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 YEAR 1918 MARKED the end of an era in the history of the Community. Sister Margaret Clare, the vigorous administrator and trail-blazer, resigned as Mother Superior of the Western Province and was succeeded by Sister Mary Maude, student and mystic and director of souls. In the Eastern Province Mother Virginia was succeeded by Sister Mary Theodora, destined to serve as Mother Superior of that Province for twenty-five years. The Mother General elected that year to succeed Mother Catharine was Sister Mary Veronica, well known in the Church as an ecclesiastical artist of great distinction but most beloved by her Sisters for her gentle concern and kindness toward the perplexed. Father Hughson resigned as Chaplain General that year and was succeeded by a parish priest, the distinguished rector of St. Mark's Church, Philadelphia, the Rev. Frank Lawrence Vernon.
Disparate as the new Superiors were in temperament, they shared common ideals and goals. During this era, prodded by World War I and the fabric shortage, the Community had voted to discard their Victorian attire, voluminous with pleats and flowing train. They had adopted a habit of simple cut with the traditional monastic scapular, or flap-apron. The change from train to scapular symbolized the movement toward a modified Benedictine ethos which the Community's leaders desired.
The dynamo of this development was Mother Mary Theodora. From 1908, when she became Assistant Superior, until her retirement in 1943, she strove to guide the Community to a fuller expression of the Benedictine ideals of withdrawal, prayer and work. Even in old age, sick and blind, she continued to teach, exhort and advise her Sisters in the way she was sure they should go. The Superiors of the Community have been, without exception, women of high purpose. Some have been distinguished by gentle goodness, some by a towering strength of intellect and will, some few by true and selfless greatness. Sister Mary Theodora was strong. Wellesley-educated, she was one of the first Sisters with a bachelor's degree. A convert from Methodism and a daughter of the manse, her election to profession in 1905 and her subsequent service as secretary to Mother Edith gave her a close-hand view of the tragedy of 1908. Ever after, she recoiled from tendencies toward sentimental excesses and finally came to place her entire trust in Benedictine monachism.
Equally gifted and influential, though in a radically different area, was Mother Mary Maude. Superior of St. Mary's School in Memphis, then of St. Mary's School, Peekskill, she served briefly as Mother of the Western Province, then as Novice Mistress in Peekskill and as Mother General for nineteen years. A self-taught linguist, she began her study of Hebrew in her fiftieth year and attained a scholar's proficiency in that and other ancient tongues. As a woman of prayer and a spiritual director, she represented that hidden, interior life of the Community which is more profoundly effectual than its exterior polity. No one has yet measured, nor is likely to measure, the importance and influence in the world of hardships sweetly borne, of sickness and sorrow and disappointment accepted with serene faith, of failure met courageously and scornful malice quickly forgiven. These lessons, and many other lessons in true Catholic spirituality, were bequeathed to the Community by Mother Mary Maude. Whether in scholarly journals, in Novitiate classes or in letters to perplexed souls, she was primarily a woman of faith and prayer sharing her treasure. She built with something more enduring than bricks and mortar. Among the names on the Community's bede roll are many names of Sisters who struggled, failed, and finally triumphed in the hard school of holiness, the one work which endures.
Reverend Mother Mary Veronica was also tender and deft in her handling of individual Sisters. Intense and imaginative, she retained unusual vitality and resilience into old age, providing an important link between two eras. When in the sixties it was noticed that the only full-scale portrait of her in the archives was an exquisite pencil-sketch profile study of a beautiful girl in a picture hat, her Superior asked her to sit for a photograph. Though she had always resisted being photographed as inconsistent with her concept of the hidden life, she consented simply and sat for her first photograph, aged nearly ninety.
Though Sister Mary Veronica herself shrank from the camera, she was the instrument of portraying dozens of distinguished Churchmen and statesmen. One of the splendid portraits she painted was of "Ma Garner", the matriarch of the Cumberland plateau. Most of her work was executed in a technique of the Italian Renaissance, which she developed after extensive study in Italy of the frescoes of Fra Angelico. The medium was pigment mixed with wax and mastic, frequently applied to a linen-textured surface.
Three of the Community's Chaplains figure prominently in its history from 1920 to the 1940s. Preeminent was the Rev. Shirley Carter Hughson, O.H.C., who had served so well as Chaplain General from 1908 to 1918. As Chaplain of the Eastern Province from 1911 to 1941, he spared no effort to deepen the Sisters' dedication and strengthen their resolve. The years that softened his strangely simian facial features and damped down his fiery disposition only accentuated his faith and fervor. In all the houses of the Community, Father Hughson was remembered with love and laughter for the way he descended like a windstorm, calling for a Sister to take his laundry, done up in an untidy package, and requiring a Sister-stenographer to take hours of dictation in an effort to dispose of his voluminous correspondence. His counsel was cherished by generations of Sisters, and he alone of all the Community's spiritual shepherds figures in a tale of the miraculous. An older Sister, a woman of great common sense, confided that Father Hughson appeared to her after his death, when she was facing dangerous surgery, and re-assured her in his fatherly, matter-of-fact way.
Complementing Father Hughson was his successor as Chaplain General, the Rev. Frank L. Vernon. Born in Canada, Father Vernon received the call to the priesthood when he was fourteen, after making his first confession. He wrote:
It was the working use of Penance and Communion, stimulating a prayer life, that gave me an experiential knowledge of God and of grace and of the Church, of revealed truth, of the intercessory labor of the saints and the ministry of the angels. It took me over the frontier and into the outlying country, in the midst of which I could always sense and sometimes see the shining City of God.
This sense and sight Father Vernon communicated to the Sisters in retreats and instructions, in strikingly original expositions of the gospel still used in Novitiate classes long years after his death. Rector of a downtown parish, Father Vernon yet maintained a disciplined devotion and constant study of ascetical and mystical theology. His mastery of the principles of the cloistered life enabled him to speak with utmost authority, and his insight into human nature and needs won over the most recalcitrant. Father Vernon's daughter entered the Community and became the beloved headmistress of St. Mary's School, Peekskill.
Less influential by reason of his limited sphere and untimely death, the Very Rev. Rowland Frederick Philbrook, Dean of Trinity Cathedral in Davenport, Iowa, and Chaplain of the Western Province for two years until 1946, nevertheless played an important role in the Community's apostolate. As friend and confessor of the Sisters at St. Katharine's School, Father Philbrook strengthened their Catholic mission in a most vital way by his firm grasp of theology and liturgy, combined with a winsome kindness and quizzical humor.
No account of the Community's leadership in the first decades of the century would be adequate without tribute to the Community's choir master for nearly forty years, the distinguished pioneer of the plainsong revival, the Rev. Canon Charles Winfred Douglas. His patient teaching, exhaustive research and splendid translations bore fruit in a perfection of worship never before known in the American Church, for he represented the link with the greatest Benedictine traditions.
"Three days before John Keble preached his Assize sermon in 1833," wrote Father Douglas in his Church Music in History and Practice,
a young French priest, Prosper Gueranger, left his home in Sable, Sarthe, and with a few companions, walked to the unoccupied tenth-century priory Church of St. Peter, Solesmes. There they knelt in the presence of God and dedicated themselves to the restoration of the monastic life in France, which had been deprived of it since the Revolution. The new Benedictine community founded by them devoted itself to liturgical studies, and eventually to an intensive examination of all existing remains of early Christian music.
On the Feast of the Transfiguration, 1899, Winfred Douglas knelt in the tiny Mission of the Transfiguration, Evergreen, Colorado, and offered to God his manifold talents, with all the fame and fortune they would have brought him, in exchange for priesthood in the Church. Surrender brought its hundred-fold reward in a manner no human intelligence could have predicted.
In 1903 Father Douglas travelled to the Isle of Wight, to study with the Benedictine monks exiled there from their monastery at Solesmes. Here, with other priests and choir masters, he absorbed the instructions of Dom Mocquereau and Dom Eudine, and soared to the gate of heaven on the chanting of the Offices and Mass.
But how was he to put his new knowledge to practical use? Parish churches in America were subject to changing policy with changing rectorships. It occurred to Father Douglas that a school or seminary might offer a more fixed policy within which he could work. Above all, a religious community appealed to him, especially the Community of Saint Mary, by reason of its increasing development of the contemplative life and its provision for recitation of the Divine Office in Choir. He was delighted when, soon after his return to New York in 1906, he received an invitation from Mother Margaret Clare to visit Kenosha and instruct the Sisters in the chant. She had heard plainsong at the Convent of Saint Mary the Virgin in Wantage, England, and, with that decisiveness that marked her every move, had determined that the Community must adopt the Solesmes style of chanting.
The Superiors at Peekskill followed suit. In December, 1906, Father Douglas became choir master on Mount Saint Gabriel and immediately began to provide a musical setting of the Community Ceremonial. He found that the Sisters had been using a form of psalmody called "murmuring," with adaptations of modern music for other portions of the liturgy. Within ten days Father Douglas had them singing Compline to authentic plainsong modes, and within a few weeks the other offices were undertaken with gratifying success. To put it thus, of course, is to oversimplify an arduous undertaking. Some hint of what was involved is implied in an article Canon Douglas prepared for the March, 1926, issue of The Catholic Choirmaster:
Our work began with exhaustive study of psalmody on the part of the Sisters, week after week analyzing and practicing the simpler mediations and endings until all could sing them naturally from the unpointed text, and the organist could unfailingly give the necessary support at points of rhythmic impulse. Old habits of hard, unvarying rhythm had to be eradicated, a task of long patience. Then, little by little, the melodies of the more important Office Hymns were undertaken and mastered in their true rhythms.
Father Douglas next turned to teaching the music of the Mass to the girls of St. Mary's School. They soon let him know their views on this strange music:
. .. they were loud in their objections. Beauty and interest were to be banished. Nobody was to sing alto any more; solos were to disappear; there was neither time nor tune to this dreadful Plain-song! Many a tear was shed over the hard necessity of everybody rehearsing such unattractive music. However, we persevered; and within a year had a fairly creditable singing of Missa de Angelis, chosen as being least likely to offend minds accustomed only to the major scale.
In 1910 Father Douglas brought his family to Mount Saint Gabriel. Here, near the entrance to the grounds, they occupied for twelve years a stone house which he named St. Dunstan's in honor of the great Archbishop of Canterbury who was a skilled musician. Here he began adapting the antiphons of the Divine Office from the Benedictine manuscripts known as the Hartker Antiphoner, the Worcester Antiphoner and the Lucca Antiphoner, as well as from Solesmes and Vatican sources. Of the variant forms, he chose the one best suited to the English adaptation. He then wrote out the first antiphons in his own hand to be copied by the Sisters. After trying them, he would make changes, not once but several times, and the Sisters would be obliged to re-copy their copies. Mimeographed sheets were next, and finally the printed editions of Psalter, Canticles, Ceremonial and Masses. In addition to the series of musical publications, the translation of the Benedictine Breviary was undertaken under Canon Douglas' direction. The first edition of the Night Offices was privately printed in 1916 and of the Day Offices in 1918. By 1926 Father Douglas could write:
It was just twenty years after the Sisters' first lesson in psalmody that they sang a vespers complete in every musical detail.
Throughout this long process, Father Douglas exhibited his own rare combination of patience, enthusiasm, humor and outgoing sympathy. Rehearsing the Sisters in a difficult setting of the profession office, he would seat himself at the piano with the announcement, "I'll be the Novice." He entered into all the life of the hilltop, preaching, conducting retreats, hearing confessions, and joining in the school festivities. He organized the Christmas Pageant at St. Mary's School, to this day a favorite feature of the school year. Generations of schoolgirls remembered him in his own special role of Good King Wenceslas, played with utmost devotion. An alumna wrote:
My earliest recollections of St. Mary's are the Sunday evenings when he played Bach for us on the piano in the reception room off the Stone Corridor, and brought to us the realization that Bach's music was full of deep emotion and spiritual fineness, as well as of the technical difficulties which caused us such travail. . . Among my most treasured memories are the recollections of Sunday dinners at St. Dunstan's with Mrs. Douglas and Father Douglas, followed by delightful afternoons of music with Father Douglas at the organ in his music room, while some of us students had the honor of playing the violin or the piano or singing with his organ accompaniment.
Everything Father Douglas touched had a way of becoming merry and joyfuleven committee meetings. DeKoven Foundation in Racine was the scene of the final meetings of the revision committee preparing the Hymnal 1940 for presentation to the General Convention. Aware of the historic significance of the meetings, the Sisters were amused more than once to hear whoops of laughter from within the conference room. Many years before, upon checking over the Ceremonial Noted, Dom Eudine had exclaimed, "Ah! Pere Doo-glass, you have robbed us well!" That robbery now enriched the entire American Church.
Father Douglas died on January 18, 1944, in Santa Rosa, California, having composed a piece for organ earlier in the day. He had finished every work but onethe Antiphoner was still in manuscript at the time of his death. Sister Hildegarde, Assistant Superior of the Western Province and a skilled musician, assisted by Sister Benedicta, attended to the final revision and publication in 1954 of The Diurnal Noted, as it was titled. It was quickly adopted by some twenty communities in America, England, Australia, Tasmania, Africa and South America.
The Community magazine, St. Mary's Messenger, cited as his monumental work the translation into English of the Benedictine Breviary and the provision of authentic musical settings:
Since the middle of the sixth century down to the present time there has never been a day, scarcely an hour, when somewhere in the world the divine praises were not being sung in the Latin text of the Monastic Office. Now through the work of Father Douglas the same praises ascend in our own mother tongue.
Distinguished leadership coupled with steady devotion to allay suspicion and restore the Community to a place of trust and confidence. In demonstration of this fact, Mother Harriet was honored during the twenties by several memorials depicting the establishment of the religious life in the American Episcopal Church. Even before the Great War, St. John's Church, Newport, Rhode Island, included her in an altar painting in the Lady Chapel, completed in 1914. After the War, St. Luke's Chapel in New York installed a small statue of her in the Chapel of the Blessed Sacrament, the one-time sacristy where she had first been elected Superior. A statue was installed in the Lady Chapel of the Church of the Advent, Boston, a stained glass window in St. Clement's Church, Philadelphia, and windows were placed in the Bishops' House at the Cathedral of SS. Peter and Paul in Washington and in the Church of the Atonement, Chicago. A descriptive pamphlet issued by the Church of the Holy Cross, Kingston, New York, in alluding to a statue of Mother Harriet in the reredos, described it as "in the lowest niche on the left," a placement she herself would have regarded as most suitable.