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.


AS THE NEW YEAR 1867 BEGAN, Sister Harriet was critically ill with typhoid fever. In thanksgiving for her recovery, she made formal life vows on February 2, 1867, in St. Paul's Chapel, an hour before the service commemorating the Community's second anniversary. She knelt before the splendid white and gold "Glory" of L'Enfant's altarpiece, with clouds and lighting enclosing the tablets of the Law, surmounted by the Hebrew word for God. There, in the presence of Dr. Dix, Sister Harriet repeated the solemn promises he had written, the same words repeated by every Sister of Saint Mary at her Profession:

In the Name of God, Amen. I, Sister————————, desiring to consecrate myself more fully and entirely than I have hitherto done in body, soul, and spirit, unto the service of our Blessed Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ, do hereby make unto Almighty God, before the company of heaven, and in the presence of you, my spiritual father, the three-fold vow of Celibacy, of Poverty and of Obedience, steadfastly purposing to keep and observe the same unto my life's end, the Lord being my helper; and herein I humbly pray for the grace and heavenly assistance of the Holy Ghost, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

After the anniversary service, the Sisters and some forty guests enjoyed a lunch provided from the Astor House. "Everything," Dr. Dix wrote in his diary, with evident relief, "passed off pleasantly."

His uneasiness stemmed from criticism directed by the City Mission Board at the undefined horror of "ritualism" at St. Barnabas' House. An investigation was launched. The Sisters had agreed at the outset to assume management for two years; as the expiration of the term approached, Sister Harriet appealed to Dr. Dix to help frame a suitable letter declining to renew the arrangement. He supplied a tactful paragraph to be inserted in Sister Harriet's note offering to withdraw on June 11. This offer was accepted, doubtless with relief, and the Sisters departed from the House, leaving it in the management of Miss Ellen Hulme. In 1869, Miss Hulme organized an evangelical sisterhood, the Sisterhood of the Good Shepherd, which attracted wide approval for the simplicity of its customs and chapel appointments. Public devotions were limited to noon-day prayers in a chapel neatly carpeted, with chairs and a reading desk, but containing no images, pictures or ornaments of any kind.

Sister Harriet was abroad at the time of the departure from St. Barnabas' House on June 11. She had sailed for England on May 18, accompanied by the novice Sister Edna, who thought a trip abroad might help settle her doubts concerning her vocation. They apparently carried gold coin to cover expenses, for Dr. Dix wrote of taking five hundred dollars in gold up to St. Barnabas' House, where it was offered at the Eucharist for the trip. It was an excellent investment. Free of work for the first time in several years, the Superior rested and recovered her health. She visited many English convents, including the Community of St. John Baptist in Clewer, the Sisters of St. Margaret in East Grin-stead, the Community of St. Mary at the Cross in Shoreditch, the All Saints' Sisters of the Poor in London and Ascot Priory. She carried letters of introduction from Bishop Potter and Dr. Dix. Among those whom she consulted were Canon T. T. Carter of Clewer and Father Charles C. Grafton, the Bostonian who was one of the three original members of the Society of St. John the Evangelist. Father Grafton urged Sister Harriet to enter the novitiate of an English community, but after serious consideration, she rejected this proposal.

She returned alone to New York on September 18. Sister Edna had entered the novitiate of the Community of St. John the Baptist; after her profession, she came to America as a member of the affiliated American house. Sister Harriet brought her Sisters copies of the Clewer Manual, private devotions for nuns prepared by Canon Carter; and she entertained them at length with tales of her travels.

She had learned much in four months. The first innovation she proposed was a four-day retreat, held in October with Father Grafton as conductor. At its conclusion the conductor received them into the Confraternity of the Blessed Sacrament, an English devotional society not yet established in the United States. A century later the Community retained this connection, so that every Sister is automatically a member of the Confraternity.

Other ideas bore fruit in the months that followed. On the Feast of All Saints the first "Grey Sisters" were admitted, Sisters Maria Roberts and Catharine Anderson. They were to assist the Sisters by prayer and alms, and were expected to spend one month a year in residence in one of the Houses of the Community.

Also, the habit was apparently modified, for a descriptive pamphlet of 1868 specified a plainly made black serge gown with a plain, deep overcape of the same color and material reaching down about four inches below the waist; and on the street, a long black cloak, and a black English Cottage straw bonnet with black veil.

When Sister Harriet described the convent schools she had seen, the Sisters agreed it would be a good plan to acquire a school, where the Community might have a home of its own. Soon after their decision, early in 1868, Dr. J. J. Elmendorf, founder of a girls' school, Hobart Hall, received an appointment to a post at Racine College, Racine, Wisconsin. He approached the Sisters about taking over his school. This entailed little more than the transfer of eighteen pupils, for the school had lost its lease and its equipment. Such a situation as this always called forth from Sister Harriet the daring lurking beneath her quiet conservatism. "One could never be sure," her biographer wrote, "where her love of adventure with its risks came to an end and where her great faith in God began."

Accompanied by Sister Agnes, Sister Harriet combed Manhattan for a suitable building, finally selecting a house at 41 West Forty-sixth Street. The annual rent was $3,500, and they were penniless. Undaunted, they engaged it and made plans to begin classes. Miss Ellen Kemble collected money for furniture and rent, enabling them to open St. Mary's School on May 1, 1868. Sister Agnes was Mistress of Studies, assisted by Sister Catharine. On the Feast of St. Barnabas, June 11, just one year after their departure from St. Barnabas' House, the oratory of St. Mary's School was blessed; for the first time they had an altar to call their own. Dr. Dix officiated, assisted by Dr. George Seymour and the Rev. Thomas McKee Brown. Absent from the happy gathering were Sister Jane, now critically ill, and Sister Mary, her nurse.

On July 25, Sister Jane died. Her courage, her flashing wit, her intense creativity, made her death most keenly felt. It was she who had planned their parties and resolved their differences; when the doctor prescribed bourbon several times a day, and no talking, she had complained that bourbon loosened "the unruly member." Now she was gone, and it was the Sisters' sad duty to accompany her body up the Hudson to the Haight family plot at Catskill, with Dr. Seymour to officiate.

It was on this trip, with the Sisters making a quiet little group amid the gaiety of the excursion-boat passengers, that Dr. Seymour recognized a priest of his acquaintance and approached to speak. The priest turned abruptly and walked away. Later Dr. Seymour received from the man an apology for his behavior, explaining that it wouldn't do for him to be seen speaking with a man who was accompanied by the Sisters of Saint Mary.


Dr. Seymour was not deterred from his devotion to the House of Mercy by snubs. Three times a week he traveled the four miles from the General Theological Seminary, for early Matins, Mass, and sermon on Sundays and Tuesdays, and Evensong and sermon on Wednesdays. In winter, he walked the full distance through streets deep in mud and snow. "There were fightings without," he explained, years later, "but all was peace within the blessed House of Mercy."

He was always ready to use his powers of persuasion to obtain help for the work of rescue. He knew whom to approach and how. In 1867 the New York State Legislature made them a $5,000 grant, and later gave $25,000 on a matching basis to build an infirmary-chapel addition to the old Howland mansion. The matching sum was supplied by a legacy from a Presbyterian gentleman who had heard Bishop Potter's appeal for funds in 1864.

The infirmary was desperately needed. Young as they were, many of the inmates were dying of drink, drug addiction, consumption and venereal disease. The severe limitations of medicine in 1867 are indicated in the contributions lists; there, among "bbls. turnips" and "quintals of codfish", are such medicines as spirits of hartshorn, castor oil, sulphur, cream of tartar, slippery elm and liquorice. But the new infirmary could supply such remedies as sanitation, comfort and wholesome food. One girl, Mary P., was found dying of consumption on Blackwell's Island, utterly destitute and alone. Brought to the House of Mercy, she said the clean bed was "like heaven." Another typical case was Matilda T., whose mother returned her to the House to save her from the wicked influences of her environment. The healthy and rehabilitated were sometimes sent to work in an orphanage in Iowa City, Iowa. But there were many deaths, represented in the financial reports by the undertakers' fees, itemized at an unvarying $22.

Admissions tended to include fewer professional prostitutes and more children threatened by bad environment, or sometimes, most sadly, the victims of criminal attack. To adapt to this change, the charter was amended by Act of the Legislature in May, 1869, to give as the institution's purpose

to establish and manage an asylum or asylums for the reception and reformation of destitute and fallen women who may wish to avoid or abandon a vicious course of life, or who may be committed to said asylum for reformation by the magistrates of the City of New York.

Not surprisingly, in a nation that had jettisoned Catholic theology, a distorted notion of virtue prevailed. Chastity was equated with innocence. Having lost her innocence, a woman was "branded with the ignominious name of outcast," as a House of Mercy pamphlet said. It mattered not whether she had plunged through weakness or been pushed. Social conventions of the time required that the adulteress be scorned and the adulterer go free, as Dr. Muhlenberg charged in a fiery sermon. One result of this prevailing attitude was a traffic in "white slaves" more horrible than the Sunday Supplement writers ever devised. The House of Mercy case histories witness to the frequency with which naive girls from the country were offered jobs as domestics in brothels; sometimes they were rescued by prostitutes and sent to the House of Mercy.

The House itself was believed to be haunted. Strange sounds were heard at night, as of a heavy object being dragged across the floor. A bloody-looking stain oozed out of one wall, to the horror of everyone, including Dr. Seymour. Sister Gertrude's memoirs, dictated in 1914, recounted these mysteries, concluding matter-of-factly:

Dr. Dix exorcised the House, and then there were no more ghosts after that. No matter what went, nobody ever spoke about it.

On October 16, 1869, the corner stone was laid for a new addition, with Bishops Southgate, Lay and Quintard present. The new facilities enabled the Sisters to double the population of the House to eighty.

There is little doubt that one of the greatest values of the work at the House of Mercy was its role in modifying the attitude toward "fallen women." The lists of contributions began to take on a more humane note, with such games as croquet and battledore and shuttlecock among the "bbls. of bedroom china." Bishop Potter's touching reports of confirmation services at the House won even the hardest hearts among the respectable. He pointed out that even when the Sisters' efforts at the House of Mercy appeared to fail, that the Lord who was tender with the adulteress would say to them, "Nevertheless, thou didst well, that it was in thine heart to save them."

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