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 DEPARTURES of Father McGarvey and Mother Edith left the Community in what first appeared to be a state of perpetual disorganization. Mother Edith had been both Mother Provincial of the Eastern Province and Mother General of the entire Community. No step could be taken to fill her offices and provide legal executors until a Chaplain General was elected, for Father J. O. S. Huntington, the Chaplain Provincial, was powerless under the Constitutions to effect the re-organization. A further difficulty was that all the Bishops were in England attending the Lambeth Conference, including the Community's Episcopal Visitors, whose consent was necessary for the election of a Chaplain General.

With everything stopped at dead center, it was evident that some Sister must assume responsibility for arranging the elections and obtaining the consents. Sister Virginia stepped into the gap, assuming the role of Assistant Mother General, though no such officer was provided in the Constitutions. In consultation with Sister Catharine, the senior Sister in rank of profession, Sister Virginia began the tedious task of reconstruction.

Fortunately, during the June before her departure, Mother Edith had written to members of the General Council, asking their consent to call a meeting of the General Chapter and to nominate the Rev. Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C., as Chaplain General. Had Mother Edith not taken this step, it is doubtful if even Strong and Cadwaladar, the Community's legal advisers, could have found a way to restore its corporate life.

Father Hughson had served most acceptably as Chaplain of the Southern Province, and consent was duly given, but the Sisters thought it expedient to find out whether or not he would accept the office before summoning a General Chapter. To their inquiry he replied that his professional ethics prevented his accepting an office to which he had not been elected. Time was precious, so two Sisters were dispatched to Holy Cross Monastery at West Park, across the Hudson River. Their efforts were rewarded when Father Hughson pledged his acceptance if elected.

Accordingly, the General Chapter convened on August 1, 1908, with Mother Margaret Clare of the Western Province presiding. After Father Hughson's election, the following letter was read:

In response to the request made me, I do formally notify you that on the sixth day of July, 1908, I ceased to act as Mother Superior General, C.S.M., and that the office then became ipso factor vacant.

Respectfully, A. Edith Pardee

The Chapter then voted unanimously to separate the offices of Mother General and Mother Provincial. Adjourning to St. Mary's Chapel, the Chapter elected Sister Catharine as Mother General. A subsequent Chapter of the Eastern Province elected Sister Virginia as Mother Provincial, and on September 2 all three new officers were formally installed by Bishop William Walter Webb, just returned from Lambeth. It was a day of relief and rejoicing, yet of apprehension. "My only thought," wrote Father Hughson six years later,

was to go straight forward, but walking softly all the days of our life, prepared to see old friends fall away, and men everywhere suspect, if not despise, us; with perhaps little or nothing in the way of the blessing of growth since souls would shrink from trusting themselves to us. . .

Father Hughson succeeded Father Huntington as Chaplain Provincial in 1911 and was in a position to see how different from his dire prediction was the decade 1908-1918. The period was marked by many professions, a deepened devotion, the building of new Convents in Kenosha and Sewanee, new school buildings at Sewanee and Peekskill, the opening of a missionary work in the Philippine Islands and the adoption of the Benedictine breviary.

Canon Winfred Douglas made the English translation of the breviary from the Breviarium Monasticum. This was essentially the same book which came to England with St. Augustine, first Archbishop of Canterbury; it was the prayer book of the Venerable Bede, St. Dunstan and St. Anselm. In urging the adoption of this book, Mother Catharine pointed out,

we are but claiming our own heritage as members of the Anglican Church. For during one thousand years no other Book of Hours was in more general use throughout the length and breadth of England.

She appealed to the Sisters' pride and "laudable ambition" by pointing out the honor of publishing the Benedictine breviary:

That any American Community should be the first to give back to the Church one of her most ancient office books in the words of our own mother tongue and adapted to our own Book of Common Prayer, and should furthermore be able to render the offices in all the beauty and dignity of their ancient historic setting, seems a most significant and worthy step forward.

She advised the Sisters to disregard any notion of bowdlerizing the book, insisting that their foremost aim must be to avoid all eclecticism. She instructed members of the General Chapter:

Have clearly in mind that the proposition is not whether we shall take one part of the Benedictine Breviary and reject another, but whether we shall accept it as it stands.

On July 10, 1912, the General Chapter voted to authorize the publication of the Monastic Breviary for use in the Community. It was to be 1918, however, before the publication could be accomplished. The Order of Matins was published in 1916.

Mother Catharine can be credited with demanding of the Sisters the strict observance which she thought was clearly specified in the Rule. In 1914 she issued an historic directive on religious enclosure, quoting the Rule, and adding, "It is difficult to understand how the English language could be more definite." She concluded the directive with the sage observation:

No religious community ever became extinct from having observed too strictly the spirit of enclosure or from having spent too much time in prayer.

As the Community's reputation grew, it was asked to aid younger communities in England and Australia in formulating or reformulating their rules or in adoption of plainsong settings for the Divine Office. For example, in 1910 Mother Catharine was asked to advise the Rev. William F. Penruddocke in the revision of a rule for the Community of St. Wilfrid in Exeter.

As the Community approached the half-century mark, the Sisters began to be conscious of their place in history. Mother Catharine asked Superiors to supply data for a projected history of the Community. That volume was, in fact, never written, but the material gathered at that time made the present work possible.

The total achievement of Mother Virginia and the Reverend Mother Catharine in giving the Community new goals and strengthening it to achieve them, after the debacle of 1908, cannot be too highly praised. Their contribution, Mother Margaret Clare declared, constituted a greater work than founding a new Community. "Integrity and simplicity have done wonders," she wrote.

Simplicity and integrity finally won out in the abolition of the Order of Minor Sisters, ten of whom came into Choir amid great rejoicing on February 2, 1915. Many of the distinctions between Minor Sisters and Choir Sisters had already been abolished. They were originally under the direction of a Mistress of Minors who directed their reading and meditations, supervised their library and presided at their recreation. In early days, they were not required to contribute the $250 then required each year of Choir Sisters able to pay it, and the Choir Novices ranked ahead of professed Minors. In 1906, the Community seemed ready to abolish all distinctions, but mostly through the efforts of Mother Edith, the Order itself was retained for a decade. Changes in the Rule reduced the gulf, however; the Minors' Mistress vanished and they came under the direction of the Mother Superior. Their separate recreation and blue habit went and their years of training were reduced from four to three. They still attended only four Offices daily, and still had no share in Community government. The decision as to whether a Novice should be a Choir or Minor Sister was made by the Mother and the Mistress of Novices before a Postulant received the habit, depending upon her abilities and education. In all, only seventeen Sisters ever ranked as Minors, several having begged for assignment to that rank as an act of humility. One was a trained teacher and another the daughter of a distinguished New York family. The last of the Minor Sisters, Sister Lois, died in 1958, closing an era that few would bring back if they could.


If the abolition of the Minors provided an interesting footnote to history, so indeed did the Community's first venture into the foreign mission field. The idea was advanced by a Sister after a long retreat, and tentative inquiries made to the Rt. Rev. Charles Henry Brent, Missionary Bishop of the Philippine Islands. On June 9, 1916, Bishop Brent and the Rev. John A. Staunton of Sagada, P.I., visited Peekskill and described the work for the Sisters. On January 16, 1917, three Sisters started for Sagada with Sister Mary Sylvia as their Superior.

From their discovery by Magellan in 1521 to their seizure by the United States in 1898, the Philippines had been under the rule of His Most Catholic Majesty the King of Spain. Ninety per cent of the population was Christian by the outbreak of World War I. It was with no design of "Christianizing" the Filipino, as President McKinley somewhat naively termed it, that the Rt. Rev. Charles Henry Brent had sailed for Manila in 1902, on the same ship which carried the new Governor General, William Howard Taft. Bishop Brent's intention was to minister to the American officials and army personnel, and to help establish a system of public schools. Only after he had made an extended trip through northern Luzon with the acting inspector of schools, Father John A. Staunton, Jr., did Bishop Brent realize that the head-hunting Igorots lived in mountains so rugged that Roman Catholic missionaries had never penetrated them.

In 1904 Bishop Brent sent Father Staunton to find a suitable place for establishing a mission station. A week's hard journey over perilous trails brought him to a point near Sagada, five thousand feet above sea level. He was welcomed by Senor Jaime Masferre, a former officer in the Spanish army who had married a Filipina and settled on a coffee plantation. Father Staunton and his wife, a trained nurse, lived in a goat shed for eight months, dispensing medicine and offering Mass in the doorway where the curious could watch from a safe distance. More than a hundred of the onlookers became inquirers during those first months, and eventually were baptized.

Before his ordination, Father Staunton had been an engineer. He saw at once the natural resources waiting to be utilized if only they could procure the tools—magnificent timber and a nearby waterfall, but no sawmill; stone waiting to be quarried, and so on. Undaunted, he set about to obtain the necessary machinery. Every part had to be shipped from the United States, brought by steamer up the coast and carried overland on men's shoulders a four-day journey over two mountain ranges, with several ascents and descents of some five thousand feet. Four years of unremitting work, constant delay and disappointment followed. Sometimes there were no cargadores (carriers) because everyone was in the rice paddies or there was no money to pay them. Sometimes a typhoon lashed the coastal steamer up and down the coast for days while precious work already done was washing down the mountain. In spite of all, four quarries were opened and a lime kiln set up. At last the sawmill was in operation and cutting the best lumber outside Manila.

In directing the Mission's many enterprises, Father Staunton was scrupulously just and humane. The workers learned that what he promised he paid, fairly and regularly, and that they were always treated as men, not as beasts of burden. The Igorots, whose only diversion was head-hunting among enemy tribes, began to take pride in their Mission. When excavation for a new hospital began, crowds overflowed the little wooden church. By May, 1908, the baptisms numbered over five hundred. In Lent throngs of workmen from the rice terraces stopped by each Friday to say the Stations of the Cross, dressed in the customary G-string, a bit of cloth the size of a necktie.

The religion of the Igorots was animistic. They lived in terror of "anitos," the spirits of the dead, which they believed dwelt in trees and rocks and required propitiation in the form of animal sacrifice. The Stauntons organized expeditions to the haunted caves, to encourage youngsters to overcome their fears.

Mrs. Staunton taught classes in weaving, lace-making and crocheting, as well as ordinary homemaking skills. In 1912 Father Staunton began construction on the great stone church, he himself acting as architect and engineer of every operation: logging, planing, carpentering, blacksmithing, blasting, excavation, stone-cutting and masonry. The structure was built to withstand typhoon winds up to one hundred miles an hour. The buttresses were placed inside the building, forming five bays on each side of the nave. By 1921 the building was completed.

The rising walls of the great church greeted the Sisters when they arrived late in February, 1917, after a journey by horseback along narrow paths cut out of the mountain side, with drop-offs of a thousand feet a few inches from their horses' hoofs. They were welcomed to the Mission by enthusiastic schoolgirls, by the Stauntons, who had fixed up the little Mission office building for their temporary living quarters, and by Father and Mrs. Bartter, who were to be such good friends in days to come.

The temporary house was in the middle of a road along which thronged hundreds of Filipinos on their way to the fields each day. Soon the women and children were stopping in for a chat or to consult Sister Mary Sylvia, a registered nurse. She quickly set up nursing clinics at each of the three out-stations of the Mission. Sister Monica established a sewing class for the young women. Sister Mary Michael began classes among the younger children. By the time of Bishop Brent's next visitation, the Sisters were well established as part of the Mission family.

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