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.


WITHDRAWAL OF A FREE OBEDIENCE is the fatal ailment of religious communities. By a subtle alchemy the means of obedience become the end, and a hard crust of rigidity encloses and suffocates the life within, resisting formative influences from without. Vigilance is required if communities are to maintain a tough core of principles surrounded by a pliancy which can grow and adapt to the changing needs of the Church and the world.

As its first century closed, the Community of Saint Mary could be grateful that it had somehow eluded this fatal affliction. The early hostility which hastened the Community's development and gave it a tendency toward eclectism should also, it would seem, have encouraged the Sisters to barricade themselves behind a cumberous institutionalism. That this did not happen stemmed perhaps from the Community spirit, which flowered before the formulations of 1906 and remained to some degree independent of codes; stemmed almost certainly from the imprint of Mother Harriet, whose cheerfulness, simplicity and self-mortification gave no place to isolation and self-concern; stemmed also from the provincial system, premature as it would seem to have been, which by decentralizing the Community's structure prevented rigidity.

The Community was ready, therefore, to adapt to new work when the changing needs of the twentieth century required new approaches to the Sisters' apostolate. As public welfare agencies assumed responsibility for the poor, the Sisters turned 'their attention to the needs of the spiritually impoverished. Retreats now became a major work of the Community. Since the early eighties retreats had been provided for Associates and friends. New York newspapers circulated wildly fictitious reports concerning them; society women were depicted in evening dress and then, by way of contrast, in black or grey "retreatants" garb." A snapshot of the faithful old housemaid Ella watering her plants on the porch was published with a caption explaining that she was sprinkling incoming retreatants with holy water. By way of correcting these sensations, Mother Harriet finally gave audience to a reporter of the New York Sun, who quoted her denial that the retreat then in progress included socially prominent women, with the Mother's characteristic comment, ". . . as a rule, society people do not care much for the hard work of religion." She added:

I am sorry to see that some of the papers are trying to make a sensation out of the retreat this year as they did out of the one we held several years ago. A retreat is anything but sensational. It is simply an opportunity for those who take part in it to withdraw from the outside world and escape from their everyday cares and worries in order that they may spend a little while alone with God, uninterrupted by anyone or anything, in self-examination, prayer and meditation.

It would take years of patient teaching and of small beginnings before the Community could open two full-time retreat centers in the late 1940's. The DeKoven Foundation opened its retreat house on the old Racine College campus, purchased in the depth of the Depression by St. Mary's Home in Chicago as a summer camp for children. Shortly before a pending sheriff's sale on mortgage foreclosure, the Sisters acquired the forty-acre campus overlooking Lake Michigan, thereby saving for the Church the monument and grave-shrine of Dr. James DeKoven. In 1938 the Sisters began year-around occupancy of Taylor Hall and proceeded to the arduous task of restoring the fabric of the splendid old English gothic buildings. The Rev. W. C. R. Sheridan wrote:

Nothing else quite like DeKoven exists in the American Church. No human being can say how many people it has converted to our Lord Jesus Christ, nor count the number of those whose conversion has been deepened by a visit there. The list of activities is both amazing and endless—and always under-girded and colored by the life of the religious in their daily round of praise.

The guests at DeKoven came to include little girls in leotards dancing on the grass during the camping season, grave seminary students in cassocks in groups of ninety or more, married couples sharing a retreat, and women of the Church holding a provincial meeting, with St. John's Chapel standing serene and sure in the center of the campus, just as it did when James DeKoven's big boys played soccer in its shadow.

St. Mary's Camp, held at DeKoven Foundation every July and August, came to hold a special place in the hearts of its "alumnae." It was of no small significance to the Community's acceptance in the Midwest that as campers and counsellors, generations of women had lived with and loved the Sisters in an atmosphere of wholesome fun, learning and prayer.

In New York the retreat work grew to such proportions that St. Mary's Hospital on Thirty-fourth Street began scheduling retreats in the Nurses' Training School. When Mrs. Ernesto Fabbri first considered turning over her Italian Renaissance townhouse on Ninety-fifth Street for use as a retreat house, it was to the Sisters at St. Mary's Hospital that she turned. There resulted the House of the Redeemer, and in assuming its management, the Sisters were unwittingly fulfilling an old dream of Mrs. Fabbri's brother-in-law, an artist who had fallen in love with the Church Catholic. He was Egisto Fabbri, who with his brothers Alessandro and Ernesto, was born to an Italian banker and partner in the House of Morgan. After the father's death, Mrs. Fabbri with her three sons and five daughters returned to Florence, where they lived in patriarchal fashion with an uncle. During World War I, Mrs. Edith Shepard Fabbri, wife of Ernesto, cabled Egisto to come to New York and help her plan a quattrocento Italian house. The house he built was like no other in New York. Wrote Mable LaFarge:

The world of New York was to come and go in it, but even the entrance hall was not New York; it suggested peace, calm, low voices, the beauty of some Brunelleschi sacristy.

Across the front hall, Mrs. LaFarge wrote, were richly panelled walnut doors leading down three steps to the great white-vaulted refectory with red tiled floors and simple massive grey stone fireplace. Wrought-iron candelabra . . . and a few old decorative paintings of Florence. Nothing else to mar the restfulness.

White-vaulted also was the great two-story library with balustraded gallery and magnificent woodwork from a palace in Perugia.

The great house was opened with a dance presenting Mrs. Fabbri's daughter to society. Egisto was a strange dark figure in the gay crowd, muttering miserably to a friend, "But I want to build a chapel." He had heard some nuns in Paris sing Gregorian chant and dreamed of some day restoring the chant to its proper place in the liturgy. His dream came true. He designed and built the Church of the Spirito Santo in Serraville, Italy, and near it a convent for teaching of the chant. He built another such convent on the outskirts of Florence.

Little did Egisto Fabbri guess that the Renaissance town-house he designed for his Episcopalian sister-in-law would one day add a third such foundation to his list. In 1949 Mrs. Fabbri, inspired by a sermon delivered by the Rt. Rev. Austin Pardue, Bishop of Pittsburgh, deeded her home to a corporate organization set up to operate a retreat house. The deed was presented to the president of the corporation, the Rt. Rev. Charles K. Gilbert, Bishop of New York, on November 20, 1949, and nine days later the Sisters began their apostolate there. On February 4, 1950, Bishop Gilbert blessed the chapel, in what had been Mrs. Fabbri's second-floor drawing room. Here, in the room where Egisto Fabbri had glumly watched his niece's guests dancing while he longed to build a chapel, the Sisters now offered their daily round of prayer and praise.

St. Raphael's House, Evergreen, Colorado, operated as a full-time retreat house for six years in the thirties and thereafter was opened each summer. Scores of Associates and friends in the western states relied on St. Raphael's for their annual retreat and rest. As the retreat movement spread, Associates initiated and fostered annual retreats in their home dioceses, first in Kansas City, then in Dallas, and eventually in Montana, Oklahoma, Nebraska and New Mexico.

The Community reached out to yet another work in the late forties when the Sisters of the Western Province undertook the management of a parish day school, the Ascension Parish Day School in Sierra Madre, California, near Los Angeles. The Rector, the Rev. Harley G. Smith, opened the school in 1947 with four grades and thirty-five pupils. The enrollment soon grew to eight grades and one hundred pupils, achieving under the Sisters' direction a sound reputation in the field of elementary education.

Less dramatic, but equally important, were advances and improvements in the older schools under the Sisters' direction, advances made possible in countless instances by the loyalty and generosity of devoted alumnae and friends. St. Mary's School, Peekskill, which was formed by combining St. Mary's, New York, with St. Gabriel's, Peekskill, undertook a building program in 1909 which required more than half a century to complete. Ralph Adams Cram designed the splendid collegiate gothic quadrangle which commands a sweeping panorama of the Hudson River Highlands. Painstakingly, through the years, by large bequests and small gifts, the building was completed, until in 1963 the swimming pool was added that the Sisters regarded as the final bit of construction. Kemper Hall, with its crowded and inadequate buildings, was preparing at century-end a development program which, it was hoped, would provide facilities to match the school's achievements in the field of preparatory education.


As initial assessment of the first century of the Community of Saint Mary would include perforce that it had achieved something merely by surviving. Within two decades, 1852 to 1872, at least eight attempts were made to found Protestant Sisterhoods, in response to a call from the General Convention of 1850. Evangelical leaders required the life of sacrifice divorced from the liturgy of sacrifice, and eight courageous responses were made to this request for fruit without root. Of those eight sisterhoods, only one appears to have survived its founders. By contrast, the Community attempted from the outset to be guided by traditional monastic practice, and prevailed despite ignorance, indifference, hostility and vicissitudes of every kind. The lesson seemed obvious, that in establishing the dedicated communal life it was inadvisable to set aside the considered opinions and established practices of thirteen centuries.

More important than survival was the Community's contribution to the entire process by which the Church in America awakened like an exiled orphan to an awareness of its true identity. Not surprisingly, women played a determining role in the awakening. Eighteenth century rationalism had left its mark on the menfolk, but women's intuitive perception saw past the intellectual roadblocks of deism and dissent to the discipline and worship required or implied by the Book of Common Prayer, and beyond that to the continuity of the Church in America with Catholic Christendom through the ages. Men sought to trim theology down to fit their finite understanding. The Sisters favored enlarging the human scope to encompass transcendent demands. In 1804 Thomas Jefferson revised the New Testament, expunging references to miracles. To mark the centennial of this triumph, the United States Congress in 1904 published nine thousand facsimile copies of the Jefferson Bible, and not one cry of protest is recorded against this version of separation of Church and State. The religion of this world, the faith of Almighty Man, had won in the United States. Among the elements of protest was the silent witness of the Sisters of Saint Mary.

More profoundly, the Community left its imprint on the lives of incalculable thousands. Every house acquired a unique character. For example, to generations of nurses, internes, physicians, surgeons, society women and students from the General Seminary who served at the altar, St. Mary's Hospital on Thirty-fourth Street was simply "the Hospital", as if it were the only hospital in the world. Devotees recalled such incidents as the day in 1908 when the trained dogs, monkeys and baby elephant from the Barnum and Bailey Circus came to entertain the wards, the elephant in a grey ulster, snorting and protesting against being taken to a hospital. The be-powdered and be-spangled clowns prepared their act in Sister Catharine's office, she chatting with them as politely as if they were the ladies who called at regular intervals in broughams with liveried coachmen.

Even the geographical extent of the Community's influence could not be fully assessed. Researchists learned not to discount any rumored connection with the Community, however unlikely. The House of Prayer, Newark, New Jersey, claimed to include the Sisters of Saint Mary in its distant past, though the Community archives were silent about the matter. Years later, a chance newspaper article revealed that the indefatigable Sister Amelia had indeed worked two days a week at the House of Prayer in 1875, visiting the poor in connection with a relief store in Plane Street and teaching sewing to girls at the parish industrial school. When Churchmen in Arkansas claimed to have had the services of Sisters in that Diocese, it was found that they referred to a summer camp the Sisters used briefly to protect Church Home orphans from Memphis summers. The Sisters were aware that the Community's influence is always greater than the sum of its parts would indicate, but even that sum was an unknown quantity.

The Guild of Associates in each Province, numbering about ten Associates for every Sister, was important in disseminating the principles of the religious life in many parishes and communities. Many Associates lived lives of heroic and hidden sacrifice and praise, showing forth the Lord's death and resurrection as truly as their Sisters in habits, and putting to the lie the often-made charge that monasticism promotes a duality of "cheap grace and costing grace", to use Bonhoeffer's phrase.

The first century of a religious community comprises its infancy. Perhaps the second' century of the Community of Saint Mary would see a further development of the tendencies of the first hundred years, with the Sisters providing for themselves opportunities for greater enclosure and contemplative prayer, and assisting by prayer and encouragement their Associate Sisters who bear Christ into office and factory, classroom and hospital, home and studio. With a splendid vision, Mother Mary Maude suggested this as far back as 1934 when she wrote that religious houses have always served as "conservators of the ascetic ideal . . . schools and universities in relation to the rest of the world." She wrote:

It has been said that this age is ripe for a new manifestation in the monastic tradition. There has been no distinctively new note of development since the Jesuit ideals entered the stream of tradition. One wonders in what way it will come. Perhaps in lay organizations, pledged to the ascetic ideal, yet living and mingling in the world. If ever the world needed the salt of distinctively Christian lives it needs it now. Such lives must be based on the theological virtues, built up on the moral virtues, pledged to simple and frugal living, detached from worldly standards, fired with a passion for social justice, and sustained by a dynamic energy drawn from sacramental grace and nourished by a systematic prayer life.

Whatever the second century might hold, the Sisters could be certain that God would provide opportunity for a full oblation of themselves. They could be grateful for the noble precedents of the first century and for the lessons provided by faults and failings. And they could sum up their Sisters' achievements by saying simply that a few women went forth in faith into wastelands of the human spirit, and that the desert blossomed like the rose.

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