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 DEPARTURE OF THE SISTERS from the Sheltering Arms had been saddened by the confident trust of the toddlers that the Sisters would take them along, and by the anguish of the older children, who saw their only security vanishing. Harassment and humiliation had left the Sisters utterly spent, and Mother Harriet saw clearly that they must acquire a convent in the country. Dr. Dix began searching for a suitable site; his letters at this period carried cryptic reports such as "McComb's Dam is full of fever and ague."

Their search for a country location might have been regarded as a retreat from the fray had not the Sisters first begun a new work in Manhattan which won unqualified praise in every quarter. This was the children's hospital they had so long desired, the prospect of which restored them to their accustomed gaiety. On May 19 they gathered for their first reunion since Christmas, and at breakfast after Mass, Dr. Dix entertained them with stories of his fund-collecting in Wall Street on behalf of St. Mary's Free Hospital for Children.

The Hospital was a venture as novel as it was needed. Pediatrics was a branch of medicine as yet undeveloped; most hospitals placed children in adult wards, with no provision made to supply their special needs. St. Luke's Hospital was ahead in this, as in other aspects of hospital care, but the $4 weekly charge for board was beyond the means of working people whose weekly wage was $6 or less. Moreover, children of the poor were subject to an appalling list of afflictions stemming from inadequate diet and requiring extensive treatment—spinal curvature, hip disease, deformed limbs, paralysis, club feet, weak ankles, bow legs and something called "white swelling."

By late in May, the faithful Miss Kemble had organized The Friends of the Sisters of Saint Mary to provide financial support for their several works. By autumn she had rented a house at 206 West Fortieth Street and had equipped it with fifteen beds. On September 29 the Sisters took possession, reciting Vespers in a small upstairs oratory. The next day, in a drenching rain, Mother Harriet and Sister Sarah shopped for equipment, and soon the first patients arrived.

When pleas were published for coal, cash, story books and "all bright and pleasant things", the response was most gratifying. Donations in kind were carefully listed, every glass of jelly, yard of muslin, bar of castile soap, india-rubber sheet, drum of figs and stuffed donkey. Socialites and scrub women jostle together happily in those lists, testifying to the universal appeal of sick babies. Miss McVickar's seven night gowns and Miss Van Rensselaer's fourteen bibs stand beside Dr. Dix's marriage fees and a princely $1,000 contributed by "the Hon. Wm. Tweed," the Tammany Hall boss whose graft operations were exposed the following year.

In February, 1871, Dr. Dix contributed $8,500, and the success of the Hospital was assured. Mothers who had feared to entrust their sick children to strangers now pressed for their admission to St. Mary's. The waiting list lengthened. Within two years of its opening, the premises on Fortieth Street were vacated for a larger building at 407 West Thirty-fourth Street, west of Ninth Avenue. The new quarters provided for twenty-six patients and included an adjacent lot for outdoor play. In 1873, seventy-seven patients were treated and thirteen surgical operations performed. Among these was a skull trepanation, one of St. Mary's many pioneering feats. Those were exciting days, that saw the birth of modern medicine. As a free hospital for children, St. Mary's was an ideal proving ground for new techniques. The small patients were always seriously ill, and their parents were usually willing to try any treatment, however daring. Early case records conceal in sober professional language the elation of the staff when cleft palates were corrected and hopelessly bowed legs straightened. St. Mary's became the first hospital in New York to admit acute cases. There was also heartbreaking failure and frustration, of course, most markedly in the treatment of tuberculosis. But there was success, too, in the long-term treatment of "debility," or malnutrition, and of afflictions stemming from child labor.

Without adequate medicines, doctors made do with what was at hand. Early contributions listed brandy, sherry, Madeira and rum, all of which had medical and surgical uses. Whiskey hypodermics for surgery patients were common.

The popular appeal of the Hospital was not lost on the mass-readership press, and the Sisters now found themselves embarrassed by the effusions published in their praise. One reporter wrote:

... if one wants to realize the meaning of the message 'Suffer little children to come unto me, and forbid them not, for of such is the kingdom of heaven,' let him leave the haunts of vice, the squalor of tenements, the confusion of streets, and enter this large, beautiful nursery, where reign purity and peace, and he will realize the worth and the quality of such labor given in a service of love, whose magic power in these quiet wards, bring joy and happiness as well as healing.

The Sisters' effort to discourage sentimental exaggeration elicited this comment from one daily:

The unobtrusiveness of the Order of the Sisters of St. Mary's (sic)—their apparent disinclination to be brought before the public—undoubtedly hinders the work in which they are so deeply interested.

The Hospital work was its own reward. An old Sister, recalling the early days, could think of nothing more memorable than the promise she had received from a patient, aged four. He had assured her in a broad Irish brogue that when he became a tall policeman, and she a little, bent old Sister, he would come and take her across the street.

Soon larger quarters were required, and the Sisters decided to purchase the building they were renting and build an addition to it. The purchase alone would call for $30,000, and current operating expenses were barely met through contributions. The drive for funds opened with Dr. Dix pledging $100 a year. For ten cents and up, supporters could buy certificates in the size and shape of bricks bearing Bishop Potter's recommendation and signature. Late in February, 1876, the New York Times announced that 10,000 bricks had been subscribed, representing only one thirty-fifth of the total sum needed. A devastating financial depression slowed the campaign, but by autumn the Sisters purchased the building and the lot adjoining it for $27,000, of which $10,000 was paid down and $17,000 assumed in mortgage.

Early in 1878 Harper's Weekly carried an architect's sketch of the new hospital, an impressive five-story structure for sixty patients, to cost $70,000. The story pointed out that St. Mary's budget for 1877 had required less than $5,000 for operating expenses because the Sisters, physicians and surgeons received no pay.

The metropolitan papers carried editorial appeals for contributions and the Church press added its voice to the crusade. Even the Churchman, formerly so hostile, now reminded its readers that half the children who applied for admission had to be turned away.

Assured of support, the Sisters acquired a beach cottage at Far Rockaway, Long Island, for the summer care of convalescents. Within a decade of its founding, St. Mary's Hospital in Hell's Kitchen had silenced the Sisters' detractors and won a measure of peace in which they might minister to the poor.


Despite hard times and widespread distress, the other houses of the Community also expanded their scope in the early seventies. The House of Mercy was hit hardest by the depression, for the State withdrew financial aid just as the Sisters planned to arrange separate facilities for the older, hardened criminals and the children. This project was delayed for more than a decade, and the operating budget was halved.

The Sisters tried to decrease the annual deficit by making and selling garments; these were advertised: "For gentlemen's shirts with bosom inserted, $1; night shirts, 44c; sac chemise, 25c."

In March, 1871, St. Mary's School was moved from 41 West Forty-sixth Street to new quarters east of Fifth Avenue, 6 East Forty-sixth Street. There was room in the new building for one hundred students, including some thirty boarding students, and separate living facilities for the Sisters.

From the first, St. Mary's School maintained impressively high academic standards. An old account of graduation and prize day on July 2, 1874, affords a glimpse of girls' education at that time. The "salutatory" was delivered in French, followed by sixteen essays and recitations in Latin, German and English. Bishop Potter distributed prizes for proficiency in such subjects as moral philosophy, mental philosophy, rhetoric, logic, geometry, algebra, penmanship, drawing, elocution and chemistry. The prize for "deportment and ladylike conduct" went to Miss Gabrielle Greeley, whose famous father, Horace Greeley, had died tragically after his defeat in the presidential campaign of 1872.

To match external growth, the Community in the early seventies matured toward a true communal spirit. Animosity hastened the Community's development of a cohesive empathy and purpose, drawing the Sisters close in loyalty and love. A sign of spiritual maturity is seen in the eagerness with which they anticipated their long retreat in the autumn of 1870; ironically, it was this retreat which involved them in further notoriety.

Parochial duties prevented Dr. Dix from conducting their retreat and the other priests they invited declined. In mid-November Mother Harriet learned that Father Richard M. Benson, Superior of the Society of St. John the Evangelist, had arrived at the Society's Boston House. She wrote at once asking him to conduct their retreat and he telegraphed his acceptance. Unfortunately, no one consulted Bishop Potter about the plan; when rumors reached him, he dispatched a brisk note to Mother Harriet reminding her that the English priests were not licensed to officiate in the Diocese of New York and that they would not be unless they conformed rigidly to recognized usages. Greatly distressed, Mother Harriet dispatched two Novices to Dr. Dix. They found him at his parents' home waiting for dinner, recovering from the effects of a blizzard in which his hat had blown away and he had ruined his clothing in an effort to retrieve it. Of this he said nothing to the Novices, returning with them to consult Mother Harriet. He then hurried on to see Bishop Potter. Early next morning he reported to the Sisters that he had reassured the Bishop concerning Father Benson, and had also secured his episcopal permission for the retreat as planned.

This retreat, costly as it was, marked a milestone in the Community's inner life. Father Benson at forty-six was at the height of his splendid powers. His seven meditation addresses and final sermon opened a new world to the Sisters, and at the end of the three days they were reluctant to come out of the silence.

Another sign of maturity was their true communal sense, displayed in their enjoyment of family jokes, festive worship together and holiday meals in common. They had learned to live with and laugh at misunderstanding from without and idiosyncrasies from within their ranks. Preparing for Christmas, 1870, they devised a precarious rood-screen of ever-greens to hide the grimy ceiling in their oratory, and despite several lumps of pulled-out plaster, pronounced the effect most impressive. Their happiness in being a Community was emphasized for them by a holiday visit from two Sisters of St. John Baptist, Sisters Geraldine and Augusta, working alone in Baltimore far from their Sisters in Clewer, England.


The first step resulting from their communal maturity was a more definite formulation in 1871 of the Community ideal. By June there were nine Choir Sisters, six Choir Novices and several Postulants. The so-called Associate Sisters, or Grey Sisters, were disbanded; of the seven, Sister Anne Dana returned to Boston to become superior of the Sisterhood of St. Luke, organized by the Rev. Pelham Williams; Sister Anne Fisher's health failed; and Sister Jane Tracy entered the Choir Novitiate, becoming Sister Jane II.

Simultaneously the Community made provision for an order of Minor Sisters, for "practical duties." Adopted somewhat uncritically from European custom, the order of Minors was ostensibly for persons whose background and education did not equip them to be Choir Sisters. The Minors would perform the household work; they could not hold office, vote in Chapter, lead in Choir. They had a separate library and held recreation apart from the Choir Sisters. Their habit was blue, with the "wings" of their cornets turned down, and their ebony crosses were not bound in silver. They attended Prime, Sext, Vespers and Compline. The Community was never easy about the arrangement and nearly every General Chapter discussed abolition of the order or made changes to reduce distinctions. Of the seventeen Minor Sisters professed before the Order was dissolved in 1914, several were well educated and none fit the "servant class" designation. It was apparent that such an arrangement simply did not fit into American society.

The Community constitutions provided also for secular Associates, with no residence requirement. It was this order which developed into the splendid body of Associates whose love, prayers and alms were to prove so important to the Community's future.

The annual Chapter of November, 1871, was noteworthy for the number of monastic regulations it adopted:

A monthly chapter of discipline, for acknowledgments of breaches of the Rule.

A day of retreat each month.

Silence between noon and three o'clock each non-feast day.

Reading at breakfast on all Fridays, and every day in Advent and Lent.

The next year, 1872, the monthly chapter of discipline became a weekly chapter. All the Sisters, Novices included, seated themselves in order at the long table in the Novitiate common room and listened to the reading of the Rule. Then each in turn knelt and publicly acknowledged her breaches of the Rule, beginning with Mother Harriet and ending with the newest Novice.

In 1872 they acquired thirty acres at Peekskill, in the scenic highlands forty miles north of New York on the Hudson. Their property crowned a three-hundred-foot granite hill which had been part of the Westchester County manor granted in 1685 to the Dutch patroon Stevanus Van Cortlandt.

A clean-up crew of Sisters was dispatched to prepare the clapboard farmhouse for use as St. Gabriel's School, scheduled to open that autumn. In later years Sister Gertrude regaled her Sisters with tales of those first years in Peekskill. The first summer, she said, they had so little ready cash that a collect-on-delivery package could not be claimed for lack of twenty-five cents. At St. Peter's Church they were regarded with suspicion bordering on alarm. The one pew assigned them was so crowded that Sister Gertrude was obliged to open the pew door and extend her feet into the aisle. Their pleas for additional pew space induced the vestry to have a hinged board placed for them on the outside of the front pew; during the sermon one Sunday the hinges gave way and they were plunged to the floor.

In the autumn of 1872, the Sisters were invited to take over the Children's Fold, at Ninety-first Street and Avenue A in New York. The children had had such poor care that ladies in the local parish made the ushers segregate the orphans in the rear pews. When Sisters Gertrude and Amelia went over to tidy up, they found the job required three months. Mother Harriet and the Sisters finally decided it would not be advisable for the Community to assume management of this work. Before the end of their first decade, the Sisters did, however, acquire a new work, and re-opened a work in Memphis begun tenuously in 1871. The new work was Trinity Infirmary in the old Trinity Rectory in Varick Street. The handsome six-story building at No. 50, adjoining St. John's Chapel, was hemmed in by warehouses and tenements. The vestry of Trinity Church had long urged Dr. Dix to move to more livable quarters, and in 1874 his forthcoming marriage made a move necessary. He longed to see the old building used for the sick poor of the parish and urged Mother Harriet to set aside her reluctance to become involved in parochial work and undertake the project. On a bleak February day she and Sister Eleanor took over the building, now desolate of the servants and the menagerie of pets which had been Dr. Dix's only family. By April, 1874, the wards were ready and a front room had been furnished as a chapel. The day following the first Mass, the first patient arrived, a vagrant. They saw at once that he was dying, and tried to make him comfortable. After his death, they learned that he was the "prodigal son" of a minister in Maine; the father wrote them in warm appreciation that his son had died among Christian people and at peace with God. He was only the first of hundreds of derelict, diseased and drunken persons who were given the best medical care then available and often brought to the sacraments.

Even as the Community became officially involved in Trinity parish, the Sisters severed their dependence upon Dr. Dix. He had become engaged to Miss Emily Woolsey Soutter at Christmas, 1873, but for some reason had said nothing to the Sisters. Rumors reached Mother Harriet upon her return from Memphis in mid-January, 1874, but she dismissed them as idle gossip. She no doubt reproached him for subjecting her to this humiliation; in their interview of January 30, which he called "most distressing and agonizing," they apparently decided that his increased parish responsibilities and his impending domestic responsibilities would make it impossible for him to continue as their pastor. On June 3 Dr. Dix and Miss Soutter were married quietly at her mother's home, Bishop Potter officiating, and departed on a six months' wedding trip.

No one ever took Dr. Dix's place in the Sisters' affection. He had run errands for them, once seriously frost-biting his face; had said a weekly Mass for them; had heard their confessions and once a month had given them instructions in the religious life. These instructions shaped the Community in a most vital way, grounding them in such fundamentals as holy obedience, temptation, work, contemplation, examination of conscience, and the order of the house. He advised the Superior and counselled the troubled. On Feasts they were invited to occupy the Rector's pew at Trinity Church, and after his annual New Year's Day reception, they received the left-over treats. He saw to their needs, shared their jokes, consulted their lawyer and inspected real estate sites. The cash books of every House recorded his benevolence, that of his wife, his parents and his brothers and sisters.

But his removal provided opportunity for growth that would have been denied had the Sisters continued to lean on his ministrations. Mother Harriet's own flowering as a superior required that she assume authority, as was pointed out to her in a letter from a priest and valued friend:

In the Province of God you have a long time been allowed the valuable assistance of a wise head and strong hand in Dr. Dix. This was during the infancy of the Community. It must be regarded as no longer in its infancy. It must walk alone. It is old enough to do it and strong enough to do it, and it must do it. This is the meaning of your late distress. Did it never strike you as a sort of an anomaly that one actually outside a community should exercise a controlling influence within it? While your work was all concentrated in one city and every Sister under the personal direction, or at least personal influence of one priest, it was all well enough. It, in fact, was best so, but now that you are growing and stretching out your hands to distant fields of work, the real strong head must be within the order. . .

On the tenth anniversary, the Community took steps toward electing Dr. G. H. Houghton, Rector of the Church of the Transfiguration, New York, as successor to Dr. Dix. The Chapter also voted to replace the Book of Hours with the Breviary Offices translated by John Mason Neale for the Sisters of Saint Margaret, East Grinstead. In 1875, Sister Sarah, who had been Mistress of Novices since 1871, spent six months in England, sharing the training of the Novices at the Convent of the All Saints' Sisters of the Poor, Margaret Street, London. Romantic by nature and pious by inclination, Sister Sarah brought home with her many All Saints' customs, including the head-dress of starched, flaring "wings," then worn by the Sisters of the Poor.

The Sisters thus began their second decade with a new breviary, a new pastor—and a new habit.

Project Canterbury