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.
FOR THE LAST TWO DECADES of her life, Mother Harriet lived at St. Mary's Convent on Mount St. Gabriel, directing the slow, steady expansion of the Community and herself developing extraordinary strength and vision. In 1876, when the Sisters acquired their new frame Convent with its cupola, wide porches and jigsaw ornament, there were Sisters working in seven houses:
St. Mary's School, Manhattan
House of Mercy, Manhattan
St. Mary's Hospital, Manhattan
Trinity Infirmary, Manhattan
St. Gabriel's School, Peekskill
St. Mary's School, Memphis
Church Home, Memphis
In 1896, the year of Mother Harriet's death, Sisters were working also in six new houses:
Kemper Hall, Kenosha
St. Mary's Home, Chicago
Cathedral Mission House, Chicago
Trinity Mission House, Manhattan
Laura Franklin Hospital, Manhattan
St. Mary's-on-the-Mountain, Sewanee
In all the multitudinous tasks related to opening these houses, Mother Harriet grappled with problems, made unpopular decisions and shaped policy with little or no help from the Community's Chaplain. Greatly loved as Dr. Houghton was for his gentle goodness, he appears to have played no major role as director or adviser. He was, moreover, engrossed in the parish he had founded, "The Little Church Around the Corner", the famous appellation of the Church of the Transfiguration.
As the full weight of the Community's direction fell on Mother Harriet, the true measure of her wisdom and vision emerged. During these decades she was schooled by disappointment, suffering and sorrow, as well as by delight, joy and peace, to the perceptible flowering of her finest qualities. Incapable of duplicity or pretense, she never struck poses of mock mastery, heroics or piety. Whatever her burdens of responsibility, she lived the quiet routine and performed the small chores of the conventual life. Frequently she took on additional jobs to relieve a sick or absent Sister. At one time, serving as sacristan, bookkeeper and Novice Mistress, she reported merrily that she was monarch of all she surveyed. "Altruism," she wrote in a little notebook, "is the regard for and devotion to the rights, interests and well-being of others." Her devotion to this principle was both costly and rewarding. It cost her the surrender of her own strong will, often obstructed or deflected by her Sisters. It brought her humility and sanctity. When she wrote to a Sister, "It is always better to do as another wishes than to do what oneself wishes," her words were the distillation of her experience.
In 1877 and again in 1880 the Community felt threatened by action of the General Convention. Restrictive legislation had been demanded from the early seventies. In 1872, The Churchman carried three long installments of "Married or Celibate Deaconesses?" by Mrs. Charles S. Peirce, who had delivered the addresses before the Ladies Missionary Relief Society of Cambridge, Massachusetts. She wrote:
These irresponsible Sisters ruled and 'confessed' by celibate clergy that are springing up in our large cities, I think the General Convention should speedily and sharply put a stop to, by permitting no clergyman of the Church to have anything whatever to do with the direction of any establishment which does not require of every girl or woman entering them 1) the consent of their natural guardian if under twenty-five; 2) testimonials as to character and fitness, in all cases from twelve women of the parish in which the applicant was a worshipper. But my hope is, that the nobler, freer, more natural, and therefore probably more Divine order of deaconesses, as we have been considering them, will altogether sweep away and take the place of these mediaeval cloisters and their mystery-loving devotees.
Pressured by such suggestions, and others less ludicrous, the House of Bishops in 1877 passed a measure designed to "increase the efficiency" of Sisterhoods by canonical regulation. Framed in friendly terms, ostensibly aimed at "recognition," the measure was deemed hostile by the Lower House and was riddled by Dr. Dix, Dr. Seymour, Dr. DeKoven and others. As a token courtesy to the House of Bishops, the measure was referred at adjournment to a joint committee.
In 1880 the joint committee reported a proposed Canon on Deaconesses but proposed no legislation regarding Sisterhoods. Acting on the measure, the House of Bishops added all the restrictive legislation regarding Sisterhoods and sent it to the Deputies, intending that it supercede the joint committee report on the agenda. Dr. Dix was parliamentarian enough to point out that this procedure was out of order, that the Bishop's revision would have to go to a committee on canons while the original joint committee report was considered by the House. This was done. The Deputies passed the Canon on Deaconesses. The committee on canons reported :
. . . Sisterhoods being voluntary organizations of Church people for Church work, and already under the jurisdiction of the Bishops and authorities of the Dioceses and parishes respectively in which their work is carried on, this House believes it unnecessary and inexpedient to legislate with respect to such Sisterhoods, and therefore it does not concur with the House of Bishops in the adoption of the Canon proposed by them. . .
In the discussion of this measure, several journalists and priests argued so vehemently against canonical control that they appeared to be claiming for religious institutes exemption from all episcopal authority. The duel of words over the Sisterhood canon made itself felt in the defeat of Dr. Dix in the 1883 election of an Associate Bishop of New York. He had been Rector of Trinity Church for twenty-one years. At fifty-six, he was still vigorous. He had a close relationship of mutual regard with the venerable Bishop Horatio Potter, whose infirmity had necessitated the election. One observer attributed his defeat to his cold reserve as contrasted with the genial affability of the man who was elected, Henry Codman Potter. But it is surely no exaggeration to say that in a close contest, Dr. Dix's outspoken and chivalrous defense of Sisterhoods did not further his election.
When the courtly old Bishop Potter died in 1887, the Sisters assumed that his successor, Henry Codman Potter, would become their Episcopal Visitor. They somewhat thoughtlessly failed to consult him, simply alluding to the matter in a letter to him. The new Bishop Potter quickly corrected their misunderstanding in words reflecting the overstatements that had clouded the controversy on the Sisterhood canon. He implied that the Sisters could not have it both ways. They could not be both an unofficial organization of lay women and enjoy the official sanction of the Diocesan. If his logic was faultless, his attitude lacked paternal concern for Churchwomen rendering yeoman service among the poor. Magnificently Broad as were Bishop Henry Codman Potter's views, in the most admirable way, his limits excluded the Sisters of Saint Mary. His strong sense of social justice was applauded widely, and in 1884 he authorized the new Order of the Holy Cross for men. Toward the end of his life he countenanced certain ceremonial enrichments and appeared at Masonic gatherings in scarlet apparel with a Masonic "jewel" resplendent upon his breast. But he declined to be Visitor to the Community of Saint Mary, and his courtesies were always correct, but cold.
After Dr. Seymour was elected Bishop of Illinois, he consented to serve as Visitor. For other priestly ministrations the Sisters relied upon the Society of St. John the Evangelist. As confessors, counsellors and retreat conductors, the Cowley Fathers shaped the inner life of the Community. Father Richard M. Benson revised the Sister's Rule in 1877 and thereafter counselled, instructed and guided them toward a more monastic ideal. Also influential at this period was the resident Chaplain at Peekskill, Father Henry Martyn Torbert. Trained in the Cowley Novitiate, though never professed, Father Torbert encouraged the Sisters to use penances and mortifications. This mode of spirituality, though never widely adopted among the Sisters, could be traced through several generations; its spiked crosses were still to be seen in the archives after the Sisters who wore them had long since died.
In only one instance did Mother Harriet press her views upon the Chapter, in urging the Sisters to approve the Community's undertaking of the management of Kemper Hall. In the autumn of 1876 they received a request from the Bishop of Wisconsin to assume management of the boarding school in Kenosha, nine miles south of Racine. Their desire to accept was prompted in no small degree by the fact that Kenosha was near Racine College, directed by Dr. James DeKoven, who had won renown as a Catholic educator, and who had long been interested in the Sisters. They were, however, hard pressed, and the school appeared most unpromising. At a Chapter on November 1, 1877, Mother Harriet strongly urged them to authorize the move as "a venture of faith." She used this phrase again in a letter to the Rt. Rev. Edward Randolph Welles, Bishop of Wisconsin, adding, "If God calls, we must have no fear, but go lovingly forth in His name."
Though they did not plan to assume direction until September, 1878, the Bishop asked that two Sisters appear for the opening of the second term in February to avoid the appearance of two changes in administration. The Bishop himself planned to move into the school and superintend its affairs until the Sisters could assume its management.
Accordingly, Mother Harriet and Sister Gertrude spent a week in Kenosha early in February. A Milwaukee newspaper noted that "great sociability was manifested" at a reception in their honor, but the prospects must have seemed less than encouraging. The school had been organized as the Kenosha Female Seminary in 1865 by a group of churchmen of St. Matthew's Church under their rector, the Rev. Hugh Miller Thompson. The Hon. Charles Durkee had offered to sell them his eight-acre homestead on Lake Michigan for an annual payment to him or to his widow. The school had opened in June, 1865, as St. Clair's Hall, with Mrs. H. M. Crawford as principal. Its difficulties multiplied, and in 1867 the trustees attempted to cede over their rights and functions to the standing committee of the Diocese, which declined to accept. In 1868 the trustees composed a letter for Dr. Elmendorf to forward to "the Sisterhood in London who are founding institutions of learning in various parts of the world," as their minutes noted vaguely. In 1870, after Bishop Kemper's death, the school was in danger of falling into the hands of a Roman Catholic Sisterhood which had offered $25,000 for the property. The standing committee of the Diocese had appealed for funds to secure the title. After much manipulation and litigation, the title was secured and the school in 1870 was reorganized as a memorial to Bishop Kemper, which came to be regarded as the date of foundation.
In undertaking this work the Sisters were helping to erect a memorial worthy of the great Jackson Kemper, intrepid missionary bishop in the Middle West. He had dreamed as early as 1841 of a Sisterhood, writing to his daughter Elizabeth in Philadelphia:
The subject of a female association founded upon true Christian principles something like the deaconesses of the primitive Church is deserving of examination and would, I think, if properly presented to the members of the Church, meet with much approbationactive employment should be constantly aimed ateither in attending to the poor and sickor in educating youths. Suppose you get from the library the life of Archbishop Sharpe of York and examine the plan which you will find, I think, in the second volume, for the establishment of Protestant nunneries. In fact, if you have time, I wish you would copy it off for me and send it in a letter to St. Louis.
Elizabeth dutifully copied out the entire proposal, drawn up in 1737, for instituting "Protestant Convents" in the Diocese of Durham. More than twenty years passed without Bishop Kemper acquiring a Sisterhood in his Diocese, but he still longed for the establishment of a girls' school conducted, as he said, "upon the highest and holiest principles, and in strict conformity to the doctrines and worship of our beloved Church." In 1864 he appealed through the Church papers for $3,500 to buy the Oconomowoc Seminary for Young Ladies, but the Church, bled by war, failed to respond to this modest plea.
In 1878, just eight years after Bishop Kemper's death, both his dreams were secured when Sister Sarah and one other Sister arrived in Kenosha. From a practical standpoint, Sister Sarah seemed an unlikely pioneer. She lacked the hardy qualities such a venture demanded. An early Sister described her as "a woman of exquisite refinement of character ... to whom the new and untried ways of the West were peculiarly distasteful." In dedication and zeal, however, Sister Sarah was well chosen to lay the groundwork for a religious foundation. A colleague wrote:
She came in the simplicity of obedience and left her indelible mark of the highest ideal of the Religious Life upon the Western Branch of the Community.
School opened that autumn with forty pupils, some of whom were unable to conceal their dismay at being enrolled in a convent school. More disconcerting was the debt, now totalling $14,591. Interest at rates from seven to ten per cent, plus the $600 annual payment to the Widow Durkee, saddled the school with expenses some $1,700 in addition to operating expenses, which had hitherto always exceeded income.
Early accounts spoke less of debt and worry, though, than of the Sisters' joy at their first Christmas. Friends had helped them furnish a small oratory on the third floor where they could say their offices. The Rev. Arthur Ritchie, Rector of the Church of the Ascension, Chicago, had interested some of his parishioners in the Sisters' work and they had contributed toward a simple wooden altar. Dr. DeKoven presented two fald stools, which were placed choir wise, and a bench for Associates facing the altar. On Christmas eve the oratory was decked with flowers. An Associate, Miss Nede Seymour, presented small brass candlesticks shaped like dragons and other candlesticks were improvised from blocks of wood. The Offices sung, the two Sisters, Miss Seymour and another Associate, Miss Florence Brown, later Sister Florence, C.S.M., crept down through the dark corridors to the school Chapel, which was feebly lighted by two kerosene lamps. At midnight Dr. Lance celebrated the Eucharist. "There was a thrill about that first Midnight Mass that promised great things for the future," one of them wrote.
On January 22, 1879, Bishop Welles and Dr. DeKoven held the service of blessing for the Sisters' oratory. It was Dr. DeKoven's last visit to Kemper Hall. In March he died at forty-eight, and the Sisters were bereft of their champion and adviser. They soon found how fortunate they were in having the help of Dr. Lance. In May four men sought to arouse the Diocesan Convention to the gravity of having Sisters manage a school chartered for management by a rector. Dr. Lance settled the issue most loyally and wisely. It was, he explained soothingly to Mother Harriet, "the old story of 'red tape' vs. life and work for the Church." He supported her insistence that the charter be amended to make legal provision for the Sisters' management, and this was done in the summer of 1879- That autumn Sister Sarah relinquished direction of the school to Sister Edith, who held the position for four years.
Mother Harriet in 1880 turned her attention to opening a new kind of work, a mission house in New York among the immigrant poor. Out of gratitude to Dr. Dix, the Sisters took over the Trinity Mission House on Morris Street, which had been initiated by the Community of St. John Baptist. The Mother expressed her doubts that the Sisters of Saint Mary were called to parish work, and insisted that this move must not be regarded as precedent for parochial ventures elsewhere. Despite their scruples, the Sisters developed the work, moving to 20 State Street, overlooking Battery Park. Here, and after 1888 at 211 Fulton Street, they lived and worked among the tenements, their program consisting principally of systematic parish visiting. Much of their work lay in helping German families, and later, Italian and Slavic ones, to settle in a strange land. German families were encouraged to worship at the German Chapel at 90 Trinity Place. All were invited to take part in the nine guilds of the Mission House. By 1900 more than four hundred families were on the Sisters' regular visiting list. Sister Catharine Vera alone made twenty-five regular visits a week, up and down interminable tenement stairways, carrying her little book of prayers into the poorest rooms, wherever there was trouble or sickness. The Mission House also offered sewing and cooking classes, an employment bureau, care for the aged, domestic training for half a dozen girls at a time, a dispensary, a library and Friday and Sunday Evensong and early Celebrations on feasts.
During the summers of 1880 and 1881, groups of children were taken to Far Rockaway for outings. In 1882 Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt offered her mother's estate at Great River, Long Island. Here fifty to seventy boys and girls would be taken for a week's sea bathing, sun and sailing. Summers at Trinity Seaside Home also came to include outings for ailing mothers and their babies, as well as vacations for young working girls of the parish.
In the mid-eighties the Community undertook its third hospital, the Laura Franklin Free Hospital for Children at 17 East 111th Street, north of Central Park. Mr. and Mrs. Franklin Delano built the Hospital in memory of their niece Laura Franklin, who had been fatally burned. Although Mother Harriet was never able to assign enough Sisters to the work, and although in the late eighties she pressed for withdrawal, the work remained under the Sisters' direction until 1899. The Hospital was later merged with the new Fifth Avenue Hospital.
Even less satisfactory was the Mother's attempt to send Sisters to a foreign mission. When a missionary who had served in China entered the Novitiate, Mother Harriet began to hope that she might fulfill earlier requests from the Rt. Rev. W. J. Boone to send Sisters to the Missionary Diocese of Shanghai. Her hopes were dashed. The Postulant decided she was not called to the conventual life, and missionaries in China expressed alarm at the prospect of nuns joining their enterprise. The plan was abandoned, to the Mother's disappointment.
More successful were Mother Harriet's ventures in Chicago and Sewanee. The opening of the Chicago house appears the more daring when one considers the plight of Kemper Hall in the mid-eighties. In February, 1883, Sister Edith was recalled to Peekskill to take over St. Gabriel's School. Sent to replace her was Sister Margaret Clare, a widow of mature years newly professed. The good Dr. Lance died of pneumonia in January, and the Board of Trustees chose this unpropitious moment to demand that the Sisters assume responsibility for the debt. Mother Harriet opposed any such transfer until the Trustees had paid off $10,000 of the debt, but her resistance was worn down by three years of agitation. Early in January, 1886, the Trustee, Dr. W. H. Vibbert, wrote that he planned a month's cruise to Bermuda and would be unable to attend the scheduled meeting of the Board, but voiced the opinion that the property and its problems had become a burden too heavy for the Trustees. He proposed a plan:
I think the property should be offered to the Sisters on such terms as the trustees may deem wise to propose and will relieve them from further pecuniary responsibility. If they decline to take it, then we cannot afford to hold it, the property will have to be sold and the school given up. Stern necessity has brought us to this alternative. Either the Sisters must take it, or the property must be sold.
Thus, the transfer was made with the $15,000 floating debt still outstanding. The buildings were in disrepair; there was no adequate school equipment and no provision for recreation. The only breakwater, two hundred feet of single piling, was as matchsticks against the raging waves of Lake Michigan which chewed into the shore line at an alarming rate. Yet in the same year that the Sisters took on this financial responsibility, they also opened a house in Chicago to work among the poor.
Requests for Sisters had come from Chicago as early as 1878, when the Rt. Rev. W. E. McLaren, Bishop of Illinois, wrote to ask the Community to take over St. Luke's Hospital. A year later Bishop McLaren wrote to say that he had a donor willing to provide a house "for the uses of a Sisterhood engaged in education." Nothing came of these overtures, but early in 1885 Mother Harriet wrote to Sister Margaret Clare outlining her hopes for a Western foundation:
Chicago is the only point in my mind at present as a desirable city for our real Western foundationbut I cannot say when we may be ready to make that foundation. I hoped to have had one or two postulants from that great city before thisbut, alas! none have appeared, and we have none in our present novitiate to look forward to. I feel that we must have a school to secure our independence but, if we had the means ourselves to buy a house, I confess a drawing toward mission work of all kinds in connection with the Cathedral.
The work begun in 1886 was not at the Cathedral, but at little St. Clement's Mission on the South Side of Chicago. Two years later the Sisters accepted the Bishop's invitation to work in the Cathedral parish of SS. Peter and Paul. The Sisters first lived at 12 South Peoria Street, where their guilds, mothers' meetings and sewing classes soon outgrew their quarters. Bishop McLaren raised funds to build new quarters for them adjacent to the Cathedral, blessed on September 29, 1890. Here they worked so successfully that one of their enterprises, a guild for young boys, had to be disbanded. It became so swamped with energetic members that there were not enough Sisters to control its activities. A decade or more later Sisters would be approached by porters and delivery men, asking, "Do you remember me? I was in Sister's guild at the Cathedral."
The Mothers' Meeting, as one guild was called, was probably the most influential. Eighty to a hundred mothers gathered regularly to cut, fit, sew and quilt for the needs of their homes and families, while Sisters cared for their small children. Each meeting closed with brief instruction, prayers and tea.
From the first it was evident that shelter must be provided for orphans and children of ill and unemployed working women on Chicago's teeming West Side. The first shelter was opened in 1894 with four children sent by the Humane Society. Within six months the small frame house was bursting with children. A dilapidated duplex frame house next to the Cathedral was purchased for $16,000, repaired for $5,000 and made ready for occupancy in the autumn of 1895, when the children returned from a summer spent in two beach cottages in Kenosha. This was the beginning of St. Mary's Home, Chicago.
In the spring of 1887 Mother Harriet visited Tennessee to select some mountain property where the Sisters could find relief from the Memphis summers. From Nashville she travelled south to Sewanee at the tip of the Cumberland plateau, where she was the guest of Mrs. Stephen Elliott, widow of the Bishop of Georgia. Her son-in-law, Dr. Francis Asbury Shoup, Professor at the University of the South, pointed out the many advantages of finding a site near the campus. So persuasive was he that Mother Harriet selected a farm two miles from the University for a Sisters' rest house, with an eye toward eventual mission work among the mountain people.
The Tennessee mountaineers were part of the some three million persons scattered through the Appalachian Mountains in eight southern states, presenting a curious and pathetic ethnic problem. They were believed to have originated with a Pennsylvania settlement of Ulstermen, who had migrated southward, with some German and English settlers, gradually spreading through the entire mountain area. Isolation and poverty kept them living in the manner of their eighteenth-century ancestors. Proud and reserved, honest and fiercely independent, brave in feud or war, they lived in windowless one-room cabins and scratched out a living on the mountain slopes or distilled corn whiskey. Few of them could read. An alarming percentage suffered from tuberculosis and scrofula.
News of the mountain property delighted the Sisters in Memphis. Sister Hughetta, Superior there since 1883, had interested her brother Colonel Snowden in expanding the facilities of St. Mary's School as a memorial to their mother, Aspasia Seraphina Imogene Bogardus Snowden. In the new memorial chapel the altar frontal was made of lace worn by Aspasia in 1824 at a ball honoring Lafayette's triumphal visit to New York. However flourishing the work in Memphis, the Sisters still needed a place for rest away from their responsibilities; they welcomed also a chance to live and work among the mountain people.
Arriving for their first summer on the farm, the Sisters learned that the mountain folk regarded them as the heathen. They invited their new neighbors to an all-day picnic to get acquainted, but the only guests to appear were three little boys. From them the Sisters learned that rumors were flying that the Sisters worshipped an idol. Further inquiry disclosed that the so-called idol was their large brass altar cross, which a local man had helped unpack. It was the first of many instances which demonstrated how the mountaineers had passed down the rudiments of a Biblical religion, despite illiteracy. Few were baptized. Instruction was limited to an occasional sermon by an itinerant, barely literate preacher.
Apparently, suspicion was soon disarmed, for at the dedication of St. Mary's-on-the-Mountain on the Feast of the Transfiguration, August 6, 1888, everyone was there from every cove and cabin for twenty miles.
The Hayes farm buildings, purchased for $3,000, were ideal for the Sisters' purposes. The three-story farmhouse, with cupola and splendid view, afforded ample accommodations for chapel, living quarters and guest quarters. The one-hundred-acre farm, leased from the University for ninety-nine years at a rental of $25 a year, included a number of tenant families to help with the work and produce some of the food. The farm's proximity to the University made it convenient for priests on the faculty to provide the sacraments.
Disease and poor diet contributed to the lassitude of the mountain people, however, and the Sisters found that many were unable to work. Trying to hire a crew to build a road, Sister Hughetta went to a nearby cabin and found the whole family seated under the trees, half-clothed and looking hungry. She asked the man of the house why he hadn't reported for road work, as he had promised to do. He replied, to Sister's irritation, that for the past several days he had been looking high and low for his pickaxe.
All the expansion afforded Mother Harriet great satisfaction. In established works, too, there was cause for gratification, especially in the flourishing development of St. Mary's Hospital. The building fund stood at $14,565 in 1880, with parishes and church schools from as far away as Florida and Iowa contributing. Bishop Horatio Potter gave handsomely and instituted "Hospital Sunday" in the Diocese as a special collection for St. Mary's and St. Luke's.
St. Mary's new building, completed in 1881, included a dispensary opening on Ninth Avenue where out-patients could be diagnosed and treated. It was soon evident that the dispensary could not handle all the patients who appeared. A bequest of Miss Grace Wilkes enabled the Sisters to enlarge the work and add a free mortuary chapel. As many as 18,000 patients applied each year to the Wilkes Dispensary, surgical cases in the morning, general cases in the afternoon, for treatment costing ten cents per prescription or dressing, or nothing for those unable to pay. Even so, the dispensary was self-supporting. Students from the College of Physicians and Surgeons received clinical experience and instruction at St. Mary's under a staff of eminent men serving without pay Robert Watts, Francis Delafield, Thomas H. Markoe, Charles McBurney, Charles S. Bull, M. Alien Starr, Charles T. Poor and George Montague Swift.
The sterilized milk department of the Wilkes Dispensary distributed as many as 117,000 bottles of milk annually at a nominal charge or free. Demand was so heavy that the Sisters were obliged to limit the supply to children under one year.
The wards for sixty in-patients, later expanded to eighty, attracted much favorable comment. The newspapers noted the steam heat, ash woodwork, transoms of "cathedral glass" and colorful appointments. One multi-deck headline was typical:
How they are cared for by Saint Mary's Sisterhood
EXTENDING THE SCOPE OF A NOBLE WORK
The Evening Post reporter questioned a little girl skating on one skate on Thirty-fourth Street, asking her if she knew about the big hospital building. "Oh, yes," she replied quickly. "That's St. Maryses. It's pretty inside, too; it's for we; only you have to be sick to live there."
National magazines, too, devoted space to the new Hospital. Readers of Harper's Young People contributed toward the endowment of a bed in the babies' ward. Month by month the editor, Miss Fanshawe, reported the slowly rising total, listing each contribution, publishing contributors' letters and assuring her readers, "Sister Miriam is very pleased." The children reported with engaging candor the ways in which they had earned their contributions, from pulling basting threads to gargling alcohol while sick, "fifty cents at five cents a gargle," one little boy wrote with justifiable pride.
As the Hospital's reputation attracted more and more patients, it became necessary to find additional facilities for the convalescent and incurable. In 1889 the Sisters opened a country home in Peekskill for such patients, in a spacious old mansion presented by Mrs. McWalter Noyes, sister of Mrs. Jay Gould and widow of a priest who had served on the staff of the Church of St. Mary the Virgin, New York.
In 1893, a year of depression, unemployment and widespread suffering, the Hospital was fortunate in receiving a contribution of $5000 earned at a benefit party which made minor history as a glittering social event. George Boldt, guiding hand of the new Waldorf Hotel on Fifth Avenue at Thirty-third Street, needed to convince the public that hotels were respectable, even elegant enough for entertaining one's friends. To establish this image, he designated the opening as a benefit for St. Mary's Hospital, a favorite charity of Society's leading dowagers. Mrs. W. K. Vanderbilt engaged the New York Symphony Orchestra and its conductor, Walter Damrosch, to play for the guests in the interior garden court, with its fountains and flowers, white terra cotta walls, frescoes and stained glass. About 1500 guests paid $5 a ticket for dancing and dinner in the Empire dining hall, modelled after the grand salon of King Ludwig's palace in Munich. The chef, who had not yet attained to immortality as "Oscar of the Waldorf," created a fruit concoction for the occasion which was known thenceforth as "Waldorf Salad." Of New York's Four Hundred, some three hundred named as patronesses were suitably impressed by the twelve-story height of the building, its Marie Antoinette parlor and its Turkish smoking room with low divans and ancient Moorish armor. Fourteen patronesses headed by Mrs. Potter Palmer came from Chicago, serving along with some two dozen of Philadelphia's Biddles, Drexels, Peppers and Lippincotts and fifteen proper Bostonians, including Lowells, Sargents, Lawrences and Peabodys.
Grateful as the Sisters were for financial help in that year of depression, occasional benefits could not entirely remove the specter of poverty. The problem of paying the bills was in the hands of Sister Catharine. Given to the Community as a scrawny little crippled girl, Sister Catharine had become all things in Christ, astute business woman and hospital administrator, pioneer in pediatrics and thoughtful observer of medical and surgical advances, beloved colleague of New York's greatest doctors, yet remaining always holy and simple. Of her it was said that she never spent a penny carelessly. A patron who offered to donate one of Mr. Bell's new telephones discovered this when Sister Catharine wrote to say that $63 a year was rather much and "I cannot think that we would be justified in paying out so large a sum. . . There are ... so many essentials that ought to come before conveniences." The first thing visitors noticed about her was the cape she wore to conceal the tortured contours of her bent little body; the second thing, which blotted out the first, was the twinkling eye and the Irish wit.
If Mother Harriet could have chosen, she would undoubtedly have wished to work at the Hospital. She delighted in its growing reputation. Unfortunately, she died before a scale model of St. Christopher's Ward won the gold medal at the Paris Exposition. But her last official act, a few weeks before she died, was a trip to Norwalk, Connecticut, to sign papers for the purchase of seventy acres for a summer hospital in the hilly country a mile from the Long Island Sound. Here, on a high point with green fields sloping gently away on all sides was built a substantial square brick building surrounded on front and sides by shady piazzas. She would have delighted to see the children from Hell's Kitchen convalescing and enjoying their first experience of broad fields and blue skies.
Among the improvements she did live to see was the new House of Mercy, moved in 1890 to a dignified building at Inwood, high on the heights of Manhattan's northernmost tip. She saw also the completion of St. Mary's Chapel, Peek-skill, its massive walls built of great granite stones quarried on Mount St. Gabriel. Participants in the cornerstone ceremony were photographed, showing Mother Harriet as an old nun of immense dignity, with Dr. Houghton, his handsome old face radiant with good-humored kindness, and Bishop Quintard, whom she always called simply, "Charlie."
She died on Easter Sunday afternoon, 1896, having spent a Holy Week of sleeplessness and pain which she called "my Way of the Cross." Her nurse, Sister Emily, reported that her most frequent request was for "water fresh from the well." On Maundy Thursday she received Holy Communion and that night her nurse heard her say, "They are calling me." She sank into drowsiness and then into semi-consciousness, but on Easter Even she received the last rites. At three on Easter afternoon the Sisters were summoned to her cell. As they knelt about her bed, she suddenly opened her eyes wide, raised her hands, and then, in an instant and without a sound, she was gone.
Her grave was marked with a tall granite cross bearing a simple inscription, the only marker in the Sisters' cemetery with an identification:
HARRIET STARR CANNON
FIRST MOTHER SUPERIOR OF THE SISTERHOOD OF SAINT MARY
BORN MAY 7, 1823
DEPARTED ON EASTER DAY
APRIL 5, 1896
NOT AS THE WORLD GIVETH GIVE I UNTO YOU
REQUIESCAT IN PACE
In appraising Mother Harriet's achievement one can only marvel that she accomplished so much in little more than three decades. At her death ninety-one Choir Sisters and thirteen Minor Sisters had been professed, but sickness and age took their toll and there were never enough Sisters. Nor was there enough money. In 1889 she wrote of extra bills involved in the medicine and nursing for a dying Sister, "Neither the school or community have any money. I am borrowing from St. Mary's School Fund for present expenses."
On another occasion she wrote:
I am up to my lips now, and the housekeeping Sister says we must have a bag of coffee. It will cost twenty-five dollars and I haven't a cent to pay for it. Oh, well! I'll order it. The money will come from somewhere.
She never confused the dignity of her office with the worth of her person. Whatever her failings, she possessed that utter simplicity and true humility by which saints see themselves as they are in God's sight. If her failings distressed her, she knew also what God's grace had achieved through her instrumentality; and she held these two in perfect balance. In 1888 she was presented with an abbatial seal ring designed by the Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr. The great amethyst was incised with a lily and two stars representing Christ, the "Bright and Morning Star," and Mary, the "Star of the Sea." Dr. Dix asked if he might present it. Mother Harriet wore it at all times, and the mammoth ring is still worn by the Mother General of the Community on all official occasions.
Bits of the Mother's letters illumine her character, for she wrote with a consistent candor:
I have written about the Breakwater. I find it hard to advise. I seem so ignorant.
I hope the sun is shining everywhere at Kemper Hall this Christmas and in every corner of everyone's heart.
I have just been made very happy over a letter from Sister X; it was altogether voluntary on her part ... it was all one could desire from a Sister who means to try her best to overcome all that is evil. . . I feel I can safely trust her to you for the Mission work in Chicago. Give her a loving welcome, try to gain her love, and I think all will be well. . . You know, Dr. Pusey says, 'Our life is made up of new beginnings.'
Try to excuse in others as far as possible what seems to you so wrong; try to think more is said than is really meant, and above all, offer the particular thing, or word, or conversation to God, ask of Him to show you what He would have you do.
Sometimes it is better to be perfectly silent, but there may be times when one should speak out plainly and fully just how it all looked to one. If there was anyone to take your place I would make a change, but at present there is no one. I do wish very much in some way that the Sister should know exactly how you feel, but she ought to hear from you, and not from any other one. Now, dear Sister, have I helped you in any way? Perhaps not, but you will see that I have tried to do so.
In a small notebook Mother Harriet wrote a paragraph which perfectly expressed her concept of authority and her devotion to freedom:
A person who has to manage others in the midst of conflicts must be endowed with great self-possession, freedom from passion and strength to resist the bias of her own mind, or rather heart; must have calm superiority which only consummate virtue can give; must never have a pre-determination, never an obstinate adherence to her own opinion, a spirit of conciliation always ready to open a door to any arrangement of matters in dispute.
The meditation notes she prepared for the Novices or for Community retreats bear the imprint of profound wisdom and insight. In one meditation she alluded to her ideals: of exclusion without loss, of oneness of aim without narrowness, of oneness of vision without blindness and of a childlike mind without childish understanding. An alumna of St. Gabriel's School paid her high tribute, recalling that the Mother had entered enthusiastically into a youthful building project:
She it was who proposed that a corner stone be laid, was present at the ceremony, signing her name to the legal looking document, and putting in the box some money, that all might be done in a proper and approved manner.
She bore with faults and failings. She rarely or never set herself to gain affection. Most of the Sisters loved her, but some thought her weak and worldly; frank dislike surprised her little and appeared to trouble her not at all. She herself was unfailingly kind and considerate of the needs of those around her. She had no wish to cast all the Sisters in the same mold and enjoyed their individuality of mind and manners. Likewise, in going from house to house, she enjoyed the slight variations in the mode of life and observance of the Rule. She took it for granted that the Sisters desired to keep the Rule as perfectly as possible, and she declined to stoop to suspicion or inspection. It was felt by some that Mother Harriet was too indifferent to certain religious conventions, such as marks of deference to herself; this was said to be a "source of grief" to Sister Sarah. But Mother Harriet was too much of a fundamentalist to worry about trifles, and the fundamental in every case was charity. She wrote:
In every house there is someone who tries the Sisters especially; not one house have we without some such difficulty. Sometimes the faults are want of refinement, sometimes one thing, sometimes another. We must remember how the Lord bore with his ignorant disciples, with whom he was constantly associated; and when he was telling them of the cruel death awaiting him, they strove together as to who should be greatest, and at the very last he suffered Judas to sit at his right hand. It is this very rubbing in a Religious Order, which used faithfully works out the perfection of each member and of the Order as a whole.
Learn to think kindly that you may learn to speak kindly. When you jest at the children's faults, remember that you are in truth amusing yourself with the failings of your inferiors.
Her instinctive decisions were shrewd, sound and eminently incarnational. At times she was literally "ill-advised." In one instance, when she would have followed her Lord's example by accepting a "penitent" into the Novitiate, she was advised by Father Benson not to do so on the somewhat flimsy pretext that it was better to safeguard "the purity of the ideal."
She could take a strong stand, as the following excerpt shows, but she assented, on principle, to the direction of others. When she found it necessary to give commands, they were unmistakable:
I wish to say in regard to the whipping of children, it cannot be tolerated in any house of which we have the care. Please say to Sister X that such a thing is not permitted in this Community.
The tributes published after her death in many cases could have been paid to any holy woman, but one of her Sisters expressed in verse the essence of Mother Harriet's greatness:
We pray thee leave us as thy last bequest
The mantle of thy holy life of grace;
The generous self-distrust, wherein we trace
Profound simplicity of soul, expressed
By cheerful lowliness of word and deed.
And Dr. Dix, whose book-length memoir was her only published biography, said it all in one paragraph he wrote to a Sister:
How is she numbered with the Saints! And yet she was never despondent, nor depressed, nor ecstatic, nor illusionary.