how faithful we should be to our trust!"

Great indeed was her love for children and deep the interest she took in them. Here and there instances of this come back to us. There was a young child whose birthday was the same as that of the Reverend Mother, the 7th of May. On the child’s eighth birthday, she received a letter from the Mother alluding to the coincidence and saying, "You are now 8, and I am 8 times 8." Thenceforth they always kept their birthdays together, exchanging loving greetings, till 8 more years had passed, when the child of 16 and the holy woman of 72 sent their last messages to each other. From the Sisters was sent to the child the copy of the De Imitatione, well worn by long use, which the Mother kept in her stall in the Chapel at St. Gabriel’s: a treasure worth more than any earthly price to an appreciative and loving heart.

In confirmation of the impression that the last years brought some special trials, the following letters demand insertion:

"Jany. 31, 1895.
". . . . I am sorry Sister F—— is so out of health, but God knows best and we can only accept His will in all things. We mourned for our dear Sister Paula, but we know that to depart and be with Christ is far better; and she is safe; the turmoil is all over and the rest has come."

Sept. 13, 1895.
"I have had rather a trying summer in many ways, but, as you know, I do not lose heart. I know and am sure, that all is from God, and that His very chastisements are tokens of His love. The grace of humility cannot be ours, unless we have humiliations. I try to obey that clause in our Rule [1] which says: ‘Be thankful for humiliation of whatever kind.’"

"St. John’s Day, 1895.
". . . . Dear Sister, you have not been cross with me: I cannot write or even speak of the past year. I have suffered too deeply. ‘Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul also.’ If our patron saint is the ‘Mater Dolorosa,’ our tears must blend with hers. I wonder sometimes whether I shall ever go West and South again. I have entered upon my 73d year and must soon be laid aside. I would like to have a little quiet time ‘before I go hence and be no more seen.’"

Date wanting.
"I know you are very weary and things look rather dark; but as a matter of fact things are not really dark. God ruleth over all, and if we feel troubled, is it not a want of faith on our part? Just think of our blessings: what are our trials compared to our blessings? . . . I realize that the checks we receive as a Community are blessings in disguise. Sometimes it comes to me we are too worldly, do too much to please people outside; so let us believe that when God speaks to us as He has in the events of the past summer, that He longs to make us all more entirely His own, that He would have our very best. . . . I am writing you a long letter, and have still something more to say: when the School is fairly in order, you must go away for a rest. This is a positive command; do not think it cannot be."

Up to the very last she was actively engaged in the duties of her position, as actively, at least, as growing infirmities would permit. It was a great happiness to her that she lived to see the completion of the Chapel at St. Gabriel’s. She insisted that there should be no molestful begging for it; no canvassing for contributions even among the Associates; she wished it to be as nearly as possible a free-will gift and offering of love. The Mother made many quiet suggestions, in that mirthful spirit so characteristic of her, about the Chapel. In England nothing struck her so much as Durham Cathedral, and she declared that it was her desire and intention that the Chapel should be built on the model of Durham. It is not quite so large, nor is it calculated to remind the visitor of that structure; but it is a very beautiful Chapel, and when she saw it finished she might well have sung her Nunc Dimittis.

The last official act of Mother Harriet was a visit to St. Mary's Hospital in New York, made some three weeks before her death, in order to complete the arrangements for the establishment of a Summer Home for Children at Norwalk, Conn. In 1881, through the kindness of a friend, land was purchased at Rockaway Beach, and a Seaside Home was erected there. The Reverend Mother was passionately fond of the ocean; for some years her only recreation consisted of a few days, now and then, at Rockaway; some of the letters already transcribed for this memoir were written there; but she realized the fact that it was better to abandon the place, in consequence of its growing disadvantages and inconveniences, and gladly consented to the transfer of that branch of the work to a new site. A lady of this city, widely known throughout the land for her gracious acts of benevolence, gave the Sisters 31 acres of land, and $20,000, for a building to be erected at Norwalk, a property once owned by the Cannon family, and associated in Mother Harriet’s thoughts with recollections of her early days. The Home will accommodate some seventy children, and the buildings will soon be begun. It is pleasant to reflect that as her ministrations of mercy began among the children, so they ended in the same tender companionship with those lambs of the flock of Christ, that Great Shepherd of the sheep.

In the life of St. Theresa we read that, at the last' her one thought was, "After all, I am a child of the Church:"; and in that fact she stayed her hope and trust in the mercy of the Lord. Our dear Mother had a spirit as humble and reverent as that of her great exemplar, but she also had an almost exultant trust, a hopeful assurance, of the power and love which never had failed her, and in which she was joyful and glad. In her allusions to her approaching departure, there was a quiet and resolved confidence which showed supreme conviction of her safety, and prophesied, without presumption, the triumph over death. Of the dry and cold-blooded paganism which affects indifference to death, or the theory that it comes as a regular and legitimate sequence in a process fixed and ordained by natural law, and should therefore be accepted, or even welcomed with satisfaction by man—of that pernicious philosophical opinion she knew nothing save that it has no place in a Christian's convictions. The awe and dread of death were on her, as they are in all men and women of sound mind and just apprehension of our story and our doom: but the dread and awe were exorcised and cast out, not by any heathen speculation, but by the profound, the consoling, the glorious teachings of Catholic Eschatology, and by the light which it flings in full flood on the dark valley of the shadow of death. Jesus Christ is He to whom alone man may turn for help. Nay, it may be asked, who so near to Jesus Christ, so sensible of His Presence at the last, as they who have left all, in the literal and exact sense of the word, and are, body, soul, and spirit, one with Him, bound by one firm purpose which has overthrown all resistance, and by vows which have been kept faithfully to the end? To whom shall we go but to Thee in Thy Life? And where in death shall we go but to Thee?

If there was one thought above all others habitual with her, it was that of the shortness of the time and the nearness of the end. On one All Souls’ Day, when they visited the little sleeping place at Peekskill and laid flowers on the graves, she said: "I wonder whether I shall be resting here on the next All Souls’ Day." In the latter year, the last of her life, when the care and the burden were becoming daily heavier and heavier, she wrote:

"I have been about writing you for some little time past, but somehow have not managed it: perhaps it was because I did not like writing about myself. I find myself obliged to lay down some laws in regard to the use of my one poor eye. I understand the doctor thinks a cataract is forming: this may or may not be so; but I am trying to get used to the thought that it may be so. I have given up general reading, only looking over a book or a paper just a little; and I have determined never to use a book except in the broad daylight, and to get as much help as possible in the way of letter-writing, etc., etc.; so if my letters are few the Sisters will know the cause. It may be that God intends to lay me aside for awhile in this world before I am taken to my Eternal Rest. Whatever His will be, may my will ever be His."

On occasion of another severe attack of illness toward the end, she wrote:

"I suppose you know why there has been no word from me all through our great Feast. [2] . . . I was obliged to succumb and have the doctor sent for. Well, he kept me a prisoner in my bed for nine whole days with no privileges; however, on the Octave Day I was allowed to be in the ante-chapel and make my communion, and I had the benefit of Second Vespers; but I am still in some sense a prisoner. I am allowed to be in my office for a time, and do some work, and to have my meals served me there, but I am not yet allowed to go down to the Refectory or the Community room. I know that it is necessary to be careful. The doctor feared that the inflammation would extend to the other lung, but it did not. I suppose I shall not be permitted to go to the city for some little time yet. There! a long letter all about myself!"

But why put off saying what now must follow? It was near the end of Lent, in the year 1896; those weeks were at hand when the faithful watch Christ in His Passion, accompanying Him, step by step, on His way forth from this troubled world. Now, at the time more fit for the purpose than any other, the devout Religious at St. Gabriel’s were called to watch the departure of their beloved head from their company and her transit to the royal land of flowers and light. Everything seems to have been ordered by those higher intelligences to whom is committed the care of the children of Our Lord; and great is the peace which fills the soul when we observe how all was brought about to that end.

No one was anticipating what occurred: it came suddenly and without warning. The Mother had been as well as usual, bright, and like herself, as one who might yet see many years. On Passion Sunday, March 22d, 1896, she was in the Chapel for the last time. The Rev. Dr. Riley, of the General Theological Seminary, had been conducting a Retreat: in his last meditation on the Love of God in our glorification, he had dwelt much on the life after death. The following Monday the Mother spoke to one of the Sisters on the subject, and told her what a rest and refreshment the Retreat had been to her, and what a pleasure it had been to receive more light on the subjects on which her mind had been dwelling of late; adding that she felt as though she had had a glimpse into the unseen world, that the cares then pressing on her were lightened and easier to bear, or rather that she felt lifted above them. She went on to speak of the points in the meditation which had chiefly impressed her; and then she said: "I have been thinking a great deal of late about death and what it will mean to me personally; but I cannot make it real; I don’t know at all how I shall feel when I know that I am to die."

That day she felt very tired and had a cold, but she was up part of the day. On Tuesday they wanted her to see the physician, but she refused, saying that she would soon be better and hoped to be quite well for Holy Week. On Wednesday, she was worse and consented to see the doctor; apologizing to him for putting off sending for him on the ground that he had so many demands on his time and she did not wish to add one care more. He pronounced it a case of acute bronchitis' and seemed hopeful.

She was apparently comfortable during the remainder of Passion Week; quiet, and, as usual, deeply interested in school affairs, enquiring every morning about the girls, and particularly about two of the number in whom she was much occupied in thought about that time.

On Saturday a change occurred: it was pneumonia. When told so, she said: "I wonder if the Master has come for me"; and soon after she added, "I think God will ask me to give up going to the Chapel in Holy Week. I have never missed the Night Offices before; all of Lent I have been hoping that I could fully keep Holy Week."

Palm Sunday came; and in the morning she told the Sister who had been with her constantly to leave her for a while, get her palm, and make her communion; which she did. On returning she brought with her a palm for the Mother, and as she saw it placed over the picture of St. Theresa which always hung in her room, her eyes filled with tears, and she said: "It is the first time I have missed the Palm Service," adding, a few moments afterwards: "It is the will of God." When reminded that this was perhaps intended as her special Lenten discipline, she said: "Yes, this may be the Cross our dear Master wishes me to carry for Him and it is a very real one." The next day, when told that the Sisters were saying The Way of the Cross, she replied: "I too am saying the Way of the Cross."

During Holy Week the Mother took very little notice of what was going on; she suffered much from restlessness, and asked not to be left alone, as she had troubled dreams and saw strange and dark things when she closed her eyes: she seemed however to suffer little pain. Her frequent request was for "water fresh from the well." On Maundy Thursday she received the Blessed Sacrament. It was brought to her from the Chapel; she had followed the service exactly and was told when the priest was beginning the Canon. After reception she remained perfectly calm and peaceful, murmuring to herself: "I am waiting; the Master has been served."

Often during those last hours she was heard to be saying, as if secretly: "Light, Emblem of Life"; and "Dear Master"; and again, "He leadeth and guideth me," and "obedient unto death." On Thursday night she said aloud: "They are calling me," but gave no explanation.

On Good Friday when a very dear friend came from New York to see her, she rallied somewhat, roused herself and recognized him. Then unconsciousness returned: but it was felt by those who watched by her that it was only toward the side of earth, that this was a special preparation for the life beyond, and that already in heart and mind she had entered the world of the Unseen.

On Easter Even the Blessed Sacrament was administered to her for the last time.

On Easter Day after Matins in the Church, the priest came and said the Commendatory Prayer: while he was doing so she fixed her eyes upon him and evidently knew what was going on. Thus the hours passed, until about 3 o'clock P.M. the Sisters were summoned and knelt about her. It was just before the hour of None. One of the Sisters was reading the Gradual Psalms, the rest responding. The Chapel bell rang out the ninth hour of the day. The Mother heard it, opened her eyes wide, and seemed to be looking into the other world. Then slightly lifting her hands, while the final prayers were said, she breathed out her soul without a struggle, and was with her Master.

On Thursday in Easter Week the body was reverently laid to rest. It is unnecessary to say more than has been already said in the Prelude about the scenes in the Chapel and the Cemetery that day. An account of the funeral services, the only one authorized by the Sisters, has been published as an appendix to a sermon preached by the Chaplain of the School on Low Sunday. [3] To that account the reader is referred. Let me add but one thing: the hymn, a favourite of hers, which was sung as the priests who acted as bearers took the bier from the choir, and bore it away to the cemetery.


"Safe Home! Safe home in port!
Rent cordage, shattered deck,
Torn sails, provisions short,
And only not a wreck
But oh, the joy upon the shore,
To tell our voyage perils o’er!

"The prize, the prize secure!
The athlete nearly fell;
Bare all he could endure,
And bare not always well:
But he may smile at troubles gone
Who puts the victor-garland on!

"The lamb is in the fold
In perfect safety penn’d;
The lion once had hold,
And thought to make an end.
But One came by with wounded side,
And for the sheep the Shepherd died.

"No more the foe can harm:
No more of leaguer’d camp,
And cry of night alarm,
And need of ready lamp:
And yet how nearly had he failed,—
How nearly had that foe prevail’d!

"The exile is at home!—
Oh, nights and days of tears,
Oh, longings not to roam,
Oh, sins and doubts and fears,—
What matter now, when (so men say)
The King has wip’d those tears away?

"O happy, happy Bride!
Thy widow’d hours are past,
The Bridegroom at thy side
Thou all His Own at last!
The sorrows of thy former cup
In full fruition swallow’d up!"



[1] The Inner Rule must be the one referred to.

[2] Referring to the Purification and its Octave.

[3] Faith through Love. A sermon preached in St. Mary’s Chapel, Peekskill, New York, on Low Sunday, 1896, being the first Sunday after the Burial of Sister Harriet, Foundress of the "Sisterhood of St. Mary, New York," and for thirty-two years its Mother Superior. By the Rev. Arthur Lowndes, D.D. To which is added an authorized account of the Funeral Services on the Thursday in Easter Week. New York, James Pott & Co., Publishers, Fourth Avenue and 22d St. 1896.

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