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 YEARS IMMEDIATELY FOLLOWING the first Profession were marked by events indicating the direction of the Community's development, events the more absorbing because they were happening for the first time, impressing the five Sisters again and again with the blessedness of their new life.
On June 11, 1865, the Feast of Saint Barnabas, Miss Elizabeth Greene received the habit as Sister Agnes, becoming the Community's first Novice.
That same day the Sisters undertook a third work, St. Barnabas' House at 304 Mulberry Street on Manhattan's Lower East Side. Mrs. Richmond had founded the House for homeless women and children, probably intending it as a reception center for the House of Mercy. With her characteristic zeal, Mrs. Richmond rented a building in the heart of the vice district, close to Police Headquarters, and searched the streets at night for women in need of haven. Her illness forced her to turn the work over to the City Mission Society, which in turn called the Sisters. Sister Mary was placed in charge.
Organization of the Midnight Mission as a rescue work in the vice district enabled Sister Mary to concentrate on providing shelter for women whose only crime was homeless-ness. In 1866 some fifty-one thousand meals and lodgings were provided on a budget of $3,889, and the adjoining building at 306 Mulberry was purchased for a childrens' dormitory, a day nursery and chapel. The City Mission Report praised the Sisters
whose care of the inmates and prudent management of its affairs neither price could reward nor praise equal.
Destitution was the only qualification for admission. The House was included in a long feature, "Afternoon Visits to Asylums for Fallen Virtue" in the New York Citizen late in 1866. Of the five shelters visited, two were operated by Protestants and two by the Sisters of Saint Mary; but one, the Convent of the Good Shepherd, a Roman Catholic institution, enrolled two hundred of the three hundred women cared for by all five institutions, a fact noted with some asperity.
Though the reporter praised St. Barnabas' House as "a most benevolent and worthy undertaking," she reserved her highest tribute for the House of Mercy, in an account which affords a unique view of the earliest Sisters, attired in
black dress, white linen collars, with square frontal ends, Quakeristical tissue-like caps, with tissue pendants, placed over plainly-parted hair.
The author praised the tasteful arrangements of the rooms, with flowers, books and pictures,
adding there is an aristocratic hue which seems to gild the entire house. The Lady Superior gave me a welcome and showed me very courteously to all parts of that most beautiful, homelike Retreat. . . I passed up a back staircase to find three dormitories with twelve beds in each, all neatly arranged with mattresses, snowy coverlids and pillow-cases. The sewing-room, the washroom, with its half dozen marble basins and the accoutrements, the laundry-room and its shelves of nicely arranged clothes; the school-room, with its desks and appurtenances; the infirmary and the store-closets, all in excellent order, were thrown open for my inspection. . . The Lady Superior, benign and bland, imparting instructions or giving commands, was received respectfully and kindly. Orderliness, neatness and decency were observed. The inmates suitably clothed and plainly dressed. This asylum must be visited to be appreciated; it surely will call forth the encomiums of all churchmena sufficient test of what religious influences, gratuitously given, can accomplish.
In September, 1865, the Sisters convened their first Chapter in the sacristy of St. Luke's, Hudson Street, and elected Sister Harriet as Superior. That they waited nearly eight months before taking this step reflected painful memories of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion; it also indicated the hope that Sister Jane's health might improve sufficiently to enable her to accept the position. To Mr. Baker, Sister Jane pointed out that the Superior's job was an unenviable one for which she doubted her qualification, but the brisk, managerial tone of her letters indicates that the Sisters deferred to her judgment on Community questions. As early as 1863 she wrote:
We do indeed want to have all things on a right foundation this time. . . We want it to have the interest and confidence of the Churchand have the Bishop for our Spiritual Head. . . About going to EnglandI do not quite see how we could do that. I think Miss Ayres visited all Houses in England and on the Continent. You see what hers came to. Besides I think Miss Sellon's (early English Sisterhood) was a failureshe assuming too much power. I believe the Clergy decline to have anything to do with it. Miss Ayres is my authorityand I have also seen a book called "The experience of a Sister of Mercy." Our rules should be few, simple and as free from unnatural restraint as possible. Love the ruling and underlying principle. I think the great mistake has been too great strictness in things of no moment, making a life of good works, freely given to God, a life of unnatural restraint and almost bondage.
Though ill from the tuberculosis which caused her death in 1868, Sister Jane acted always with immense energy and enthusiasm. She called in the Rev. John Henry Hopkins, Jr., deacon and brilliant artist-journalist son of the Bishop of Vermont, to advise them on redecorating the House of Mercy chapel. She dispatched the attorney of a "scamp plumber" who had tried to fleece them. A youthful house-painter who left a note to two of the girls in the House asking them to meet him on the River bank she outwitted by sending two police officers to meet him, instead. She persuaded Dr. Milo Mahan, distinguished professor at the General Theological Seminary, to come and preach to the girls, reporting to Mr. Baker afterward that if she could find such a chaplain as Dr. Mahan, the girls would respond readily to Christian teaching.
Able as she was, it was sadly evident by September that Sister Jane was too ill for additional responsibilities. The Sisters gathered in her sick-room from time to time to discuss with utmost informality the question of organization. There was general agreement that Sister Harriet should be their presiding officer, but by what title to call her? They were determined it should not be "First Sister," and settled finally on "Superior."
The formal Chapter, in the presence of their Chaplain, Dr. Tuttle, probably lasted no longer than ten minutes. Had some forecast indicated that the sacristy where they gathered would one day be a Blessed Sacrament chapel with an exquisite statue of Sister Harriet, the Sisters doubtless would have dismissed the idea as utter fantasy. From the brief business meeting they hurried back to their several responsibilities; Sister Harriet assumed her new role by setting about to acquire some knowledge of the religious life.
It was a characteristic beginning, for until her death she was always reaching out, listening, learning. This pliancy, openness and readiness to move ahead was to benefit her Community in the three decades she served as its Superior. Another notable characteristic was her patient forbearance, a quality seldom displayed by Sister Jane.
Accordingly, Sisters Harriet and Sarah traveled to Baltimore to visit the Sisterhood of the Good Shepherd. Sister Catherine, the Superior, received them courteously but was unable to offer much help. They did, however, bring away some satisfactory instructions for postulants, drawn up by the Rev. C. W. Rankin, Chaplain of the Baltimore Sisterhood. These were put to immediate use, for Catharine Hassett was received as a postulant on July 3, 1866, the same day that Miss Edna Baker, sister of the Rev. E. Folsom Baker, received the habit.
One of Sister Jane's letters to Mr. Baker affords an illuminating glimpse of the free relations between Superior and Sisters at this time:
Mrs. Tyler is staying in town. You know she is the Superior of the Baltimore Sisterhood. I suspect she would like to join us or work with us. Sister Harriet proposed her coming to help me but I declined; then she desired Sister Mary to allow her to work at St. Barnabas, but Sister M. had the same opinion that I hadshe was pleasant as a visitor and that she had best remain.
On their first anniversary, February 2, 1866, Dr. Tuttle resigned as Chaplain, pleading his parochial duties. Dr. Thomas M. Peters was proposed to the Bishop as Dr. Tuttle's successor, but a timely interview with Sister Harriet brought about the appointment of Dr. Dix instead.
Morgan Dix was eminently well qualified to foster the Community through its infancy. So devoted was he to the project of reviving the religious life that he never shrank even when the Sisters themselves failed him. His great faith, his astute mind and splendid scholarship, his devotion to principle and his serene conviction, even his social eminence, assured position and family name, made him invulnerable to attack from enemies who would have scrupled at nothing to destroy him.
His grandfather, Colonel Timothy Dix of Boscawen, New Hampshire, was a Puritan with extraordinarily broad views; he sent his son John Adams Dix to a Roman Catholic College in Montreal to learn French and to encounter another culture. The boy grew up to marry an Episcopalian, the daughter of a wealthy landowner in Cooperstown, N.Y., and to attain eminence as statesman and military commander. He served as Secretary of State in Albany from 1833 to 1839 and as United States Senator from 1845 to 1850. His pronounced anti-slavery views kept him from higher office in the Democratic administrations preceding the Civil War. Even so, he was called to take over the Treasury Department in the final, frantic days of the Buchanan administration and restored order out of the chaos left by his secessionist predecessor. As a Major General and Commander of the Department of the East, John Adams Dix restored law enforcement and order following the draft riots in New York in 1863. His integrity was never questioned, and his distinction as a public servant went far toward protecting his son from assault.
The son was equally vigorous and forceful. Before his ordination he kept an all-night vigil. His mother confided to a friend that Morgan had foresworn as unsuitable to his calling the theatre, smoking, owning a carriage and hunting ducks on the salt flats of Long Island.
His relationship with Bishop Potter was one of mutual confidence and affection, springing from the Albany years when the Dix family had attended St. Peter's Church.
Moreover, Morgan Dix shared the Sisters' interest in Catholic renewal. He noted with distaste the priests who officiated in black gown and salt-and-pepper gloves, a common clerical costume. He exulted in the splendour of Trinity Church's Ascension festival, with symphony orchestra and choir rendering Gounod's Messe Solennelle. Nor was his interest merely aesthetic. He wrote:
It may be demonstrated by historical evidence that distaste for the solemn splendours and calm loveliness of Catholic worship leads inevitably to rejection of the dogmas of our Creed and the revolt from that divine law which regulates the moral actions of men.
On April 4, 1866, Dr. Dix presented the Sisters with their first Rule, which with their amendments and alterations, was sent to the Bishop for his approval. On the Second Sunday after Epiphany, the Sisters recited Vespers from their new breviary, the Book of Hours, which Dr. Dix had begun compiling a year earlier. Prior to this time they used a small book containing Prime and Compline, the first and final Offices of the day. Now, to their delight, they could recite the day hours of the breviary.
The storm was not long in breaking. In the unsigned preface to the Book of Hours, Dr. Dix had explained that the compilation had been made for the use of
persons . . . called of the Holy Ghost to give themselves up to charitable and religious works, as the Apostle expressed it, to continue in supplications and prayers night and day.
This mild allusion inspired the Recorder to demand:
Have we then a community of monks of our communion? If we have, where is it? Do any of our Bishops know of its existence, and sanction it? It would be a singular thing to find an institution which all the enlightened catholics in Europe regard as the most stupid and corrupting nuisance in the church, and which they are laboring, not without success, to abate, springing up in the midst of a Protestant church in a republican government.
The Church Times broke the news that the "Father Ignatius" of the new community was none other than the "rector of the most powerful ecclesiastical corporation in the United States", and warned:
We now learn where old Trinity stands, and what we are to expect of her in the future; and also what is to be the policy of the Romanizers. It now remains to be seen whether such things are to be passed over by the Bishop of the Diocese unrebuked.
One editor quoted the hymn "Virgin-born, we bow before Thee," as evidence of the "mawkish mariolatry" in the Book of Hours, eliciting from the Church Journal the cool comment
... as the Hymn in question was written by Bishop Heber, all that can be inferred from it is that Dr. Dix is as terrible a Romanizer as Bishop Heber!
Thus the polemicists were ready when the Profession of Sister Agnes was received by Bishop Potter on May 22 in St. Luke's Church. The World and other secular papers called the service a "consecration", which inspired the editor of The Episcopalian to point out that there had been no imposition of hands:
Hands were raised, and waved; hands were shaken and squeezed; hands were folded, pointed, and crossed, but they were not imposed. There was no episcopal, apostolic contact, and hence no grace was communicated and imparted.
Nor was Sister Agnes ordained, the editor insisted, because "tonsure, chrism and contact of holy hands were wanting." More telling than either of these quite admissible allegations was the editor's deft exposure of the nature of the promises:
The vows were not quite up to the conventional (sic) and historic precedents. . . Miss Agnes is committed to nothing. She had no indelible character impressed. She is not ordained, is not consecrated; she is only an 'almost' nun, and almost the bride of the Bishop. . . She may look as forlorn and uncouth as the veritable sisters, but she is not one, and we hope she never will be. . .
A lesser man than Morgan Dix might have faltered before the attacks which these reports provoked, but he showed no sign of halting. He defended the Sisters in a long letter to the Church Journal, signed "D", as "the first Diocesan Sisterhood in the American Church, paltering with no Protestant names, and playing with no Roman extravagance." That summer of 1866 Sister Sarah made her first confession to Dr. Dix, and the others followed. The oratories at the Sheltering Arms and St. Barnabas' House were blessed in services prepared and conducted by Dr. Dk. Rumors that the militant protestants were ready to challenge the Sisterhood at the Diocesan Convention in the autumn failed to move him, though the World reported:
The ministers opposed to the sisterhood have held several meetings in their rooms at the Bible House, and they have resolved to present the whole subject before the Diocesan Convention. . . . Happily for the good Sisters of St. Mary, the convention has no power to cite them to appear in St. John's Chapel during their sessions, and answer such questions as might be propounded to them, relative to the alleged vows of celibacy they have taken.
Whatever attack was planned did not appear at the Convention; but the plotters had other weapons, and soon used them.