Project Canterbury

Ten Decades of Praise
The Story of the Community of Saint Mary during Its First Century
by Sister Mary Hilary, CSM

Racine, WI: The DeKoven Foundation for Church Work, 1965. 226 pp.

The Work of God

FIVE MINUTES BEFORE TWELVE the warning bell rings. The kitchen Sister slips out of a blue apron and makes a final check of the refectory tables; the guest mistress pauses in the cloister with a visiting Associate, helping her mark the proper pages in her breviary; a Novice snatches the convent cat and ejects him from the sacristy.

Up the hill from the altar-bread bakery, down the hill from the laundry, in from the garden, out of the Convent offices, down the stairs from the sewing room, come Sisters of Saint Mary in their soaring starched headpieces. Within a few minutes they have entered the Chapel and are kneeling in choir, in places assigned by rank. The Office bell rings, the Superior announces the intention for which they are offering this act of worship—for Christian education at Prime and successively for the visible unity of the Church, the conversion of sinners, for the sick, the poor, for benefactors, associates and families—and together they chant the hymn and the psalms which, with a brief scripture lesson, the Lord's Prayer and a collect, make up the mid-day Little Hours.

The Divine Office is recited carefully, with a direct and quiet simplicity that worldlings, accustomed to over-assertion, find disconcerting. Critics of monasticism have called it dreary psalm-droning, but to the Benedictine-oriented Community of Saint Mary, the Divine Office is the very heart of the life of the gospel counsels of perfection. The Sisters have set out to love a sinful and sordid world with the saving love of Christ. Only because of him, and through him, are they able to do this. Thus they turn again and again to the drama of redemption. Each hour of worship celebrates the Israel out of Egypt event which prefigured and pointed toward Christ's deliverance of mankind from sin's bondage. At the longer Offices of Lauds and Vespers the choir chants the gospel canticles heralding the Saviour: Our Lady's Magnificat at Vespers and Zacharias's Benedictus at Lauds.

The Divine Office is seen, then, as the pageant of salvation continuously offered in praise of God on behalf of the Church, in intercession for all men. Its setting varies kaleidoscopically with the seasons of the liturgical year, sorrowful and stark in the nights before Good Friday, bursting forth on Easter with bells, lights and flowers to herald Christ's victory over sin and death. When she is in choir, a Sister of Saint Mary speaks as the voice of Christ in his body the Church. She goes forth from the great redemption drama to live its message before an unbelieving world, to put love where there is no love, as St. John of the Cross once said.

Whenever the Catholic Church has been most truly and fully Christ-in-the-world, she has been faithful to this Opus Dei, the regular and continuous praising of God as his due, his worth-ship. At the English Reformation and its aftermath, when many tools of devotion were discarded or neglected, this was retained in the Prayer Book Offices of Matins and Evensong. From the Divine Office as it was recited by cathedral canons, by vicars and their flocks, by country squires and their households, it was but a step to the Offices as they were recited at Little Gidding in the eighteenth century, and another step to the revival of conventual communities in nineteenth century England.

In the United States, the barriers to resuming the Opus Dei seemed insurmountable. Although by 1800 despite widespread opposition and suspicion, the Anglicans had acquired bishops, the Church was still an orphaned and exiled child in a hostile Puritan and Deist environment, uncertain of its identity and cut off from its heritage. Even so, it was a parishioner of Trinity Church in New York who made the first move toward founding an indigenous community for women. So far ahead of her time was Eliza Bayley Seton that she was obliged to seek Roman Catholic sponsorship for her Daughters of Charity.

It was Mrs. Seton's rector, John Henry Hobart, who, as Bishop of New York, directed the initial phase of revival. Anglican renewal flourished until the 1830's, when it was halted by the cross-fire of the Catholic-Protestant nativist vendetta. Alarmed by increased Irish immigration, evangelical preachers and editors from 1835 to 1855 waged a campaign of vilification so perfidious that they actually succeeded in "poisoning the wells of history", as Bishop Ireland once charged. The no-popery propagandists turned to publishing alleged disclosures of the enormities of convent life, producing a literary genre that has been largely disregarded by American historians. Such books as Six Months in a Convent by Rebecca Theresa Reed and the notorious Awful Disclosures of the Hotel Dieu Nunnery of Montreal by Maria Monk are credited with the widest sale of any titles published prior to Uncle Tom's Cabin in 1852. By such means, incalculable numbers of Americans were persuaded that nuns represented "white female slaves in this land of freedom", as the American Protective Association declared at its first meeting in Clinton, Iowa, in 1887.

Thus when Dr. William Augustus Muhlenberg set out to found the first sisterhood in the Episcopal church, he was careful to disclaim any resemblance to Roman Catholic nunneries, and appears to have initiated the venture with utmost secrecy. Only he and the sexton witnessed the brief ceremony on the Feast of All Saints, 1845, when the thirty-nine-year-old Anne Ayres knelt at the altar of the Church of the Holy Communion in Manhattan and consecrated her life to the service of Christ as a Sister of the Holy Communion. Dr. Muhlenberg envisaged no nunnery, he assured distraught parishioners, but rather an association of deaconesses such as that proposed by his friend the Rev. William Alfred Passavant, a Lutheran minister. In 1849, Pastor Theodor Fliedner, founder of the deaconess institute at Kaiserswerth, Germany, chaperoned four deaconesses from Kaiserswerth to Pittsburgh to staff Dr. Passavant's hospital, thereby founding the order in the United States. It was to this order of deaconesses that Dr. Muhlenberg always pointed when the no-nunnery alarm sounded.

Briefly stated, Dr. Muhlenberg's formula called for a woman of great force of character who would be

the centre around whom the others are to rally, carrying out her directions and deriving through her, in return, supplies, protection, and all needful provision for their comfort.

This superintending sister he planned to invest with "enough control to secure efficient service, and to prevent any sudden rupture and lapses in the work." A sister's commitment was for three years and she was expected to have private means of support. If the sisters took no vows, Dr. Muhlenberg explained, then members whose zeal flagged would be free to depart, and monastic decay could never take place.

In formulating his ideal, Dr. Muhlenberg displayed all the faults of his virtues. His was a religion entirely of the heart; his revulsion upon meeting Newman at Oxford in 1843 was the natural, distrustful response of a sentimental man confronted with the hard facets, as well as the shadowed subtlety, of Newman's intellect. Dr. Muhlenberg's attitudes were largely sectarian; born into a distinguished Lutheran family in Philadelphia, he appears to have become an Anglican by chance. When St. James' Episcopal Church presented his widowed mother with a pew in part payment for a piece of real estate, she thriftily decided to use it. As a result, young William was sent to a school sponsored by Christ Church. There is a distinctively American and sectarian quality in Dr. Muhlenberg's insistence that the Sisters of his order could achieve the fruits of renunciation without renunciation. He ignored the fundamental principle of Catholic spirituality, that the first question must not be, "What can I do for God?", but rather "What will I allow God to do for me?" Christians are incapable of good works until they have learned the hard lessons of humility, a humility that involves acceptance—of the past and the achievements it has handed on to the present, of one's own limitations, of the disciplines required by community with widely diverse persons and opinions. Dr. Muhlenberg ignored also the fundamental psychological principle of over-determination; men seldom surrender themselves to the mundane and practical, and when they do, one is inclined to regard it as an abberation or at least a truncation of man's full humanity.

More surprising, Dr. Muhlenberg's scheme disregarded the gospel counsels. Obedience, most basic of the counsels, became indenture instead of a dynamic relationship with God protected by a rule and constitution and subject to Christian charity. Poverty was reduced to middleclass gentility, neither voluntary nor communal. Celibate chastity became a temporary expedient which, in certain cases, amounted to nothing more than the deferment of marriage.

Just as commitment fell short of total dedication, so the tools and aids traditionally provided in the conventual life were withheld. No provision was made for training or for retreats. The Divine Office was not recited, and worship was restricted to what Dr. Muhlenberg considered safely protestant and evangelical. The religious habit, a helpful though not essential sign and safeguard of consecration, was forbidden in favor of a prescribed, plain "ordinary attire of a gentlewoman." There was provided no episcopal oversight nor any corporate structure within which the Sisterhood could re-group itself when differences arose or leadership failed.

To say all this is to detract in no way from Dr. Muhlenberg's achievement. The courage required to establish a sisterhood is a measure of his pastoral concern for the sickness, homelessness and poverty all about. For several years Miss Ayres and Miss Meta Brevoort taught in the Holy Communion parish school, visited the poor and nursed during the recurring cholera epidemics. In 1852 the Sisterhood was formally organized. In 1853 two or three rooms were hired in a tenement at the rear of the church, and beds set up for several incurable patients in desperate need of nursing. More than two hundred patients had been cared for in these lowly quarters when, in 1856, Mr. John Swift presented the Sisters with a house; their former rooms were then used to enlarge the infirmary and the ground floor given over to the school and dispensary.


About this time, perhaps in 1853, Harriet Starr Cannon came down from Bridgeport, Connecticut, and took a room in Brooklyn, where she planned to support herself by teaching music. The Sisterhood must have come to her attention in the general speculation and apprehension concerning it. She may have read the pamphlet "Thoughts on Evangelical Sisterhoods" written by Miss Ayres and published in 1853. In any event, on Ash Wednesday, February 6, 1856, Miss Cannon was received as a probationer in the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, an event she always regarded as the beginning of her life in holy religion.

Harriet Cannon at thirty-three was singularly free of worldly ties. She had been born May 7, 1823, in Charleston, South Carolina, where her father had gone from Connecticut to establish a stock brokerage. Yellow fever took the lives of both parents when Harriet was seventeen months old. William Cannon died September 29, 1824, and Sarah Hinman Cannon died the following day. Harriet and her three-year-old sister, Catherine Ann, were left alone. According to family stories, everything the children should have inherited was stolen from them, though it is doubtful if William Cannon's brief business career could have yielded much in excess of his debts. The babies were soon rescued by Sally Cannon's brother-in-law, Captain James Alien, who arrived in his sailing packet on a trading venture and carried them off to relatives in Connecticut. Old accounts fail to mention whether or not a sailor in the crew was experienced in the care and feeding of infants. The pair somehow survived the ordeal and were handed over, doubtless with relief, to their mother's sister, Mrs. Hyde, in Bridgeport.

The Hyde home was full of children, the little orphans making seven. Of Harriet's childhood little is known. She was baptized in Connecticut and confirmed by Bishop Onder-donk on March 10, 1844, at the Church of the Redemption in New York, where she was visiting relatives. An accident deprived her of the sight of one eye when she tossed her head while her long, black hair was being combed, and the comb entered her eye. Music was her chief interest; she studied singing and learned to play the piano and the organ well enough to give music lessons to the children of friends and relatives.

In later girlhood, Harriet was described by a relative as "a great society girl and not at all religious." She enjoyed dancing. One of her youthful dancing partners became a Manhattan bank president who regaled his teen-aged daughter with tales of taking Harriet Cannon to parties. A miniature of the Cannon sisters done in 1850 or 1851 shows Harriet wearing somewhat exotic drop earrings and a cross on a chain, evidence perhaps that she was subject to warring attractions. In her heart there must have been some seed of desire that would issue in consecration, for later in life she likened her young self to St. Theresa embarking from the nursery in Avila to convert the Moors.

The Bridgeport episode ended in 1851 when Catherine Cannon married John Ruggles and moved to California. The young couple planned that as soon as they were established Harriet would join them. Two years later the Hyde family moved to Milford, Connecticut. At some time between these two events, Harriet went to Brooklyn, where she taught music, and sang in the Grace Church choir. In 1855 she prepared to leave for California and paid a parting visit to one of her Hyde cousins, now married and living in Milford. About a week before Harriet's departure, they celebrated her birthday with a party. In the midst of the festivities, a telegram arrived announcing the death, after a brief illness, of Catherine Cannon Ruggles.

It was a crushing loss. No one ever took her sister's place in Harriet's affections. Forty years later she wrote to a Sister:

I know how you miss your dear mother. No one knows that better than I do. All these years have gone by, and I can never speak of my sister without the tears coming with the words.

You know, she was my all—neither father, mother, or brother. We were two, but were but one—but if God had left her with me, I should not have been here.

So it happened that in 1856 Harriet Cannon was received as a probationer by the Sisters of the Holy Communion and was set to work nursing in the little infirmary behind the Church of the Holy Communion, caring for eighteen patients, all seriously ill. At one point, the Sisters were quarantined with small-pox patients, a disease to which Sister Harriet was immune by reason of previous illness. Dr. Muhlenberg's daily visits provided their only communication with the outside world. Sister Anne's description of one such visit might well have described Sister Harriet:

On one of these occasions, he found a young probationary Sister, rocking, as he lay wrapped in a blanket within her arms, a little boy, very ill with the loathsome disease. She was singing a hymn for him, and the poor child smiled as he looked up in her face and forgot his pain and restlessness. Dr. Muhlenberg came down from the ward enamored of the picture—'The very ideal of a Sister of Charity.'

In the following year, on the Feast of the Purification, February 2, 1857, Harriet Cannon was received into full membership as a United Sister of the Holy Communion. She signed the rules and entered into an engagement to remain for three years, a compact which was later renewed. With the other Sisters, she looked forward to the completion of St. Luke's Hospital on Fifth Avenue at Fifty-fourth Street. Dr. Muhlenberg had first mentioned the hospital in a sermon in 1846, and characteristically designated half the collection at that service as the beginning of the hospital fund. As this was the princely sum of $15, a vestryman felt impelled to ask him when he expected his hospital to be built. "Never, unless I begin," the priest replied. By the spring of 1857 the building rose, a stately monument to Dr. Muhlenberg's dream of a hospital where the poor could be nursed and provided with the religious consolations and other comforts of a loving home. A hospital, he thought, should be like a family, with a father, a mother, and daughters to help nurse the sick. The Sisters, therefore, were an integral part of the plan, and when donors objected to "the Protestant nuns", Dr. Muhlenberg gave them his terms: no Sisters, no St. Luke's.

On the Feast of the Ascension, 1857, the hospital chapel was dedicated with appropriate services, but much remained to finish the wards. To speed the contractors, three Sisters and nine patients took possession on May 11, 1858, in a building not yet equipped with lights and lacking even a kitchen range.

The wards had been completed by September 29 when Sister Harriet joined her Sisters at St. Luke's. She was placed in charge of one of the wards, a room 109 feet long, containing forty beds. Two nurses helped her during the day, and one at night, but it was Sister Harriet who was present at the visits of the physician and was accountable for the carrying out of his directions. In a little pharmacy adjoining the ward she prepared each prescription as it was required. She saw to it that patients in her ward had opportunity to take part in the daily chapel services, from the gallery that opened onto the chapel from each ward.

There were immense satisfactions in the work. Her nursing skills increased steadily, and she had a sense of performing a useful service, of participating in a venture which attracted favorable attention from every quarter. Medical authorities from abroad remarked on the absence of the sights and odors peculiar to hospitals, the result of free ventilation, an abundance of clean bedding and dressings, and the constant care and attention of the Sisters. Moreover, Dr. Muhlenberg, a bachelor, transferred his residence to the Hospital in 1859, and since he took his meals with the Sisters, he now became a welcome member of their small family.

But the sands of human personality proved to be an unsound foundation upon which to build a growing Sisterhood. The Sisters complained of erratic and autocratic direction; Sister Anne responded with increased demands and tightened controls. She opposed their suggestion that the Sisterhood adopt the corporate organization and the traditional ways of the conventual life. Early in the winter of 1862-1863, United Sister Louisa Cooper and Probationary Sister Amelia Asten left the Hospital to avoid further discord. Sister Anne concluded that two courses of action lay before her: she must conform to the Sisters' requests or she must resign her office. She decided to resign and announced her decision to the Sisterhood. At once Dr. Muhlenberg, to the consternation of the Sisters, informed them that the Sisterhood was ipso facto dissolved. The work at St. Luke's Hospital was to be continued under Miss Ayres as matron, with such Sisters as chose to remain. Before the change could be made, however, Sister Anne angrily ordered Sisters Harriet and Mary off the premises and their appeal to Dr. Muhlenberg met with his refusal to interfere.

Accordingly, four Sisters left St. Luke's Hospital early in the morning of April 9, 1863—Harriet Cannon, Mary Heartt, Jane Haight and Sarah Bridge. Accompanying them was "Little Katie Hassett", a sixteen-year-old orphan suffering from the effects of what was described as "hip disease." Nursed back to health in Sister Harriet's ward, she had stayed on to help with the work and now hoped to become a Sister.

The Sisters never became reconciled to their abrupt departure from St. Luke's. Sister Harriet grieved to part without a word of farewell from people with whom she had worked for seven years. She returned the following day to attempt a reconciliation, but Sister Anne declined to see her. As time went on, Sister Harriet recalled with pleasure the hard work and jokes and fun they had had together at St. Luke's. She always ended with a lament over the estrangement from Sister Anne, "If only she could have trusted me."

The Sisters who remained at St. Luke's later divided into two groups. Those who worked at the Hospital and the social service complex on Long Island called St. Johnland became the Sisters of St. Luke and St. John. Those who worked from the Church of the Holy Communion became the reconstituted Sisters of the Holy Communion; these Sisters continued in charge of the dispensary at 328 Sixth Avenue for several years after the Sisterhood of St. Luke and St. John became defunct. The last Sister of the Holy Communion died in 1940.

After Dr. Muhlenberg's death in 1877, Sister Anne retired to St. Johnland where she wrote an account of her thirty-years' association with Dr. Muhlenberg. Her comments serve to show that the individual and the personal were never submerged in the corporate communal life. Sister Anne lived until 1896; she died of bronchitis in St. Luke's Hospital on February 9, just two months before Mother Harriet's death. Toward the end Mother Harriet went to visit her, somewhat apprehensively, not certain how she would be received. Her fears were groundless, however. Both had been certain of being wronged, but both had learned to forgive. Sister Anne received her guest with great kindness, and the two talked together calmly and quietly with no apparent rancor. At Sister Anne's funeral, Mother Harriet was among those who stood beside the grave.

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