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 SISTERS WHO LEFT St. Luke's Hospital that April morning in 1863 dispersed to the nearby homes of relatives and friends, that they might meet frequently to discuss their future as a Sisterhood. Jane Haight, their leader at this point, consulted her former rector, the Rev. E. Folsom Baker. When a request arrived early in May for Sisters to assume management of the House of Mercy, however, Sister Jane was ill at her home in Catskill, New York, and Sister Harriet came in from South Orange to consider the matter. The prospective work sounded forbidding to her. She wrote Miss Ellen Kemble, Secretary of the Ladies' Committee, that they would be unable to decide until they had discussed the matter with Sarah Bridge's father, who was expected in New York that week. The House of Mercy had been established "for the reception and reformation of destitute women who may wish to abandon a vicious course of life," as stated in its charter, granted on February 2, 1855. In the Civil War era, the care and reformation of prostitutes was not regarded as suitable employment for a lady; Mr. Bridge made it clear that his daughter would not be permitted to take part in the project.

There were other factors that deterred the Sisters. The 1862 report admitted delicately "the pecuniary prospects of the House are not bright." This meant, the Sisters learned, that $2,917 was due to Mrs. William Richmond, director, for money advanced by her; a $6,000 mortgage was outstanding; and the House owed a number of incidental debts.

Still, the Sisters were intrigued by the immense opportunity and the desperate need for this work of reclamation. Mrs. Richmond's husband, the Rev. William Richmond, had begun the work in 1854 when he was Rector of St. Michael's, Bloomingdale. After his death, Mrs. Richmond had bravely carried on the rescue program, against overwhelming odds. Immigrants flooding in from Ireland and Germany had swelled the city population to 813,699, of whom nearly half were foreign-born, obliged by poverty and sickness to find shelter in one of the festering slums, or in the shanty-towns huddling among the rocks of upper Manhattan. A city inspector's report for 1863 noted the plight of eighteen thousand persons living in underground cellars; of more than forty thousand unclaimed and vagrant children roaming the alleys and wharves; of twenty-five thousand prostitutes, most under twenty and many diseased. The Prison Association reported that few prostitutes lived beyond twenty-five, and that an estimated two thousand girls fell into prostitution every year, many of them mere children lured by promises of honest employment. Faced with this situation, Mrs. Richmond acquired an old mansion on Bloomingdale Road, now Riverside Drive, near West Eighty-sixth Street. Luxurious in its day, the Rowland mansion had deteriorated into a road house catering to the sporting crowds that used Bloomingdale Road for a Sunday driving course. Before the front door was the abandoned foundation of a tenement house, filled with stagnant water. Broken glass and trash littered the once proud old lawn, and burdock and thistle abounded.

The mansion's dingy rooms were furnished with broken furniture in untidy array. In I860 Mrs. Richmond had fallen ill with cancer. Feeling her life slipping away, and seeing the desperate plight of helpless children on every hand, she felt driven to do what she could. Organizing and soliciting funds left her scant time for domestic details and, as her health failed, the house became chaotic.

Undeterred by all this, or by the bloody draft riots of July, the Sisters decided in mid-summer that it was their duty to undertake the management of the House of Mercy. On September 1, Sisters Jane, Harriet and Mary, with Catharine Hassett, took over operation of the House. Mrs. Richmond was not on hand to welcome them, having gone to Albany to bring back a runaway. The fifteen inmates were dressed in rags and run-down shoes, or no shoes at all. They watched with suspicion and scorn as the Sisters prepared the chapel for the brief installation service to take place that evening. There was no altar. A starch box served as lectern, a dirty surplice hung limply from a nail, torn books were scattered about and the whole forlorn scene was lit dimly by tallow dips in green bottles.

Investigation disclosed that the girls lived on a diet consisting chiefly of dry bread moistened with left-over tea or coffee. They confided to Sister Mary that every time the cook burnt the broth they beat her, and she threatened to leave. A few days after the Sisters' arrival, she made good her threat. Sister Mary assumed the burden of trying to feed girls and staff on eight cents a day per person. Under war-time inflation, this sum would buy a main meal of cheap meat, a vegetable, bread and molasses. Supper would be bread and tea, with a molasses cookie and on occasion a pat of butter. The milk supply depended on one cow, but even when she wandered away at milking time, the Sisters preferred this arrangement to buying milk. Dairies in the sixties were notorious for watering every can of milk, and there was as yet no sanitary code. The Sisters looked back on the simple meals at St. Luke's Hospital as feasts. In the House of Mercy, an early Sister commented wryly, virtue was its own and sole reward.

There were no towels or sheets and none of the girls possessed a change of underclothing. The Sisters set about with their needles to make new clothing and household linens. The clean-up campaign met with some resistance. Early accounts relate vicious rights, swearing and ribald songs as the girls made every effort to defy and shock their new warders. Little by little, though, the dirt disappeared and the Sisters won the respect and affection of the girls. Louisa Cooper, their former associate from St. Luke's, called one day to find Sister Harriet "black as a coal heaver," cleaning out the cellar. She hoped to eliminate the rats, which, to everyone's dismay, sallied forth in platoons every night for bold scampers up and down the stairs. No one but Sister Harriet had courage enough to invade their domain. She was rewarded by the discovery of a heap of scrap iron, which she announced she would sell to get money for furniture. By such efforts, necessities such as cooking pots, chairs and tables were acquired. In later days the Sisters reminisced often and fondly of the old House of Mercy, where even the dog, they said, had only three legs.

The weather that winter was extremely severe, and the little coal they could afford burned far too rapidly in their old and broken stoves. The Sisters wore cloaks inside and prescribed coats and mittens indoors for the girls. In the midst of the bitterest weather, what they called "spotted fever" broke out among the girls, and the Sisters labored night and day nursing them. As the epidemic subsided, Sister Harriet got away long enough to attend the ordination of a friend. To acquaintances who inquired how all was going she replied with characteristic optimism. One of the inquirers was the Rt. Rev. Horatio Potter, Bishop of New York, whom they had approached for permission to organize a Sisterhood. She reminded him that the Sisters were eagerly awaiting his word and hoped to have his official recognition, advice and sanction. He promised to see what could be done and soon after appointed a committee of priests in his diocese to investigate the subject and report to him.

Unfortunately the previous June Sister Jane had asked the Rev. E. Folsom Baker to draw up a rule for a proposed "Sisterhood of St. Catherine" and write a service of admission. By autumn Mr. Baker had finished preparing the reception service and had had it handsomely printed in red and black. Rumor of this service reached Bishop Potter late in October and he wrote Mr. Baker objecting that

something very formal and somewhat peculiar is proposed to be used on occasion of the introduction of a new member into the Sisterhood, and that a number of persons have been invited. . . The Sisterhood in its present aspects is entirely new in this Diocese. The whole subject is one of a most delicate nature. The question of a form of initiation has occupied the anxious attention of other Bishops—as indeed the question of having anything very formal or public and I should much prefer that the whole matter remain in statu quo until I can have time to consider it more carefully.

Mr. Baker hastened to take a copy of the reception service to the Bishop for his approval. The Bishop's permission indicated no intention of his becoming involved in the service:

Having some time since assented informally to the holding of a Service connected with what is called a Sisterhood (without having seen the proposed Service) which Service was to be held in the House of Mercy, I beg now to say that I do not wish to interfere with the holding of that Service, and that I reserve that and all other questions connected with the Sisterhood for future consideration. Under the circumstances perhaps the Chaplain of the House of Mercy will not object to the holding of the Services for this occasion in that Institution—but if he should object, it may be held elsewhere. New York Horatio Potter November 4, 1863

P.S. I feel bound to add, that the Ladies who are devoting themselves to pious and charitable works in the House of Mercy, will have if their measures are wisely and prudently taken, which I will not doubt, my warm approval and sympathy.


The chill of this conditional sanction was apparently dispelled by Sister Harriet's warm enthusiasm, for soon after their interview the Bishop named a committee to consider the Sisterhood proposal. The reverend gentlemen named were Isaac Henry Tuttle, Rector of St. Luke's Church in Hudson Street; Morgan Dix, Rector of Trinity Parish; Arthur Cleveland Coxe, Rector of Calvary Church; A. N. Littlejohn, Rector of Holy Trinity, Brooklyn; and Thomas McClure Peters, Rector of St. Michael's, Bloomingdale. Each member received a list of topics the Bishop wished him to consider:

1. Is it well for the Bishop to recognize a Sisterhood and to stand in some fixed relation to it?

2. If so, what should that relation be?

3. Should there be different classes, such as full Sisters, probationers and associates?

4. With what engagements should a woman enter the Sisterhood?

5. Should the age be beyond a certain limit, and what?

6. As to form and circumstances of initiation—how far a religious solemnity and how far public?

7. As to a uniform habit.

8. How shall the First Sister be appointed, and for what term?

9. Shall there be a Rector between the Sisters and the Bishop?

10. Of what age should he be, and how appointed?

11. Shall the Sisterhood be a general Institution, independent of the House of Mercy, and incorporated?

12. How shall rules, and a form of initiation, be drawn up?

13. Can you suggest a name for the Sisterhood?

14. And as to the function of a Sister, is the term Deaconess a right and expedient one to use?

While the committee considered these matters, Bishop Potter himself wrote the Rt. Rev. William Rollinson Whittingham, Bishop of Maryland, to inquire about the Sisterhood of the Good Shepherd in Baltimore. In reply, Bishop Whitting-ham alluded to difficulties, personal disagreements and misunderstandings, "of which there have been no few", but commented cheerfully that these neither surprised nor discouraged him. He added:

I have encountered much of the same difficulty which embarrassed you. . . Although much urged to frame definite rules for permanent obedience, I have not yet believed myself qualified for doing so by adequate experience.

The day chosen for the first meeting of the clerical committee was, as it happened, the Feast of the Purification, destined to be the new Sisterhood's patronal feast. In Morgan Dix's diary for 1864 is this entry:

February 2nd: At one p.m. the Commission on Sisterhoods met. All present except Mr. Peters (who had to be at the funeral of the Matron of the Bloomingdale asylum, of which he is Chaplain.) We completed our examinations of the Bishop's questions and they appointed me to draw up the report.

Of that report, signed by the committee members and sent off to the Bishop on February 26, nothing is known; Bishop Potter in his address to the Diocesan Convention of 1864 described it merely as "elaborate and instructive." This much is certain: the suggestions Bishop Potter chose to adopt provided a solid foundation upon which a true religious community could rise:

1. That the Bishop recognize the foundation of Sisterhoods, which may be incorporated if necessary.

2. That he be legally visitor of each such foundation with power to impose an Episcopal check on all of their proceedings.

3. That the Bishop draw up a form of reception for the candidates for Sisterhoods.

4. That he appoint a Chaplain for the Sisters.

5. That the Sisters wear a suitable uniform habit.

6. That the Sisters choose a name for their organization, and draw up a code of rules, subject to the Bishop's approval.

7. That the work of a Sister be not limited, but be held to include all the corporal and spiritual works of mercy which a woman may perform, and that the idea as well of a contemplative life of prayer and devotion as of an active life of labor be included in the office, but especially that the Sisters be devoted to the care of the sick and needy and to the work of educating the young.

On June 26, 1864, the Bishop visited the House of Mercy for confirmation, taking tea with the Sisters afterward. Favorably impressed, he appointed Dr. Tuttle of St. Luke's Church to be Chaplain of the House, and at the Diocesan Convention in the autumn he made an impassioned appeal for funds for the Sisters.

Encouraged, the Sisters on October 6, 1864, assumed the management of an orphanage at Ninety-ninth Street, the Sheltering Arms. Its organizer was the gifted rector of St. Michael's, Bloomingdale, the Rev. Thomas McClure Peters. He persuaded Sister Harriet to abandon tentative plans for a children's hospital in order that she and Sister Amelia Asten, who had joined them, might take over a shelter for children from infancy to twelve years. Women prisoners to whom he ministered had pleaded with Mr. Peters to care for their children, whom they were forced to surrender either to public charity, which they dreaded, or to Roman Catholic institutions, which then required relinquishing of custody. Another kind of need was represented by the case of a blind toddler named Minnie, found abandoned on the steps of City Hall; she could not be placed in a blind asylum because she was too young and was refused admission by all the orphanages because she was blind. Mr. Peters had prevailed upon the Sisters to care for Minnie at the House of Mercy until an institution could be opened for her and the other destitute cases which confronted him.

Mr. Peters first announced to his family that they were moving from their spacious Greek-revival mansion at Ninety-ninth Street, Bloomingdale. He then granted a fifteen-year lease free of rent to the Sheltering Arms of Jesus, a name suggested by his friend, Dr. Muhlenberg. With his usual dispatch, Mr. Peters persuaded the Sisters to take over, enlisted the aid of twenty-one New York business men as trustees, and asked Miss Ellen Kemble to form a Ladies' Association to meet monthly and provide support.

With two Sisters at the Sheltering Arms, the year 1864 ended with the Community-to-be established in two works. On Sunday, December 10, Dr. Dix called at the House of Mercy to administer the sacraments to a dying girl and to celebrate the Holy Communion for the other thirty-one inmates, two Sisters, some probationers and one or two guests. Sister Jane welcomed him warmly, and he wrote in his diary that the service "was one of the most interesting I have ever seen or had a part in." It was after two o'clock before he arrived at his parents' home on Twenty-first Street, very late for dinner. Obviously, he was no longer cooly detached about the Sisterhood venture as he had been the previous June when Sister Jane had written Mr. Baker, "I feel as if (Dr. Dix) rather thought us a bother, with little confidence in us."

His diary entry for February 1, 1865, noted that Dr. Turtle had sent him the form to be used the next day for the reception of Jane Haight, Mary Heartt, Amelia Asten, Sarah Bridge and Harriet Cannon into the Sisterhood of Saint Mary, the name chosen by Bishop Potter. Dr. Dix read the form with sincere thankfulness "for the steady progress which we are making."

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