Project Canterbury

Mother Harriet of the Sisterhood of St Mary


By the Rt. Rev. George F. Seymour, D.D., LL. D.,
Bishop of Springfield

IN 1824 a little girl of about eight years of age said to her playmate living in the next house, speaking through a knothole in the fence, as a piece of important news, "The babies have arrived from Charleston" (S. C.).

The younger of these two babies was Harriet Starr Cannon, destined under the guiding hand of God unconsciously to herself, to become one of the most potent forces of the revival and development of associated spiritual life in our communion.

"The babies from Charleston" were invested at the outset with pathetic interest from the fact that they were left orphans when the elder was under four years of age, and the younger was not yet two.

The kindness of an uncle rescued the little girls from the hands of strangers, and brought them in his sailing packet to relatives in Bridgeport, CT. Here they were welcomed as daughters and were reared and trained in a manner befitting their station in life.

The elder, Catharine Ann, born September 23d, 1821, married Mr. John Ruggles in 1851 and removed to San Francisco, California. The younger, Harriet Starr, born May 7th, 1823, was preparing to follow her sister in 1855 to the Pacific Coast and would have left her relatives in Milford, CT., for that purpose in a week's time, when she was stopped by the news of her sister's sudden death. This sad bereavement left Harriet Starr Cannon the sole survivor of her immediate family in this world. She had relatives who loved her and hosts of friends who respected and esteemed her, but her parents, whom she never knew, were gone, and now her only sister, who was to her vastly more than she would have been had there been others to represent home life and ties, was taken from her and she felt herself alone in this world.

It is not every one who is deeply moved by this sense of loneliness, but there are those who are. When the time comes that the living realities which the words father, mother, sister, brother represent have all ceased to exist here on earth, then such sensitive spirits follow the departed loved ones in their affections and yearnings and thoughts and perchance grow homesick, and look upon this world as a place which has lost its chief charm for them. This feeling passing into settled conviction is not a morbid estate. It is the healthy spiritual condition which has given mankind apostles, confessors, martyrs, benefactors and heroes for principle and duty. Out of this school ultimately graduated Mother Harriet.

The position of an orphan was a preparation for her to fit her for her future sphere of duty. It put a difference between her young life, bereft of the natural supports on which others leaned and its helplessness, and her happier companions, surrounded by parents and brothers and sisters, and as years advanced reflection deepened the sense of isolation, which the lovely grouping of homes not her own suggested. The child was merry, the girl was bright and sunny, and as all accounts agree she was ever welcomed as a guest by any and every circle to which she came. Native charms of person, disposition and manner were enhanced by accomplishments, especially in music, which an excellent education had given her. Still there was a difference between her and others, her companions in station and years, the relentless hand of yellow fever had wrenched from her in infancy in quick succession father and mother, and later on misfortune robbed her a helpless girl of a slender patrimony, and then there came the final stunning blow of the only sister's death just as she was about to unite their lives once more in common companionship far away in another clime.

The preparation was not yet complete for the great work which Harriet Starr Cannon was in the future to begin in association with others and develop and establish, but it was well on its way. The woman deeply stirred and moved looked out and away from self, and sought some sphere where she could devote her life and talents to God in useful work. We go back to the fifties. What was there then in our communion to respond to the aching heart of the Christian woman, which God had touched with His rod of affliction, when it asked to be allowed to yield up itself to Him in self surrender in ministries of love to the sick and poor and depraved and miserable for His dear sake ?

Thank God there was something. Miss Cannon found it, and it became the threshold, or rather the porch through which with others she passed on after six years' writing and working and praying, into the gradual possession of this gift of grace, the divine family life held and cherished by Him, who counselled such as could receive and follow His advice to come to Him and abide with Him as He was in this world.

Dr. Muhlenberg of blessed memory was feeling his way towards the recovery for our communion of the charismata of pentecostal times, which made the Church of the first age abundant in good works and fruitful in confessors and martyrs.

His parish, the Holy Communion, in New York City, was the nursery of good things to come. Out of it came St. Luke's hospital, and parochial charities which were examples for others to follow. The doctor's teaching, as far as I can recall the little of it which I was privileged to hear, implied and involved more than probably he himself knew at the time. He developed around him and within the range of his influence as a priest a depth and intensity of spiritual life which was far beyond the average in our Church in that day.

To the Rev. Dr. Muhlenberg Miss Cannon went in 1856, and was usefully employed in the dispensary and hospital; and her purpose of self-devotion meanwhile grew stronger and found expression in the only way then open to her, when she was received at her own request into the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion on the Feast of the Purification, February 2,1857.

For more than six years, Sister Harriet, as she was then known, labored most conscientiously and assiduously in connection with this Order. Others during this interval had come to work in the hospital and parish, and with some of these as with Sister Harriet there was a felt longing for something more than their present position and relations afforded them. They yearned for a solid, permanent, spiritual home with which to identify their lives, and this they had not found and could not find in Dr. Muhlenberg's Sisterhood. In saying this I am as far as possible from wishing to imply fault in Dr. Muhlenberg. He could not be expected to he more in advance of his time than he was. He led for thirty years in school and parochial life. He revived some of the charismata which had dropped out of sight in the Anglican Communion since the reformation; we may not demand that he should have resuscitated and brought back all. The debt which the Church in this country owes Dr. Muhlenberg is a very great one, and in some respects such as it owes to no other man. In fact a part of this debt is the Sisterhood of St. Mary, since, under God, to him we are indebted for the training, which helped to prepare Sister Harriet and others in their transit from the world for the undertaking which was to be their life work, the founding and organizing and building up the great Sisterhood of St. Mary, which now blesses our land with its presence and labors of love.

The ties of family life are permanent in the realm of nature, why should they not be in the kingdom of grace ? In the fifties and for many years afterwards the great mass of our people) clergy and laity, thought and felt that they ought not to be, and strove, and, I may use a stronger word, fought against the effort to plant and cherish into tolerated existence spiritual families of women and men bound for life by vows to God. It was the desire to reach out for and ultimately grasp this coveted ideal, with which Dr. Muhlenberg could not sympathize, which constrained Sister Harriet and two others formally to withdraw from St. Luke's hospital, and retire for a time to wait for God's guidance to lead them, if it were His gracious purpose, to become His handmaidens to minister unto Him in community life bound together and to Him by the solemnity of permanent vows.

The House of Mercy in New York, founded by the wife of the Rev. William Richmond in 1854, became their refuge then in their transition state, as it was afterwards, when the storm of opposition fell upon them subsequent to their organization as the Sisterhood of St. Mary.

The Bishop of New York, Dr. Horatio Potter, from the outset grasped the future as they did, and saw and felt that therewas an abundant work for them and such as they to do in our Church, under the conditions for which they yearned. He determined to help them and befriend them, and make it possible for them with Episcopal sanction to become a recognized organization of our Church. The Bishop assigned them work in the House of Mercy above mentioned, an institution for the reclamation of fallen women, which at the time, 1863, was vacant, and in 1864 the "Sheltering Arms," an institution created by the Rev. Dr. Thomas M. Peters, was added to the care of these few sisters. Their period of anxious availing for beginning their home life was almost reached. The wise counsel of the Bishop of New York and his quiet influence in certain quarters helped to prepare the way for the birth of the Sisterhood of St. Mary, on the Feast of the Purification, 1865, when he received by profession, in St. Michael's church, New York, five sisters, Harriet, Jane, Sarah, Mary, and Amelia. Their work went on as before, but a great change had come in their inner spiritual life. They were not their own as they had been before. No one belongs to himself, for, "No man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself," but men and women largely forget this divine ownership, and live as though they owned themselves. The vows of Baptism are an act of self surrender, the vows of the sacred ministry are a still further self surrender on the same lines, and the vows which the dear sisters Harriet, Jane, Sarah, Mary and Amelia took on the Feast of the Purification, 1865, are, as far as human infirmity will permit, an absolute self surrender to God. Permitted things in the realm of voluntary choice even to the elect are then forever given up. Keble, for example, was a saint but he was married. DeKoven was a saint, but he was we may say rich. Launcelot Andrewes was a saint, but he ruled others in his great see of Winchester. On the lines of celibacy, poverty and obedience, the vows of the religious life take men and women in self surrender as far as they can go. These vows are not meant for all, and no one is to be considered inferior in favor with God and man, much less found fault with, because he does not assume them; but in the case of those who do take them, and work together with God to maintain their integrity to the end, this epitaph may justly be inscribed over their graves, "Blessed of the Lord."

This profession of five sisters, the "five wise virgins," was a very quiet service; few knew of it at the time, and none took note of it beyond the circle of friends who were immediately interested. It was like the original Presentation in the Temple. The Lamb of God was there, and with Him, we can count them they were so few, His blessed Mother and St. Joseph and the Priest and St. Anna and St. Simeon. Jerusalem was not stirred and the Scribes and Pharisees were not aroused, but the Saint of God sang his Nunc Dimittis and the event passed.

Sister Harriet became by the choice of her associates the Reverend Mother from the first, and such she continued even to the end, last Easter, April 5th, 1896, when she fell asleep and rested from her labors. The spiritual family came into being when the sisters were professed, and was organized when the mother was placed at its head, but for purposes of work in the world it was necessary it should have a legal existence and be incorporated under law. Accordingly a charter was formed, and under it the Sisterhood of St. Mary became an incorporated society on May 25th, 1865.

As they came into existence in 1865, the Sisterhood of St. Mary was already in charge of two institutions, the House of Mercy and the Sheltering Arms, New York City. It is interesting to follow the steps of their increase and advance in work. I will set them. down as far as I am informed, feeling sure that the catalogue may be trusted as not being in excess of what they have done and are doing.

In 1867, they were requested to take charge of St. Barnabas' House, Mulberry Street, New York, belonging to the City Missionary Society of which they retained the care for three years.

The great work of the Sisterhood in the education of girls was begun in 1868, in the establishment of their first school in East 46th Street, New-York City.

In 1870, another branch of work was begun in commencing St. Mary's Free Hospital for children in a small house at 206 West 40th Street, New York.

In 1872, the sisters acquired property in Peekskill, Westchester County, New York, and opened a boarding school for girls which they called St. Gabriel's after the blessed angel who was the messenger to St. Mary, bearing the tidings of the Incarnation. This school was enlarged in the course of time, and in association with it the sisters established in 1876 their headquarters, known as St. Gabriel's on the Hudson, about forty miles from the great city.

The Bishop of Tennessee prevailed upon the order to establish a school and hospital at Memphis in his diocese in 1873. Here, five years later, when the yellow fever was epidemic, the sisters labored most faithfully and heroically among the sick, and several of them laid down their lives in the blessed service in which they were engaged.

In 1874-, Trinity Church, New York by vote of its rector and corporation, placed their hospital and subsequently all their down town mission work, of which women can take charge, in the hands of the Sisterhood.

Later in the seventies Kemper Hall, Kenosha, Wisconsin, a school for girls, was at the request of the Bishop of that diocese and by the action of the trustees entrusted to their care; and within the last decade the Bishop of Chicago has secured the presence and aid of the sisters in connection with the mission work at his cathedral.

The Order now numbers seventy four choir and minor sisters living, and the novices and postulants in preparation are thirteen. Besides these who are within the family circle, there are several hundreds of associates of the Sisterhood, who are without in the world in almost every state of the Union working with them and for them. These are, so to speak, the relatives and kinsfolk of the Order, the divine household, the spiritual family.

Over this great community, as it now has grown to be, Mother Harriet presided, by the choice of her companions, from the beginning in 1865, without interruption, to the hour of her death on Easter Day last, a period of over thirty years. This is a rare tribute to her character. One who can so long command the respect, confidence and affection of her associates who by their own consent are under her rule and direction, must be indeed a person of exceptional excellence and worth, and must possess unusual powers of influencing and controlling others, and holding and retaining their allegiance and love when won. Such was the case. The continuance of Mother Harriet in office throughout the entire life of the Order with the approbation of its members justifies my estimate of her character by the verdict of those who knew her best.

At first the community seemed a little flock, timid and ready to flee and be scattered at the slightest show of opposi- tion. That small band, however, was constituted of as brave and noble spirits as it seems to me the world has ever known. It was my privilege, and more my great blessing, to know them then and be with them when the storm fell upon them, and their courage, calmness, self-possession and never-failing charity were a revelation to me of Christian virtues in life, such as I had never seen, but only dreamed of and read about in the record of saints and martyrs.

I owe that little band as it was when I became accidentally connected with it in 1867, when I was chosen by the trustees Chaplain of the House of Mercy, I owe that little band under God, a great debt for what they became to me in the development of my spiritual life. I was incidentally thrown with them a great deal during twelve years, from 1867 to 1879, and for a part of this time Mother Harriet was dwelling per force at the House of Mercy. There were others not then Sisters (may I not mention them?), of like character and spirit with the Sisters, whom I must always identify with them as sharing in their experiences and living with them and being to me in thought and feeling what they were, Sister Louisa (Cooper) as we called her by courtesy, now gone to her rest, and Sister Maria Roberts, now Sister Agatha, who still, thank God, survives.

To be chosen by such a family of choice spirits as their head in the office of Mother, and to be continued in that position by repeated elections from 1865 to her death in 1896 is, as I have said, convincing evidence of the high estimate which those who were well qualified to judge placed upon the character and worth of Harriet Starr Cannon.

Excellent abilities she had as the gift of God in nature, culture and generous training in the branches of a liberal education as the kindly contribution of friends, aided by her own co-operation as soon and as far as she could help herself. In society those who knew her, and I have been acquainted with some of them, testify that she was bright, cheery, amiable and to an unusual degree a general favorite. Then came her vocation, the gift of God again in grace, as her native talents and disposition and character were in nature. In listening to that call above and beyond the thousand voices of earth, and some of them the sweetest and tenderest which can fall upon the human ear, she showed her depth and strength of character. In persevering amid obstacles, which came in part from those to whom under God she had entrusted herself for spiritual guidance, she exhibited a determination and force of will, which associate her with those who have been the leaders of men, and the founders of religious orders. Her career as the head of the community of St. Mary in guiding it through years of opposition, I may say without extravagance persecution, and maintaining her equanimity and dignity and holy calm, revealed the power of faith, the steadfastness of hope, the sweetness of charity, and the strength of her convictions.

It would be difficult to make those who have grown up since 1865 understand the temper of those days. The extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost in His manifestations of self surrender in holy lives of humiliation and fasting and prayer, and the power to suffer patiently and bless the hand of the persecutor, were out of sight in our Church and almost out of mind, except as a lost art, which had died with the apostles and confessors and martyrs; hence when the attempt was made to recall these gifts and revive them and reproduce them among us, it provoked amazement) and in some quarters amusement, and when it was seen that the effort was serious, and had a respectable if not a powerful support, consternation and ridicule were turned into wrath, and the powers of this world were invoked to overcome the forces of Heaven. Dense ignorance was the parent of intense prejudice, and the fierceness of men and women thus generated knew scarcely any bounds. Clergymen forgot their holy calling in denouncing religious orders and entangling vows. Ladies and gentlemen of the highest social position laid aside their good manners and behaved like barbarians to defenceless sisters, and the general voice and temper of our Church were to the effect that all who sympathized with such extravagancies, not to say follies and wickedness, as entangling vows and a common life based upon spiritual affinities exhibited, must be content to be contemned if not forgotten. That storm has long since spent its fury, that tyranny has been broken, and that fierceness and vindictiveness have been changed into gentleness and praise.

The spirit which prevailed almost universally thirty years ago ought not to occasion surprise. The great majority of those who exhibited it, were sincere, they thought they were doing God service, and their zeal was intensified by the popularity which it brought them, and by the patience and silence of their victims.

As I came in for a small share of the violence and dislike which were heaped upon the sisters, and as a soldier takes satisfaction in showing the honorable wounds which he has received in battle, I may find an excuse for giving from my own experience two or three illustrations of the bitterness which almost universally prevailed in those days against the sisters, and all who were connected with them or were known to sympathize with them and their cause. I became Chaplain of the House of Mercy which was under the care of the sisters in 1867, and it was my duty to prepare an annual report for publication. In my simplicity I used in my draught of my first report which I submitted to the trustees the term "sisters," and I was at once admonished to strike out that offensive word, and substitute for it, "Christian Ladies," inasmuch as the retention of the obnoxious term would cost the House of Mercy a great deal of money when it was heard by the congregations of the city, in whose presence it would be read. I omitted the word as desired, and made the suggested substitution.

The sisters were removed under coercion, from the Sheltering Arms in 1867, in obedience to a published protest against them with an implied threat that supplies would in future be withheld from the institution, if they were suffered to remain in charge. The House of Mercy opened her arms to receive the fugitive sisters, and then the further effort was contemplated to drive us all, sisters and chaplain, from the House of Mercy and leave us without shelter.

When the first superintendent of the House of Mercy, sister Jane (Haight), died, I accompanied the body to Catskill on the Hudson, for interment. Our party consisted of a number of sisters and myself, and we made our trip on a steamboat. I met on board a brother presbyter, whom I knew well, and I naturally greeted him. He turned his back upon me, and refused to recognize me, and afterwards sent me a message that his reason for doing so was, that he did not wish to compromise himself by appearing to know any one who was in the company of sisters. As late as 1874, a distinguished layman sought to identify me with the Sisterhood of St. Mary in order, as he expressed it, "to kill me" for confirmation as Bishop-elect of Illinois, which he affirmed he could do in ten minutes, if he could prove that I sustained any official connection with the Order. When I learned this, I immediately wrote my lay brother a personal letter, avowing my deep sympathy with the principles involved in religious orders and begging him to make such use of my communication as he saw fit.

The storm is past. In 1878 on the 11th of June, in Trinity Church, New York, on the occasion of my consecration as Bishop of Springfield, the Sisters of St. Mary at my request had special seats assigned them as among the most honored guests whom the venerable edifice sheltered that day. And now I imagine that it would be hard to find any respectable and responsible Churchman who would if he opened his lips about Sisterhoods, say aught but words of praise. Through ill report and good report Mother Harriet persevered, guiding her family by the aid of many friends whom the Lord raised up, and not a few of whom came to the sisters through sympathy and love for them, generated by the persecutions which they suffered.

The sisters increased in numbers, but the works which they were called to do multiplied more rapidly than the consecrated laborers. And now the hundred sisters are too few for the fields of service for Christ's dear sake, which are pleading for them to enter and minister to Him in His poor, and outcasts, and orphans, and sick, and desolate.

What a wonderful life to contemplate is that of Mother Harriet! "The baby from Charleston," an orphan, dependent, thrown upon her own resources, called of God by bereavement and consequent loneliness, and heeding the call, and persevering in heeding it in spite of other voices and obstacles from friends, as well as those opposed, and at last with congenial spirits, united by God under the same holy vocation, reaching the haven where she would be, the heavenly rest of home, sheltered by vows of self-surrender to Christ as the Bridegroom.

And now, when Easter 1896 dawned, God called with a tenderer tone than she had heard and heeded from early womanhood, and said, "Daughter, thou hast done well, come up higher," and she obeyed and went; and men say that she is dead, but we say she lives a higher life than she ever lived on earth, and remembers us and her spiritual household; and the Master tells us that she is with Him in Paradise, and we believe Him and trust Him, and write her epitaph in our hearts:

"Mother Harriet was faithful unto death, and lives now nearer to her Lord in Paradise, waiting for us and all of God's children, since she without us cannot be made perfect in the enjoyment of the beatific vision in heaven."

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