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 DAY IN NEW YORK was clear and cold, and Horace Greeley's Tribune predicted that the ground-hog would see his shadow. The newspapers that Thursday morning, February 2, 1865, cited rumors that Confederate peace negotiators had passed through Union lines under a flag of truce. Maryland was announced as the first state to ratify the amendment abolishing slavery, and crushed sugar had soared to thirty-one cents a pound. Booth was starring in Hamlet at the Winter Garden, and Barnum's American Museum lured customers with a mammoth monkey, a fat woman and two glass steam engines in motion.
In mid-morning Morgan Dix strode cross-town to Eighth Avenue and waited in a stiff north wind for the horse car. Tall and dignified at thirty-eight, Dr. Dix was more than usually absorbed in thought today. If one war was ending, he knew, another was about to begin. The Bishop's sponsorship of the Sisterhood would no doubt draw fire, and Morgan Dix was prepared to give him every support.
From Fifty-ninth Street, where the horse cars turned back, he had a two-mile walk to St. Michael's Church, Blooming-dale, a quaint little gothic building of vertical tongue-and-groove siding. He walked through the churchyard with its scattered gravestones and picket fence and into the sacristy, where he joined the reverend clerics: Littlejohn, Tuttle, Howland, Stansbury, Neide, Williams and Peters. Bishop Potter greeted him warmly, his face pale above his high old-fashioned clerical stock.
The Sisters from the House of Mercy were relieved when Sister Harriet appeared, for she had been isolated with a small boy critically ill with smallpox. Still quarantined on February 2, she ordered fresh clothing, left careful instructions to an attendant, and hurried across to St. Michael's Church.
The service at noon had been arranged by the Bishop himself; it was he who had chosen St. Mary as their patroness and the Feast of the Purification as the day of their profession. After the Creed, a hymn was sung while the five candidates rose and stood before the Bishop. He addressed them briefly and questioned them regarding their willingness to live in obedience and persevere in the work of the Lord. When these questions had been satisfactorily answered, the candidates knelt. The Bishop and priests formed a circle around them and recited antiphonally the hymn Veni Creator Spiritus. Following collects and other prayers, the Bishop took each Sister by the right hand and received her for the work of God into the fellowship of the Sisterhood of Saint Mary. The Bishop then gave each Sister his episcopal blessing and resumed the celebration of the Eucharist. After the service, the Sisters and their friends gathered for lunch at the House of Mercy. At five o'clock, Sister Harriet was back at her nursing post.
It is doubtful that the participants in the reception service were fully aware of its significance. Not since the dissolution of the English monasteries in the sixteenth century had an Anglican Bishop dared to stand in a parish church and officially constitute a religious community, and one, moreover, designed to be a true monastic body, not a philanthropic sorority. Once he had decided to sponsor the Sisterhood of Saint Mary, Bishop Potter never looked back. His close advisers warned that attack would follow. He replied that the worst criticism could be forestalled by omitting public, formal vows. The Sisters therefore made promises which, though regarded as of lifelong obligation, were called revocable. This enabled the Bishop to reassure the excited at the Diocesan Convention the following autumn:
I need scarcely say that in the Association there are no irrevocable vows, no engagements which could interfere to prevent their return to ordinary positions in life, should any claim of duty from friends or relatives unexpectedly arise to require it. In the meantime, they have a recognized and protected position, they have the strength and consolation that comes from feeling that they are wholly dedicated to a holy work, and they are so sequestered from trivial cares and interruptions that they can give themselves with tenfold efficiency to their labors of love.
The Community by-laws expressly stated that no Sister should be required to take irrevocable vows. This left the way clear for Sisters to take the three-fold vows privately, if they wished. From the first profession until March 25, 1873, each Sister made her life vows individually and privately to her confessor some months, or even some years, after her public profession. The six Sisters professed on Lady Day, 1873, made their life vows publicly the following August 29 in St. Michael's Chapel of the old St. Mary's Convent, Peekskill; Father C. C. Grafton, S.S.J.E., received their vows and gave them the cross and ring. This prepared the way for the vows to be incorporated into the Profession Office. The by-laws provision still held, however, and Sister Thecla, professed on July 2, 1873, elected not to take the three-fold vows, finding in the Profession Office a sufficient expression of her dedication. She alone among the Sisters wore no knots in her girdle, but her profession was sealed by death in 1878 when she died nursing the victims of yellow fever in Memphis.
Such sagacity as Bishop Potter displayed regarding the vows enabled him to advise, steady and chasten the infant Community and bring it safely through the furor ahead. It is strange and sad that the Sisters who owe him so great a debt should know so little about him. He shrank from public notice, left no literary monument and has, regrettably, no biography. He is scarcely mentioned in the biographies of his older brother Alonzo, Bishop of Pennsylvania, and of his nephew, Henry Codman Potter, his successor in the See of New York. Yet the impressive dimensions of Horatio Potter emerge in every event in which he played a decisive role.
He was born in 1802, the youngest child of nine born to Joseph and Anne Potter, Quaker farmers living near Beekman in Dutchess County, New York. Their Quaker devotion appears in the names they bestowed on their oldest son, Paraclete, and only daughter, Philadelphia. Their son Alonzo was the first to become an Episcopalian. Following his graduation from Union College, Schenectady, he worked in Philadelphia at a book-shop owned by his brother Sheldon, and while there was baptized in St. Peter's Church by Bishop William White and began to study for the ministry. In 1819, aged nineteen, Alonzo returned to Union College to teach mathematics and natural philosophy. At this time Horatio, tired of his mercantile career, appealed to Alonzo for help in obtaining a college education. With that help, Horatio graduated from Union College in 1826, was confirmed by Bishop Hobart at St. Thomas' Church in New York and began studying for holy orders. In 1828 Horatio was ordained priest and became professor of mathematics and natural philosophy at Washington College, now Trinity College, Hartford, Connecticut.
In 1833, Horatio Potter began his twenty-one-year rectorship of St. Peter's Church, Albany, years in which he effected
the passage from the old to the modern methods of Church thought and work, and educated the parish in the principles of Catholic theology and sound Churchmanship.
The transition included removal of the three-decker pulpit from its central position in the sanctuary, and the introduction of gas lamps to replace the candles which slaves had placed in sconces beside the pews of the wealthy.
The years in Albany were marked by sickness and sorrow. In 1830, the Potters' oldest child, a two-year-old son, died. In 1834, their four-year-old daughter Mary died. In 1835, worn out by sickness and parochial burdens, he sailed for England, carrying letters of introduction to Bishop Skinner of the Scottish Episcopal Church, and other notables including John Keble. He returned much refreshed, and in 1837 declined the presidency of Washington College to continue parish work. His sermons were noted for "vigor of thought, purity of style and elegance of diction," the parish historian wrote, and this in a period of what Dr. Potter called "barndoor eloquence." Called to address the New York State Assembly at the death of President Harrison in 1841, he delivered, instead of a conventional eulogy, a probing analysis of the evils of political life.
In 1845 the Potters both visited England, where they stayed with John Keble and with Isaac Williams, poet of the Catholic Revival. Both, Dr. Potter wrote home, "were men of singular modesty, purity and devotion." He noted rumors that Newman was expected to submit to Roman Catholicism, adding that Dr. Pusey was "standing fast." The Potters were invited to visit Dr. Pusey at Christ Church, Oxford, enroute to Liverpool, and on September 15 Dr. Potter wrote:
Yesterday we had the Communion with him in the Cathedral. , and I, and pray with him in his study five or six times a day. Such meekness and love, such a contrite and broken spirit, it has not before been my fortune to meet.
Alluding to the 1845 trial of the Rt. Rev. B. T. Onderdonk, Bishop of New York, on immorality charges brought by his ecclesiastical enemies, Dr. Potter wrote "Each party, I think, would soon ruin itself, but for the violence and blunders of the opposite."
With Bishop Onderdonk sentenced to suspension from the exercise of his ministry and of his office as bishop, a heavy weight fell on Dr. Potter in the oversight of the missions in upstate New York, and this at a time of personal grief. In 1847 Mary Jane Tomlinson Potter, his gentle and quiet wife, died, leaving six children, five of them under twelve. Dr. Potter saw in his loss the loving purposes of God:
It is my earnest prayer to Him who makes use of suffering as a means of instruction and sanctification that he would be pleased by the teaching of this heavy trial to impart more depth and spiritual wisdom as well as more earnestness and tenderness to all my efforts to edify and console the beloved people of my spiritual charge.
In 1852 the Diocese finally elected Jonathan Wainwright as Provisional Bishop, thereby enabling Dr. Potter to take a holiday in Scotland. During this trip he met Mary Atchison Pollock, a retiring Scottish lady of forty-two with whom he continued to correspond after his return to Albany. In 1853 she accepted his proposal of marriage and arrived in New York, where Dr. Potter met her at the dock and escorted her to Trinity Church for their wedding.
In 1854, Bishop Wainwright died, worn out by the arduous labors of repairing the neglect caused by the seven years' vacancy in the episcopate. At the Diocesan Convention that followed, Dr. Potter was elected Bishop on the ninth ballot. In his acceptance speech, he pleaded with his fellow Churchmen to "try to love each other, try to banish hard words, and satirical speeches, and uncharitable judgments from the Church of God. . ."
In his long episcopate he demonstrated heroic strength and restraint. His nephew and successor, also a great ecclesiastical statesman, cited
a singular wisdom and meekness in his episcopate and his habitual reserve was one of its largest elements of strength, founded upon a sounder conception of the Church as a church, and not as a sect, than was understood by those who misjudged his patience and forbearance.
It was such a man who stepped forward to sponsor the Community, in a time of spiritual decline and public corruption. It would be pleasant to think that among the Sisters he found understanding and appreciation of the difficulty of his position, but they too mistook his caution for timidity. Only in retrospect did Mother Harriet see it clearly. Had she never known Bishop Potter, she told a younger Sister, she would have missed her religious vocation.