Harriet Starr Cannon and the Fundamental Ideals of the Community of Saint Mary
An Address Given at the Semi-Centennial of the Foundation of the Community
By Shirley Carter Hughson
From Mount Saint Gabriel Series: Historical Papers, Peekskill, New York: St. Mary's Convent, 1931.
THE YEAR 1915 was the Jubilee year of the Religious Life in the American Church. Fifty years before, on the feast of the Purification, the Right Reverend Horatio Potter, Bishop of New York, received the vows of Harriet Starr Cannon, and her companions; which action brought into existence the Community of St. Mary, the first Religious foundation of the American Church.
The five courageous women who on that day stood at the altar of St. Michael's Church in New York City, and took their vows have gone to their reward. In our time when the Church has its flourishing Religious Communities in every large city, our familiarity with the Religious Habit has dulled perhaps our sense of the great significance of that long-ago day. But it was a day to be remembered. It was the first instance of the profession of a Religious by an Anglican Bishop since the suppression and confiscation of the monasteries by Henry VIII, in those terrible days of the Reformation, nearly 400 years ago.
England had indeed revived the Religious Life long before this time. But it was the work of individual men and women who went forward bravely to offer the sacrifice of themselves to God in Religion, while the Church that should have been the glad nursing-mother of such a movement, stood by sullen and suspicious, reluctant to lift hand or voice to encourage or bless her children in whose hearts God had set the desire to give themselves wholly and irrevocably to her service.
Before we can understand the ideals of Mother Harriet which she has handed down to her daughters of the Community of Saint Mary, we must go back some years before that momentous day in 1865.
Who was this valiant woman, whose faith and courage gave to the American Church its first Religious Foundation? Harriet Starr Cannon was born in Charleston, S. C., on May the seventh, 1823. Though Southern by birth and Huguenot in blood, her family since early in the seventeenth century had been identified with New York City, and it was in the city of her fathers that she was destined to do the work that has written her name large in the annals of the American Church. When less than two years old she lost both her parents from yellow fever, that dread scourge that until a generation ago lay heavy with every returning summer upon the cities of the South. With a sister some eighteen months her senior, she was brought to Bridgeport, Conn., where, under the care of a loving maternal aunt, she was reared amidst the quiet refinement of this old New England town.
If we may judge from passages that occur in her letters of after years there seems to have been even in girlhood, the thought in this ardent young heart of dedicating herself to the unrestricted service of God. Where in the American Church at this time could such a dedication be found? These were troublous days of anguish and rebuke. In the Mother Church the famous Gorham judgment had seemed to many to commit the Church to formal heresy. A few years before, Newman had despaired and left the Church of his baptism, and now Manning, Faber, and a host of others, strong and good men, felt that they could no longer trust the Mother who bore them.
The same storm had crossed the Atlantic, and was now buffeting the ship of the Faith in our own Church. The Protestant element was powerful, militant, and flushed with triumph. The Bishop of New York, the venerated Onderdonk, had but a few years before been driven from his see on charges made with a vengeful partisan malice that is happily absent from theological controversy in our day; and the year 1853 had seen Bishop Ives of North Carolina follow in the footsteps of Newman and Manning.
It was in this period of storm and stress that Harriet Starr Cannon looked about her to see where God might show her the opportunity of consecrating not only her work, but herself, to Him.
At this time the name of William Augustus Muhlenberg was the one above all others that was identified with the highest form of consecrated work in the American Church. Few men have left such monuments of love and faith in our land as those which owe their inception to this great soul. The Church of the Holy Communion in New York, and St. Luke's Hospital, are the work of his hand; and perhaps it will never be known in this world how many other movements owed their beginning and success to the encouragement and inspiration that he gave them. He loved all that was beautiful in the service of God. Dr. Dix in his memoir of Mother Harriet tells us that as late as his time there were still old men in New York, who recited glowing memories of the Christmas services in Dr. Muhlenberg's school at College Point, when the Chapel was fragrant with incense, while above the altar the picture of the Mother of God and her divine Son was gloriously decorated, and the service was sung, with carol and chant, in Latin.
But Dr. Muhlenberg was not a Catholic of the type of Pusey and Keble. "His theology," says Dr. Dix, "was rather of the Lutheran than the Anglican type. Beautiful as was the order of the services, he stopped short of the sacramental system as taught by the Oxford school; and he had no sympathy with views in advance of the point which he had reached in working out his own parochial, liturgical and charitable ideal."
But it would ill become us who have entered into other men's labours to criticise this great and consecrated servant of God; for those who love the Church, must see in him the instrument that God used, to make the Religious Life possible as an ideal to be sought after in the American Church sixty years ago.
When Mother Harriet looked about her to find occasion and opportunity to dedicate her life to God, William Augustus Muhlenberg was the one man to whom it was possible to turn. Already had he organized a band of devout women for the Master's work. Reckless of the prejudices of his more timid brethren, he boldly styled them "Sisters," and sent them forth in the livery of Christ to work among the poor.
Co-operating with him in these labours, was Anne Ayres, a woman whose name deserves, and will be accorded, a high place in the history of the Church's work during the mid-nineteenth century. She was the head of Dr. Muhlenberg's little community. Mother Harriet applied, and was admitted as a "candidate" for the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion on Ash Wednesday, February 6th, 1856. On the Feast of the Purification 1857 she was enrolled as a full member, and for nearly seven years, in the parish, and at St. Luke's Hospital she gave herself happily and devotedly to the cause of Christ's poor.
These years were full of fruit. Not only was the future foundress of St. Mary's able to give many a cup of cold water to Christ's little ones, but this period of service gave her a discipline and an experience that laid the foundation of her work for the coming years.
But as these years went by there came "the impression dawning dimly, growing slowly, but attaining finally to full conviction, that what she wanted she had not found, and was not in the way to find." The Sisterhood of the Holy Communion was full of faith and good works, but its principle was not that of the Religious Life as it had been worked out in the Church by the primitive Fathers and through the succeeding ages. This was one of Dr. Muhlenberg's limitations. He thought, to quote Sister Anne Ayres, his biographer, that Sisterhoods should exist, "not as ecclesiastical organizations, but as simple evangelical associations." The members, in his judgment, should not be bound by either vow or rule. They should devote their life and labour to God as a free-will offering indeed, but they should be free to leave the Community if at any time they felt that in it they could no longer do their best work.
This ideal was not that to which God was calling Harriet Starr Cannon. Hers was a higher vocation, hers a deeper and more lasting consecration. Nor had the spirit of God spoken to her heart only. Others there were in this little band of devout women who felt that under Dr. Muhlenberg's ideal their purposes were being baulked, their vocation unfulfilled.
In x863 came the crisis. Sister Anne Ayres, realizing that her ideal was not shared by many of her companions, resigned the office of "First Sister" as the superior was called. Had there been any lingering doubt in the mind of Sister Harriet that in this Community she could not find her vocation, it was promptly dispelled by the action of Dr. Muhlenberg. He declared the Sisterhood dissolved ipso facto by the resignation of its head. Nothing could be more certain than that Religious Life was impossible in a Sisterhood that could be put out of existence at any moment by the resignation of its Superior.
Sister Harriet and three others went back into the world, full of disappointment, but with a profound faith that He who had begun a good work in them would perform it, and that the call they had received was the pledge and earnest that God in His own way and time would give them the opportunity of fulfilling it.
It was at this critical juncture that God sent into Sister Harriet's life the influence of a man whose sympathy and co-operation with her in her hopes and ideals, were destined to mark the beginning of a new era in the development of the spiritual life of the American Church. Horatio Potter was one of the best types of a great Bishop that the Catholic Church produces. When the dissolution of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion was precipitated, he offered to Sister Harriet and her companions the charge of the House of Mercy, a work for the rescue of fallen women, which had been founded some years before by Mrs. William Richmond, and in the development of which the Bishop felt the deepest concern.
These devoted women hailed the invitation as a call from God, as it indeed proved to be. In September 1863 they entered upon their charge. When they retired from St. Luke's Hospital they went out depending on God in a poverty, the literalness of which can be appreciated when we are told that on entering upon the work at the House of Mercy, the amount of money assigned from the common fund for the support of each Sister was eight cents a day.
But sadly would we miss the point of the Religious vocation, and grievously would we misunderstand these heroic hearts, if we should imagine that this poverty for a moment cast across their pathway any shadow of anxiety. They had got them out of their country, and from their kindred and from their father's house, precisely in order to seek poverty—the poverty of Him who had not even where to lay His head. And the strongest pledge of His loving acceptance of their offering was that in the beginning of their vocation He gave them a poverty like unto His own.
Light-hearted and full of buoyant hope they entered upon their life of service for the children of God whom the world cast out. No task was too menial for these holy women, no labour so difficult as not to be lightened and made a joy by love.
The work begun at the House of Mercy still continues. Under the loving and capable direction of the Community of St. Mary it has grown and increased. Before many years the old site at the foot of 86th Street was disposed of, and the House was moved to more commodious quarters at Inwood. Again the work outgrew its plant and removed to a farm near Valhalla in Westchester County, where the facilities for out-door work and play are a great asset in the reform of character.
The first few years after moving to the House of Mercy were years of happy and unobtrusive growth. So successful was the Sisters' administration of this difficult work that in 1864 the Reverend Dr. Peters, rector of St. Michael's Church, asked Mother Harriet to assume charge of the Sheltering Arms, an institution of his founding, which was designed to care for all types of helpless, destitute little children for which no institution existed.
But the growth was not merely that of lengthening the cords. It was also a strengthening of the stakes. Sister Harriet and her companions, however busily they were kept engaged, going in and out, night and day, amongst the poor, kept ever before them their conviction that they were called of God not merely to do a work, but to live a life. And the work was to be the expression of the life they lived.
Towards the end of 1864, these noble women felt that the time had come to take the steps that would constitute them a "Religious" community as such communities have been understood in the Church from the days of the Sub-Apostolic Fathers.
In the great Religious foundations for both men and women, it is to be remarked 'that God has ever allowed both a man and a woman to have part in the work of love and sacrifice. St. Basil found support in his Sister St. Macrina; St. Jerome found inspiration in the holy Paula; St. Benedict cooperated with his sister Scholastica; St. Francis wrought not without St. Clara; St. Francis de Sales and St. Jane Frances de Chantal worked together for the upbuilding of Religion in France; and St. Teresa's hands were upheld in her great work of Religious reform by St. John of the Cross.
Likewise when God called Sister Harriet to open the way in which many Religious souls should walk after her, she was not without a strong man to sustain and support her efforts. It was in his co-operation in the work of founding the Community of St. Mary that Horatio Potter showed a greatness of purpose and a fearlessness of spirit that will compel the historian of the future to accord him a foremost place amongst the founders of the monastic life in the Anglican Church.
The Sisters humbly laid their plans before him, and they found in him a true Father in God. On the feast of the Purification, 1865, at St. Michael's Church, the great Bishop received the vows of five Sisters. Let not the names of these valiant women be forgotten: Harriet Starr Cannon; Jane C. Haight; Sarah C. Bridge; Mary B. Heartt; and Amelia W. Asten—these were the courageous souls who sowed the seed and laboured and suffered that we who came after them might reap the fatness of the harvest; these were they who like David's mighty men of old, beset on every side by opposition and peril, brake through the host of the Philistines and drew water out of the well of Bethlehem that thirsty souls might drink.
Their deed was not proclaimed with blare of trumpets. Their profession was no great function that the world was invited to gaze upon and admire. Their hearts had long since been consecrated upon the altar of God, and it came as a simple, logical and necessary event in the straight course God had set before them to be run.
The founding of the first Religious order in the American Church received no plaudits from men, but they were to have their reward—on the one hand, the reward of divine commendation; on the other, the reward of the persecution that the apostle declares must be the lot of all those who live godly in Christ Jesus.
There was a bit of sunshine before the storm. In 1867 the Sisters were asked to take charge of St. Barnabas House in Mulberry Street,. an institution of the New York City Mission Society, for homeless women and children. But it was here that the troubles had their beginning. The little group of women who had two years before been admitted to the Religious Life by the Bishop, had begun to increase. Their numbers, and the extension and importance of their works, no longer permitted them to remain in obscurity. And when it was seen that their life and work were beginning to count for something in the Church, the adversary began to arouse himself. Too long had he lain inactive while the Sisters of St. Mary had been snatching souls from his power. As is so often the case, alas, he was able to deceive some of the best of men into thinking that in raising violent opposition to these humble Sisters they were doing God service.
The agitation once begun, ran to the maddest extremes. The external work of the Sisters was so great and noble that the Evil One was too wily to seek to persuade anyone to attack it, but the question was raised, What might these Sisters be doing in the privacy of their own apartments? What books were they using, what prayers did they say? Finally, amazing to relate, the Christian gentlemen who constituted the authorities of St. Barnabas House made a formal demand that they be admitted to the private rooms of these ladies with the right to inspect and see what iniquitous implements of worship and devotion they had secreted there; and that they should use no book of prayers which the Trustees did not approve. There was but one answer to these unspeakable demands. The Community of St. Mary quietly withdrew from St. Barnabas House. There remained to them the House of Mercy and the Sheltering Arms. But their troubles were far from ended.
The Sheltering Arms was a new institution. It was dependent on the contributions of the Church people of New York. Triumphant over these saintly women at St. Barnabas House, the Protestant persecutors shifted their attack to the Sheltering Arms. By every means, fair or foul, it was sought to drive the Sisters from St. Michael's parish. The persecution wrought a strange excitement in the highest social circles of the city, which grew and increased as the weeks went by.
Dr. Dix has left it on record that "the Sisterhood became the object of comment, criticism and animadversion; it was discussed in the fashionable circles of New York society; an intense curiosity to see those strange and dangerous creatures led to visits of inspection to the Sheltering Arms. Ladies of high social position took up the matter; it was no uncommon thing to see them, of an afternoon, driving thither in their handsome carriages, entering the building, demanding interviews with the Sisters, examining them as if they were wild animals in a menagerie, questioning, brow-beating, catechising them, and even sometimes going as far as to pluck at their garments to see of what material they were made."
This annoying but harmless persecution on the part of frivolous society women was soon to change into a darker and more sinister attack. In the spring of 1870 an extensive bazaar was planned by the Trustees of the institution in order to raise funds for the work. This was the adversary's opportunity. 'When it was announced that so general an appeal was to be made to the people of New York on behalf of the little homeless waifs at the Sheltering Arms, the enemies of the Catholic Religion determined to make it an occasion to force the retirement of the Sisters. They opened their campaign without delay, and so loud and violent was their assault that within a few days both the religious and secular press of the city was resounding with the noise of the conflict. If you were to take up a copy of the Sun or Times tomorrow, you would think it indeed strange were you to find a long editorial leader discussing the affairs of a Religious Sisterhood. But this was a common thing in the spring of 1870.
It is, however, to the ecclesiastical papers that we naturally look for the real sentiment of the Churchmen of the day. The Protestant Churchman, the organ of the venerable Dr. Tyng, rector of St. George's, voiced the opposition. On April r rth, 1870, this journal in a long editorial set forth its position in the clearest possible manner. "If we are asked," said the writer, "why we take such strong ground against the connection of this Sisterhood with the Sheltering Arms, our answer is ready. It is because the connection of such an Order, on its avowedly anti-Protestant basis, with an institution of the Protestant Episcopal Church, is an outrage. It is only through ignorance of the facts that any persons of true Protestant feeling could be induced to contribute to it.. . . We are now smarting under the exactions of anti-Protestant educational institutions. We are endeavoring to lift this nefarious burden from the shoulders of an outraged community."
The same editorial goes on to make one clear definite demand which, if acceded to, would bring all opposition to an end; namely, for the Community of St. Mary to declare itself to be "decidedly Protestant and Evangelical in character."
This is precisely what the Community of St. Mary would not and could not do. It was Catholic, and Mother Harriet was ready to stake the very existence of her infant Community to maintain this character. In fact, if this character were not maintained the Community would have no further reason for existence.
As at St. Barnabas House, only one issue of such an attack was possible. Rather than be an injury to the institution they loved, and to which they had given so much unselfish toil, they withdrew.
But who, it will be asked, were these chivalrous spirits who so gallantly buckled on their armour and charged into the arena against this little handful of women, who asked only that they be allowed to serve God and His little children in the seclusion of their own walls? I shall not give you their names. No one of them is living today, and it were kinder to draw over them the veil of charity. They meant well, but they were deceived. They were among those whom our Lord on the night in which He was betrayed, warned His apostles they would have to face. "They shall put you out of the synagogues; yea, the time cometh, that whosoever killeth you will think that he doeth God service." (St. John 16:2.) Were I to give you their names, there are perhaps not more than one or two that you would recall ever having heard of. They and their devices in a brief generation have been consigned to oblivion, while the name of Mother Harriet, and the work of her devoted daughters in Religion, are the glory of the Church.
But lest you underestimate the weight of the persecution that these holy women endured, I will tell you that the men who thus banded themselves together to crush this little Community were the rectors of eleven of the most powerful parishes in the city of New York. For the time they seemed to triumph. At least they effected their immediate purpose. What their triumph was worth we know today.
Far be it from us to open old wounds, or to revive old bitternesses. But it does not make either for charity or for the truth of God to ignore history.
Few of us at the present day realize how bitter was the conflict that shook the Church fifty years ago. I have in my possession a manuscript sermon by the Rev. Dr. Morgan Dix, the first Chaplain of the Community of St. Mary, who, as you well know, is regarded by the Sisters as a co-founder of the Community along with Bishop Potter and Mother Harriet. Few men have been more fiercely assaulted for their faith, but he stood by these consecrated women in these dark days with a chivalry and courage that must ever make his memory one of the precious treasures of St. Mary's Community.
The sermon I allude to was preached at the General Seminary in New York at the time when the persecutions were at their height. The text was from the first chapter of Lamentations. "The ways of Zion do mourn, all her gates are desolate; her priests sigh, her virgins are afflicted, and she is in bitterness. Her adversaries are the chief, her enemies prosper; for the Lord bath afflicted her for the multitude of her transgressions."
It was not the utterance of a pessimist, but it was a sermon that stated facts. Describing the man who having found the old Catholic paths of faith and worship, sought to walk in them in peace, he declared: "It does not make us more hopeful, but rather the reverse, to find such a man set upon and cried down, called a Romanizer, a traitor, a papist in disguise, if not a frog, a louse, a hedgehog, a skunk, or a devil, and hindered and thwarted and plotted against to his ruin, only because he loves the Holy Catholic Church more than any branch of it, and prefers her system to those which, born within the last three centuries, have done little more than keep the world embroiled and to drive men backward into Roman error, or aside into rationalistic philosophy."
In a footnote to this paragraph, referring to the abusive epithets mentioned above, the preacher wrote: "All these terms have been applied to us by the Evangelicals. The Rev. Dr. Tyng in a speech in the Evangelical Convention in New York in 1867, said that the ritualists were a plague of frogs and lice similar to those which infested Egypt. He called their Churches ‘ritual menageries,' and said he would prefer entering hell to putting his foot inside a ritual Church."
I confess that a sense of delicacy caused me to hesitate before quoting to you these words so expressive of the rage of Satan. But as I have said above, there is no gain in ignoring history, and such were the methods of the antiCatholics of the late sixties.
We may suppose that they spared refined women these epithets, but an incident related by the late Bishop Seymour of Springfield shows the abhorrence in which the Evangelicals held the Sisters. The little company of women who plighted their troth to the divine Bridegroom on Candlemas 186f, grew and increased, as we have seen; but the earthly circle was not without its break. In 1868 Sister Jane was called to her rest. Her body was taken up the Hudson River by boat, for interment, and several of the Sisters, with Dr. Seymour, who was then Chaplain of the House of Mercy, accompanied it. Seeing in the throng of passengers a brother-priest whom he knew, he approached and spoke to him. What was his amazement when the good man ignored his salutation, and deliberately turning his back, walked away. A short time after, he received an expression of apology from the priest, who assured him of his good-will, but declared that it was impossible for him to compromise himself by recognizing him in a public place, when he was accompanied by the Sisters of St. Mary.
It was in this atmosphere of cruel suspicion that the Community was nurtured. Women of less strong purpose in life, women of less holiness of spirit, would have failed under so tremendous a test. But they knew their principles. No earth-born cloud could for one moment obscure the brightness of the ideal God had set before them; for "they knew whom they had believed, and were persuaded that He was able to keep that which they had committed unto Him, against that day."
We have lingered long over these early years, but with a purpose. Of Mother Harriet's later life it is not my intention to speak. Many of you are better acquainted with those riper years than it was my privilege to be. Nor is it pertinent to the particular subject upon which I am supposed to speak to you, that is, the Mother Foundress in relation to the fundamental ideals of the Community of Saint Mary, that we should enter into the details of those rich years in which God permitted her to see her spiritual children to the third generation in the land of the living.
Our purpose is to consider the principles which underlay, as a strong and enduring foundation, the structure that she reared in the Church. Our biographical study is only for the purpose of discovering these principles and ideals. We are then to consider how Mother Harriet handed them down to those who have come after her, and to inquire whether her children have been true to the precious trust thus committed to them.
There are four fundamental principles that we trace clearly in the life and purpose of Mother Harriet. They cover all that she had in her heart to be and to do for God. If these four principles are found today to be the basis of the life of the Community of which you are Associates, then it is true to that which its saintly founder handed on to it when on Easter Day, 5896, at the hour when our Saviour died upon the cross, she gave her spirit into His hands.
I invite your attention to these principles, reminding you that they affect you, in your sphere as Associates, equally as they affect the professed Religious in their place in the Community. It is not only the Sister in the choir who is bound to be loyal to these ideals, but all those who, by any sort of formal association with the Community of St. Mary, hope to share the spirit of the venerated foundress.
I shall state these four principles and then I shall proceed to show where and how in Mother Harriet's life they found expression.
(1) The principle of complete and irrevocable self-consecration under lifevows that cannot be dispensed.
(2) The principle of a life combining equally for all, prayer and work.
(3) The highest possible ideal of Catholic belief and teaching.
(4) The fearless expression of the Church's Faith and teaching in outward acts of devotion and ceremonial.
These were the principles which were exemplified in the life of Mother Harriet; these are the principles for which her Community stands at the present day; and the members of the Community and those who are associated with it, are actuated by her spirit in just the measure in which they are faithful to these ideals.
(I) After the history that we have outlined of Mother Harriet's relations to the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, it is necessary to say but little more concerning her ideal of the complete and irrevocable consecration to which the Sisters of St. Mary are called. Even in Bishop Potter's mind there was grave doubt and hesitation as to life-vows, but not for a moment did she draw back until the utmost consecration was effected. It will help us to understand her ideal if we speak of what is involved in such a dedication. Let us understand first of all, that the Religious Life does not and cannot exist apart from the perpetual vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, irrevocable on the part of those who take them. That is to say, a person who takes no vows, or only temporary vows, is not a Religious, no matter what form of life he may live or how strictly he may live it.
In short, the Religious State finds its substance not only in a certain method of serving God, but in such a consecration of oneself as to constitute moral stability in the method. It is important to have this clear in our minds because there is at the present time a definite effort in the Anglican Church to break completely away from the ancient tradition in respect to Religious vows. Both in this country and in England communities calling themselves Religious have been formed in which either no vows are taken, or temporary vows which permit those who have taken them to depart from the life at the expiration of a set time.
In speaking of this type of Community one does not mean for a moment to imply that it is not to be commended. There is a great need at the present time for just such organizations, and objection is to be found only in the fact that they are called Religious, when there is no condition of moral permanence involved in their life. If we mean really to fall in line with Catholic and primitive tradition throughout the world, it is impossible for us in our little corner of the Church thus to break with all history, setting up a new thing and claiming for it the old name.
Mother Harriet in her first venture in the consecrated life, had the opportunity of adopting this ideal. She rejected it. The Community of St. Mary as it was founded and developed, was a definite protest against the weak novelty which would claim the glory of consecration although allowing no permanence in it, and giving full freedom to take back at will the offering of self that had been made to God.
The Community of St. Mary, many years ago emphasized all the more deeply this ideal of Mother Harriet's by adding to the vows of Poverty, Chastity, and Obedience, a fourth vow, namely that of stability in the Community. The Sister of St. Mary not only vows herself to the life of the counsels; she makes a vow to God to live this life in this Community and in no other. Once a Sister of St. Mary, always a Sister of St. Mary.
(2) The second principle which underlay Mother Harriet's life and purpose was that her Community was to live the mixed life, a life of combined prayer and work. That is to say, it was to be not solely active or solely contemplative, but both. Let us understand what this means. The mixed life is not a form of Religion that results from taking certain elements from the active life, and others from the contemplative, and by a fusion of the two producing a third kind of life which we called mixed. The mixed life engages in active ministering to our neighbors, and at the same time includes the whole of the perfection of the contemplative life, and in no way diminishes it.
It will from this be easily understood that the mixed life is the most difficult form of Religion. And its difficulties lie largely in the temptation which it brings. In our time an active community invariably has the praise of the world, a contemplative community its disapproval; and it is hard not to yield to the temptation to seek, even unconsciously, the praise of those about us. People patronize and support our charitable works and are loud in their praises of those who give their lives to them, but let a community refuse to extend a work, or let it give up a work, on the ground that the life of prayer is suffering, and swiftly will men change their tone, and flash into an antagonism, sinister, cruel, intolerant.
This temptation came to Mother Harriet. Both at St. Barnabas House and at the Sheltering Arms the attack made on the Community was declaredly based on the character of its interior life of prayer. Not even the angriest and most unreasoning Protestant opponent questioned the external work. Three things especially at the Sheltering Arms were denounced bitterly and again and again. (i) The fact that there was an oratory and an altar in the house. This aroused extraordinary opposition and bitterness. (ii) The fact that they recited the Divine Office, and (iii) that they used in their devotions certain manuals, especially The Book of the Hours, edited by Dr. Dix, which was attacked along with the editor, with incredible rage by the newspaper known by the highly contradictory name of The Protestant Churchman, and other spokesmen of the low-Church party.
Had Mother Harriet been willing to tear out the oratory and dismantle the altar of God; had she been willing to give up the Divine Office and throw away her books of devotion, her way would have been strewn with palms and flowers. But what was her reply to these demands? This great-hearted woman with a love for her fellowmen such as few have been privileged to exercise, without a moment's hesitation abandoned two houses, two centers of charitable work for which there was a paramount and crying need, works for the outcast and poor, work for destitute little children, rather than abandon the life of prayer to which God had called her. This fact tells us what was Mother Harriet's ideal for her Community. To this ideal of prayer the Sisters of St. Mary have been true, to this ideal they call their Associates to give their loyal and enthusiastic support.
(3) The third principle which we find unfailingly exemplified in these early days was that the Church, and the life of each one of her members, must be in all things Catholic. There was no compromise either in the Faith, or in any of those beliefs or practices which are corollary to the Faith. We have already seen that had Mother Harriet been willing to declare her principles to be "Protestant and Evangelical in character," she not only could have remained at the Sheltering Arms, but she could have had the formal pledge of the warmest support of the rectors of eleven powerful low-Church parishes. They were willing to overlook the habit, they were willing to wink at the vows, as repugnant as these things were to them. Dr. Tyng's paper distinctly; stated that a Sisterhood such as that of Dr. Muhlenberg's at St. Luke's Hospital met with their hearty approval "because it was Protestant and Evangelical."
Many of you are familiar with the painting by a modern artist to which has been given the name, "Diana or Christ." You recall the scene. Before the altar of the pagan goddess is gathered an expectant throng, while in the midst there stands a young Roman maiden brought hither by her friends who in passionate anxiety plead with her to sacrifice to the idol, and throw one little grain of incense on the fire. The alternative is a cruel death by martyrdom. It is but a little thing that is demanded, and hers will be a rich return,—life and youth and friends all claimed once more, if she will but placate the angry powers with that little act of worship. But all the while their pleadings fall upon deaf ears, and the eyes of the martyr, as "seeing Him who is invisible," are looking beyond and above the throng to the reward that awaits her in the embrace of her eternal Bridegroom.
Such was the experience of our Mother Foundress. Had she cast the grain of incense on the altar of compromise she would have been praised of all men. But she preferred a thousand times to suffer than for one moment to fail Him whose Faith she was pledged to hold, to teach and defend; and she was driven forth because she held fast the Catholic Religion.
The point of attack on the Faith is in many respects different today from what it was in Mother Harriet's time. Many of the doctrines and practices for which we have to contend were not in question fifty years ago. But the principle of opposition to the Catholic Religion is identically the same, and it must be met and overthrown in loyalty to the same ideal that actuated her.
(4) This brings us to the fourth and last point in this early ideal which we are to consider, the expression of this Faith in outward acts of devotion and ceremonial. Our devotions are the expression of our interior Faith. The history of every kind of religion shows that where expression is suppressed Faith itself dies. Our Lord was dealing definitely with human psychology when He insisted that we should confess Him openly before men. Human nature is so constituted that if we do not constantly declare our principles in word and deed, the principles themselves soon cease to exist as an active, efficient force in our lives. Therefore we find insisted upon in every right Catholic ideal the fearless expression of the Church's Faith and teaching in outward words and acts of devotion and ceremonial.
Let us see first how this came out in the life of the Foundress of this Community. It is really astonishing how many principles were involved in the two incidents of St. Barnabas House and the Sheltering Arms. It was as though the Holy Spirit at that early period permitted this persecution in order to settle once for all time what the ideals of the Community of St. Mary were to be.
It was for the outward expression of Faith in ritual worship that the Sisters suffered most, and at no point did they stand more resolute. When Sister Agnes, of blessed memory, was professed at St. Luke's Chapel in Hudson Street in 1866, it was the signal for the most outrageous dragging of her name through a veritable mire of ridicule and abuse in Protestant journals and the whole point of the attack was the outward ceremonial by which she was dedicated to God. I must read you an extract from one such paper in order to show you a genuine sample of the things these saintly women were compelled to endure. This particular journal was clever, but with a wit that was marked by neither good manners nor common decency. Yet at this distance of time we can smile at the cleverness, for we know with whom the victory lay at the last.
"Miss Agnes" this satirical journal calls this dear Sister, as it confronted its alarmed constituency with the assurance that Religious profession does not admit to one of the essential orders of the Church's ministry. "Miss Agnes," it says, "is committed to nothing. She has no indelible character impressed. She is not ordained, is not consecrated. . . . She was solemnly, artistically, pompously, prayerfully, hopefully, ritualistically set apart, but not Apostolically. . . . The intention, wish, longing, effort, to reach perfect ordination were apparent, but the law of the Church barred the way. The clergy robed, they chanted, they stood and kneeled; they formed the perfect arch; they shut out the world and fenced in the Sister; they joined hands and shook hands, but did not unite in the imposition of hands."
It is worth noting, that, besides Bishop Potter, among these reverend clergy whose outward acts of ceremonial and worship so aroused the editorial sense of humour was Dr. Doane, for long years Bishop of Albany.
But ridicule could not touch these high souls. Let the world laugh as it would, let it even forget its boasted breeding and bring a woman's name into scorn, yet all its contempt did not cause these consecrated women to swerve one hair's breadth from their principle. The consecration of a life to God in Religion St. Jerome regarded as a Sacrament, and called it a second Baptism, and so momentous an occasion could not be without its outward ritual expression of the sacrifice, and of the love and faith that lay behind it.
But there were, as we have already seen, aspects of this persecution in which neither side found occasion for humour. For against the daughters of the Lord was to be seen arrayed, the forces not only of a flippant ridicule, but of a dark and sinister hate.
As we have seen above, the "Book of Hours" prepared by Dr. Dix for the Sisters was one of the chief objects of attack. The manner of furnishing their houses, the reverent pictures of the Holy Mother, the Crucifix, the religious habit, all these were violently assailed. None of these things were essential in themselves. It would have lightened the strain immeasurably had the Community announced that in deference to the judgment of so many pious and reverend priests they had decided to give up their much-abused book. It would have brought a change of front on the part of many enemies had it been given out that the crucifix had been removed, and the picture of the holy Mother of God deposed from its place of honour. But search the records as we may, there is not to be found one suggestion that they dreamed for a single moment of yielding. It was not for the mere book; it was not for a bit of wood and plaster formed to represent the Crucified, or for a mere sentiment over a picture, that they stood fast. It was for a principle. The book was the outward expression of their faith and love and prayer; each sacred furnishing of their house and oratory was their outward emphatic declaration of belief in the divine revelation for which they were ready to lay down their lives.
They refused to yield to the storm, though the alternative was one that must have shaken their tender natures to the innermost center. They went out from St. Barnabas; they left behind them souls who seemed abandoned without a shepherd, committing them to the care of God. They left the destitute little ones at the Sheltering Arms. Even at this distant day our hearts are wrung as we think of the sobbing little children who clung to the hem of that despised habit, begging them not to leave them desolate. They went forth with hearts breaking yet brave. They went forth because they would not surrender their ideal; and to be loyal they must give expression to the ideal and let their principles be read in their outward actions. Again, from certain points of view, it might have seemed that they were asked to sacrifice but little, but let it cost what it would, they would not cast even the one grain of incense on the altar of Diana.
To this principle, as to all others, the Community of St. Mary has sought to be true. Go to Peekskill, to that mount of God, where the uplifted Cross keeps sentinel above the river, and on every side will be found the outward expression of Catholic Faith and worship. In the chapel, adorned with all the beauty of holiness, the high uplifted altar proclaims the offering of daily Sacrifice and invites to prayer. There stands the Shrine of the Mother of God, she who "all but adoring love may claim," and for love of the divine Son whom she bore in her arms and fed at her pure and holy breast, this place of her honour is made beautiful with lights and flowers. Here her daughters kneel and
An Ave to Christ's Mother meek."
But more glorious than all is the Chapel where love has prepared for the Divine Love a dwelling place, and there by night and day the Incarnate God under the mysterious veils of His Holy Sacrament awaits the homage of His chosen ones. And He waits not in vain, for here, from the coming of the dawn till the bell sounds for the last work of prayer at night, there is the perpetual watch of adoration and intercession.
Thus do the daughters keep alive the spirit and ideals of their venerated Mother. And not only here where the lofty Highlands bathe their feet in the great river as it speeds on to the sea, but in the throbbing heart of teeming cities, on the golden prairies of the West, in the lonely mountains of the South, wherever the Sisters of St. Mary have been called to work, there the fuel of their filial love keeps alive the flame that animated the indomitable soul of Harriet Starr Cannon.