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.


UNTIL 1870 THE SISTERS seemed to be serenely oblivious of disapproval. The departure from St. Barnabas' House was amicable enough to leave no scar, and each day provided such an absorbing succession of tasks and decisions that there was little time to notice slights and suspicions. In the precious time they had together, they were busy sharing plans and problems. Slowly, their list of friends and supporters was growing, despite the generally low level of Church giving at that time. For years the House of Mercy subscribers' list was headed by "Mrs. J. J. Astor¬ó$5."

The Sisters were increasingly conscious of the regard and affection of Bishop Potter. With no cathedral or parish of his own, he seemed to express his most heartfelt sentiments in sermons at the House of Mercy. In one such sermon he expanded on the English Reformation:

Our Anglican fathers conducted their reformation more wisely and temperately than it was effected on the Continent. They preserved the ministry and the essential order of the Church unbroken. But even in England, by a natural recoil from a body with which they were at variance, and from whose abuses they were separating themselves, they cast off not only errors and corruptions, but also some good things which they would have done well to retain. Slowly, with many alarms and convulsions, and many misrepresentations, some of the cast-off things have been gradually reclaimed by the Church, especially within the last forty years. These things reclaimed have not been Romish or mediaeval things, but things primitive and apostolic; and just in proportion as they have been recovered has the Church recovered her full life and vigor.

Some of the "alarms and convulsions" had been directed at Bishop Potter, provoked by a pastoral letter he wrote in 1865 censuring priests in his diocese for participating in joint communion services with sectarians. Though the pastoral letter was courteous and brotherly, it won for Bishop Potter the epithets "churlish and bigoted . . . overbearing and tyrannical" in the less responsible Church papers.

In 1868 he disciplined a priest so popular as a preacher that his parish, Holy Trinity at Madison Avenue and Forty-second Street, was called "Dr. Tyng's Church." This man, Stephen J. Tyng Jr., had preached in a Methodist Church in New Jersey without obtaining authorization of the parish priest there; for this offense he was tried and mildly censured by an ecclesiastical court. The Episcopalian attacked the Bishop for a counter-instance in which a Greek priest had said Mass in Trinity Chapel "with blazing lights and burning incense . . . the Bishop winked at it."

It wasn't long before the polemicists saw popery in the Bishop's every act. An ordination at Trinity Church was described as a highly ritualistic affair . . . they had a processional and recessional hymn composed for the occasion, and they marched, and sang, and wheeled and performed things unknown to our Prayer Book and usages.

The offending processional was "Holy, Holy, Holy".

Dr. Dix shared in the polemical jibes. When the General Theological Seminary published its 1867-68 catalog with a prayer on the front printed in the shape of a cross, The Episcopalian despaired:

For an institution which has on its executive committee the author of the popish Book of Hours, we fear there is no stopping place.

The first damaging sign of hostility toward the Sisters occurred early in 1870. A physician representing parishioners of the Church of the Heavenly Rest approached Mother Harriet, as she was now known, about the proposed establishment of a children's hospital. The Sisters were delighted that their cherished dream seemed about to be realized. Six weeks later the plan was abruptly cancelled, and funds were diverted to another project. Sister Harriet's inquiries were met by cold silence until, from friends, she learned that powerful persons objected to having the Sisters superintend the proposed institution.

The fifth anniversary festival at Christ Church on February 2 was especially happy, with Dr. Dix celebrating in a magnificent white embroidered chasuble. That afternoon, leaving the houses in charge of the Grey Sisters, they gathered at the House of Mercy for choral Vespers and tea.

The day following, Sisters Sarah, Elizabeth, Mary and Amelia moved the Sheltering Arms household from the Peters mansion to a new building in Manhattanville, 129th and Tenth Avenue. The move was made necessary by the extension of Broadway, which cut through the Peters property, taking nine of the twenty-two lots.

The new building occupied an acre and was designed to accommodate Mr. Peter's advanced theories of institutional care. The two-story brick structure provided four "cottages" for sixty children each, including separate dining room, play room, wash room and dormitory. The school was in a separate building; the children were to attend a nearby Episcopal church and in other ways to take part in the life of the community.

The Sisters' pleasure in the fine new building was dulled somewhat by their discovery that the gas had not been turned on. They found some yellow dip candles and laughed when Sister Amelia worried for fear their new neighbors would take the flickering lights for strange new ritualistic observances. Ninety children were moved, the older ones without incident on the Eighth Avenue cars. The younger ones were transported in carriages; as one load of ten babies pulled away from the old mansion, the carriage door burst open and two fell out. The frightened attendant saw the carriage wheel pass over one of them, and assumed him killed, but the child was found to have suffered no serious injury and the trip was resumed.

The Sisters waited most of Saturday afternoon for the household equipment to arrive, only to learn that the proprietor of the horsecarts had withdrawn them to another job, unnerved, perhaps, by wailing babies. At dusk, by candlelight, the Sisters improvised utensils as the little ones grew sleepier and the older children amused themselves by getting lost in the unfamiliar corridors. Their packing cases finally arrived long after dark. The next morning was chaotic as the Sisters searched for dishes, finally feeding five or six children with one cup and spoon, washing up between feedings.

On Shrove Tuesday the Sisters received from Dr. Dix a Lenten rule, admirably simple and sensible. Among other disciplines, they were to receive Holy Communion on Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday, with silent breakfast and reading at 6:30 on Wednesday and Friday. But they soon learned that they were to have mortifications not self-imposed. No sooner had they settled in at the Sheltering Arms than they began receiving what one of them called "inquisitorial visits." These sprang from preparations and publicity for a Grand Bazaar to benefit the Sheltering Arms, to help pay for the new building. Early in March a committee of nine women descended upon both the Sheltering Arms and the House of Mercy. Invited to tour the premises, they asked minute questions, commented freely, condemned the Sisters' habit, and departed, having declined to give their names. Other inquisitors followed. Some tore beds apart for closer inspection, asked to see the condition of the children's underclothing and searched closets and cupboards for hidden crucifixes and scourges.

The Sisters found these visits wearing, and Mother Harriet sent for Sisters Teresa and Catharine to help out in the emergency. To their amusement, the neighborhood children called out to them, "Why ain't you got your hair covered?" Sister Catharine was herself Irish, and appreciated it when the Irish children nearby yelled to the children at the Sheltering Arms, "You'll never see the light of heaven, you little Protestints! All your Sisters know, they learned from ours!"

The evangelical cat-calls were less amusing. The Protestant Churchman led the charge on March 31 with a long editorial warning prospective contributors to the Sheltering Arms that the Sisters used the Book of Hours, which included prayers for the dead. This was followed on April 1 by a more explicit attack:

Let us know, before the Bazaar is held, what is to be the course of the Institution in regard to this Sisterhood. We are asked for our contributions to this object. We say, in reply, that we will not contribute to an Institution which has under its management a Sisterhood, having for its Spiritual Director a man who has repudiated Protestantism. . . Our great purpose has been to strengthen the hands of the rectors of St. Bartholomew's, Grace, the Ascension, Calvary, the Atonement, St. George's, the Incarnation, the Anthon Memorial, St. Thomas', the Reformation, and the Holy Trinity in their effort to free a noble Institution from a glaring abuse, by making the disconnection of this Sisterhood the absolute condition of their cooperation.

Mr. Peters' replies to rumor and published falsehoods were not as candid as the Sisters would have preferred, but on April 1 he received a note which ended his jovial evasions. In it the rectors of five prominent parishes demanded a full investigation so that the Sisterhood, if found disloyal to the doctrines and usages of the Episcopal Church, might be asked to withdraw from the Sheltering Arms. The note was signed by the Reverends William F. Morgan of St. Thomas' Church, H. E. Montgomery of the Church of the Incarnation, Samuel Cooke of St. Bartholomew's Church, E. A. Washburn of Calvary Church, and Henry Codman Potter of Grace Church.

Mr. Peters' reaction was consistent with his intense concern for the Sheltering Arms and his relative indifference to the Sisterhood as such. He did not arrange a tour of inspection to dispel suspicion, nor did he invite the five priests to meet with the Bishop and Dr. Dix. He simply set about quietly to find new managers for his orphanage, telling the Sisters nothing of his plan. They were surprised and hurt when their resignation was requested early in April.

The more responsible secular newspapers chivalrously defended the Sisters. The editor of the Sun wrote:

The Low Church party having gained an apparent victory by driving the Sisters out of the management of the Sheltering Arms, the High Church people will not be disposed to aid the fair very liberally. Should it not prove so successful as was anticipated, the public will know on whose shoulders to lay the blame.

The editor of the Express wrote in Olympian detachment:

As secular journalists we have no part or lot in the hair-splitting ecclesiastical differences which have led to this unseemly rupture¬óbut as New Yorkers, anxious for the prosperity of a most useful and most Christian charity, we cannot but regret it; and we trust it may not, even now, be too late to so reconcile differences, as not to make them a bar to the entire success of the forthcoming enterprise. . .

The Bazaar committee rushed into print with enticing descriptions of the great fair, listing a band from the Brooklyn Navy Yard, concerts, readings and lectures, an exhibition of scientific instruments including a megalethroscope; and listing as its patronesses "the queens of society," a dazzling array of Roosevelts, Vanderbilts, Pierponts, Astors and Fishes.

The Mercury, a sensational weekly, devoted column after column to a gleeful description of the episode, with a seven-deck headline:


Fierce Onslaught on an Episcopal Institution


Evangelical Ladies in the Role of Inquisitors


The editor explained that the controversial Book of Hours contained devotions for each of the seven last hours of the Redeemer upon the cross; these devotions, he wrote, with a fine show of erudition, "are known to have been used in the tenth century."

The Herald took particular pleasure in describing a clerical popularity contest held in conjunction with the Bazaar. For fifty cents a ballot, one could vote for his favorite clerical dignitary, and the man with the most votes would receive a Tiffany-donated watch. When the race appeared to be a three-way draw among Pope Pius IX, Dr. Washburn of Calvary Church and Dr. Potter of Grace Church, the Herald editor dipped his pen in acid and wrote:

We understand that the only objections to the Sisters were that they prayed seven times a day, and that they had Popish tendencies. We do not profess to know how many times a day the rectors of those churches (the eleven parishes named in the Protestant Churchman) think it safe to pray without injury to one's moral constitution. We do what praying we consider needful for ourselves, and are willing that our neighbors should enjoy the same privilege. But what puzzles us is that as soon as the sisterhood is driven out on account of their (sic) Popish and praying tendencies the Pope himself should step in with a fair chance of carrying the day against the reverend gentlemen in deference to whose prejudices the expulsion of these charitable ladies was brought about. We cannot say we care much who succeeds in obtaining the watch.

Even a Philadelphia journal, the Day, felt obliged to comment:

It is not likely that the public will ever know why the Sisters of St. Mary were good enough to assist in establishing the Sheltering Arms, a charity in New York, without expectation of fee or reward, and not good enough to continue their labors in such good company as the rectors of eleven Episcopal churches. . . In retiring, they displayed much good sense. If they could not rule, they refused to ruin the enterprise. We rather like the Sisters of St. Mary, and whether they prostrate themselves in prayer seven or seventy times a day, takes nothing from the credit they are entitled to. . .

Unique among the comments was a letter to the Church Journal warning that hireling matrons had been known to deal harshly with orphans, even placing children under four in the shower bath for punishment, and adding:


is required in ministering to destitute children, and if the Sisters best supply this essential quality, then let us thank God for them, oratory and serge-cloth included.

In all the words hurled in attacking and defending the Sisters, this anonymous writer alone had touched on the subject nearest their hearts.

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