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.


ANY ANALYSIS OF THE COMMUNITY'S first century must assign to the 1906 revision of the formularies prime significance for articulating an ethos toward which the Community had been groping from its inception. This aspect of the revision, seen as a positive factor, was to be over-shadowed in the minds of many by the departure of Mother Edith in 1908 to become a Roman Catholic. The scar of that devastating event was still visible a half century later, in a certain guarded attitude toward any change, a marked wariness of clerical influence, and a disinclination to mention the subject of "1908", as it came to be called. And yet it seemed necessary to air the painful topic fully if the Community were ever to understand what had happened and why, and to learn the lesson God meant to teach.

Extensive publicity devoted to the dedication of St. Mary's Convent, Peekskill, had listed as participants eight Companions of the Holy Saviour, linking the Companions with the Sisters in the minds of many. Actually, only two of the Companions were influential, Father McGarvey, and Father Maurice Cowl, the Sisters' confessor and resident Chaplain, first at the House of Mercy and later on Mount St. Gabriel. Father Cowl advised Mother Edith, chided Sisters, prepared subjects for their meditations and counselled the perplexed. Able and assured, he handed down advice in a somewhat oracular manner on subjects of immense range as in a letter to Mother Edith in 1902:

Whatever style of Altar and reredos is selected it would seem to me that it should be consistent with the best Catholic traditions of the Church and with the architecture of the present new buildings. The slab supported by columns with the vertical or tomb beneath is an ancient & Churchly style.

In several letters he alludes to blueprints for the priests' house on Mount St. Gabriel. He must have had a hand in planning the three-story, eight-bedroom stone structure, completed in 1906. Father Cowl's influence was obviously very great. When the crisis came, it was decisive.

Father McGarvey was also immensely influential, though his reputation as a Rasputin is somewhat discredited when it is seen that he opposed establishing a provincial system of government, and was overruled by Mother Edith. In a letter in 1902 he expressed the opinion that provinces would be "disastrous for the theological tone of the Community, for its spiritual regimen, and for its practical efficiency."

There is, then, no simple accounting for the decision of Mother Edith to leave all that she loved to begin life among strangers as a sixty-year-old postulant in a Roman Catholic convent. Those who witnessed the agony of her decision and read her subsequent letters never doubted her sincerity in what she called the ground of her action, "I have lost all faith in the Protestant Episcopal Church." Secondary influences surely must include ill health. She was worn out mentally and physically. Her health, always delicate, had broken during the arduous four years at Kemper Hall, and at times she was unable to use her right arm, evidently by reason of paralysis or pain. Furthermore, she had come to depend upon Father McGarvey for counsel and support. His letters repeatedly reassure her and bid her stop worrying.

In these circumstances, exaggerated reactions to the General Convention of October, 1907, gradually shook her faith. The crux of it was a resolution to amend Canon 19, to permit "the preaching of sermons or the delivery of addresses by Christian ministers, or men," duly licensed by the Bishop. It is difficult to understand how this innocuous measure came to be vilified as the "open pulpit canon." The Rt. Rev. Thomas F. Gailor, Bishop of Tennessee, saw it

as a restrictive measure, adopted for the purpose of putting an end to the irregular use of our Churches in some dioceses for exploiting private theories of 'Christian Unity,' and fixing the authority to speak in Church in the Bishop.

There were those, nevertheless, who saw the controversial canon as a means of inducing the pro-Romanists to leave the Anglican fold. In March, 1908, Father Hughson wrote Mother Edith:

However radically I differ from Father McGarvey in my attitude toward our Church, I have always had, and have now, confidence in his integrity and judgment, and I cannot be too thankful to him for what he has done to put the Community on the sound Catholic basis it now enjoys. . . For the past six months, or more, there has been a desire in certain quarters to drive the men of his views to the wall. Wherever the matter has been mentioned in my presence, I have as strenuously as possible fought against any such proposition.

Rumors of Father McGarvey's impending defection, and wilder ones regarding the Community of Saint Mary, were being circulated as early as November, 1907, when the Rt. Rev. Charles C. Grafton, Bishop of Fond du Lac, wrote anxiously to Mother Edith, pointing out all the encouraging advances in the Church and bidding her be untroubled. At the bottom of this letter are some pencilled notes in Mother Edith's handwriting:

I have heard the gossip afloat since the adj. of the Convention. It has seemed not suf. well-grounded to disturb one, and we are in no present danger of defection. I have never doubted the validity of Anglican orders; the question of Authority is my stumbling block, but unless God makes it plain that some other course is His will for us we shall abide where His Prov. has placed us. I am not anxious, but undoubt. we live in troublous times, and one needs to walk humbly & prayerfully with God. I thank you etc.

To this, "C. C. Fond du Lac," as he signed himself, responded with an admirable treatise on authority, ending

For myself, I believe the Papacy to be the growth of a worldly spirit, like the desire of Israel for a King. By demanding un-scriptural & uncanonical conditions for communion, it (the Roman Catholic Church) places itself in a schismatical position everywhere. The differences between it & the Eastern and Anglican Churches can only be settled by an Ecumenical Council. For any individual to assume such a power & leave our Church, is to run the risk of losing one's reward or something worse. Yours ever in the Catholic Faith. . .

In mid-January Father Cowl wrote from Philadelphia questioning the motives of those directing anxious inquiries to the Companions, adding

Father McGarvey is well & not worried and hopes that you and your Sisters will not be disturbed by the interference of outsiders with questionable motives.

The same day that Mother Edith received this note she wrote to Dr. F. M. Clendinin, their good friend, begging him to appeal to a mutual clerical friend to desist from writing Sisters letters reflecting upon the integrity of the Chaplain General and the Mother Superior, labeling such as "unwarrantable intrusion", and insisting

We are loyal Churchwomen; and resent deeply what can be regarded only as meddlesomeness. Nobody is urging us to go to Rome, and we are not more likely to go there than to Lasa, or Geneva.

No denials stemmed the excitement, however, and with a fine sense of honor Father McGarvey resigned as Chaplain General on February 1, 1908, to prevent his harming the Community by his involvement with it. In March he resigned also as Chaplain Provincial. At his suggestion, the Chapter of the Eastern Province elected the Rev. J. O. S. Huntington, O. H. C, as Provincial Chaplain. Father McGarvey's last act as Chaplain General was the installation of Father Huntington on March 19.

In view of the denials, it seems strange that early in March the Sister Superior in Chicago was alarmed by reports spread by one of the Companions to the effect that several prominent Sisters of the Community were shortly departing for Romanism. Not until June did any Sisters leave. On June 10 Sister Eliza departed and on June 12 Sister Marina joined her. There was little surprise over either departure. Sister Eliza's inherited instability and poor health had been painfully evident during her five years of professed life, and Sister Marina's discontent had increased with advancing age and infirmity.

This news was doubtless relayed to Mother Edith, who was at the Seaside Home at Great River, LI., on her rest, accompanied by a young Sister recovering from severe illness. A letter from the Mother to Sister Mary Virginia on June 21 gave no evidence of distress, but simply inquired cheerfully into affairs at the Convent and added that she hoped to return to the Convent the following Thursday. When the Mother and her companion arrived in New York, she sent the younger Sister on to Peekskill while she stayed in the city to perform "an errand." Later it was learned that she stopped at St. Mary's School in Forty-sixth Street for a conference with Father Cowl. He evidently convinced her that she must take the drastic step, and perhaps helped her plan the manner of taking it.

On Monday morning, July 6, while the Sisters were in St. Mary's Chapel reciting Terce, Mother Edith quietly left the convent, stating her intention but giving no destination in a note found in her cell. Days later newspapers from New York to Chicago set forth the meager facts, filled out with much fiction. Miss Edith Pardee, the accounts read, late superior of an Anglican convent at Peekskill, had gone to the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament for Indians and Colored People in Cornwells Heights, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. Her Sisters, the accounts declared, were following, and the Fathers of St. Vincent de Paul were taking over the extensive property at Peekskill, and so on.

There was no panic, but everywhere signs of suffering mingled with the indignation of those Sisters who felt betrayed. Contrary to news reports, only one Sister followed Mother Edith, Sister Grace, who left on July 31.

One of the Blessed Sacrament Sisters later related how Sister Eliza was the first to come to them, how on July 7 Sister Eliza went into New York to meet Mother Edith and bring her to Cornwells Heights, and how they were met at the door by the Reverend Mother Katharine Drexel, Foundress of the Community. She continued:

Sister M. Edith showed signs of great strain and fatigue, and was so weak that she could scarcely walk up the steps leading to the Convent. She came to us in the habit of her Anglican Order, and when she heroically laid it aside, she said with tears welling to her eyes, 'I loved it.'

Sister Eliza soon departed her new community and subsequently tried her vocation in two Roman Catholic cloistered orders, before returning to secular life.

Sister M. Edith persevered and after her profession became assistant to Mother Katharine Drexel. The Peekskill Sisters sent her a check for $100 toward the expenses of her novitiate training, a trunk full of clothing and letters and little remembrances from time to time. She in turn wrote them regularly until her last illness in 1923. Not long before her terminal illness she was appointed Superior of the Convent in Nashville, Tennessee. Her letters indicated that she found peace at last, but that she often longed for Peekskill.


4, 1908: I have had no word from home since Friday last, and my heart is hungry to know how things have gone. But I have no right to know, and must be content with the inevitable fact that you will, all of you, gradually drop me out of your hearts and lives, even though not out of your memory. . . I came away from moral necessity; not because our fathers had come, but because I could not stay.


15, 1908: The Companions really had nothing to do with my state of mind; the fact that they had left did, however, show me that I too could do it. But it breaks my heart to leave you all, and the dear home I so much love. I shall never see the marigolds again, nor the orchard in bloom, nor the greenhouse. I wish it had got further along so as to be sure of being finished for you. Write to me, dear Sister, and tell me how Mr. Fry is doing, about George, & Frost and old Sara. . . I am so glad you have Sr. Catharine as the Mother—if you had elected her nine years ago things might, would have been different, but I have tried to do right, and to give of my best, God knows.

She noted that the Blessed Sacrament Novitiate extended much more freedom to Novices, with less of military precision and more light-heartedness, with better results. But the Latin Offices never satisfied her.


12, 1909: I do miss the Breviary Offices, and often wish I had one (a Breviary) that I need not forget the Antiphons and hymns. We have some of the hymns—Quem terra and O Gloriosa for instance—but there are others I am loath to have pass out of my mind. I wish I had the matins hymn for H. Guardian Angels. And I miss the river and the hills. I shall never get over missing them. . .


1, 1919: Some day, after the poor body with its limitations is laid away, I am coming back to see you all—you may meet me in the corridor, or see me in the chapel—in the lowest place. . . I wonder if you would let me have my old Manuals. I should be so grateful for them. The prayers are about the same as those I use now, but in so much better English! I miss the good English, and still use my King James Bible.

She died on February 7, 1923. In her obituary in The Catholic Standard Archbishop Ryan called her conversion "one of the greatest acts of heroism" he had ever known.

In retrospect, it was possible to see in the tragedy the over-ruling Providence of God. In deep humility Sister Catharine pondered what hardness of heart, what communal arrogance, required such a wound for cure. Three days after the blow, she wrote:

Oh! if each one of us could only forget her own petty un-charities, trials, and desires for position, and rise up as one, we would have learned the lesson that this bitterness was meant to teach us. I feel that disloyalty and endless petty grievances were as large a factor as Church conditions in bringing this blow upon us. God help us all.

Finally, the Sisters both at Peekskill and Cornwells Heights were made acutely aware of the sinful gulf of separation between the members of Christ's Body. With only one exception, a letter from a Superior at Peekskill, the two Communities treated each other with the utmost kindness and courtesy. Throughout the Community of Saint Mary there has been since 1908 unceasing prayer for Christian reunion within the One, Holy, Catholic and Apostolic Church.

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