Project Canterbury

Essays in Appreciation
by George William Douglas, D.D., S.T.D.

New York: Longmans, Green and Co., 1913.

Sister Anne Ayres

[This notice was the concluding portion of the sermon preached on the fifty-fourth anniversary of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, Feast of the Purification, February 2, 1900, in the Church of the Holy Communion, New York, at the unveiling of a memorial tablet to Sister Anne Ayres.]

ON this Feast of the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary, in the year of our Lord 1900, we are gathered together in this Church of the Holy Communion for a special purpose known to us beforehand. This is the anniversary of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, at which time it has been the custom of these Sisters to kneel together, as such, at yonder altar, and partake of the Body and Blood of Jesus Christ our Lord; but on this occasion we are invited to fix our thoughts on the life and work of one particular woman, a tablet to whose memory is here unveiled to-day. The Sisterhood of the Holy Communion was founded, under God, by Anne Ayres, at the suggestion of William Augustus Muhlenberg. Like all things of deep spiritual import, neither he who, under God, made the suggestion, nor she in whose soul the suggestion lodged, perceived beforehand what the outcome of it would be. According to our Saviour's parable, there was "first the blade, then the ear, after that the full corn in the ear." In the summer of 1845, there was gathered on Sunday in the little chapel of St. Paul's College, a small congregation, among whom, the record declares, were Dr. Muhlenberg's sister, his niece, and some friends who were spending their vacation at College Point, Long Island; and when to these Dr. Muhlenberg preached a sermon on "Jephtha's Vow," with an application glancing at the blessedness of giving one's self undividedly to God's service, neither he nor his audience guessed that his covert and guarded suggestion would ultimately bear fruit in the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion; yet Anne Ayres, who was one of that little congregation, lived to testify that then and thereby she was inspired to take the successive steps which, seven years afterwards, in a different place and very different circumstances, resulted in the formation of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion. [See "Life and Work of Dr. Muhlenberg," by Anne Ayres, p. 189: New York, Thomas Whittaker.]

I do not propose to attempt to-day a biography of Sister Anne Ayres, nor to dwell on the three main stages of her work for Christ and his Church: first, in this parish of the Holy Communion, which gave the name to the sisterhood which she founded; second, in St. Luke's Hospital; and last of all, in St. Johnland. I hardly think that she, from her place in Paradise, would care to have me emphasize, before God's altar, the days of the years of her earthly pilgrimage, nor the temporal and temporary aspects of her labor, even though the monuments thereof be as notable as these. Rather she would have us express our thoughts of her this morning in the words of the familiar saint's day hymn:

"From all Thy saints in warfare, for all Thy saints at rest,
To Thee, O blessed Jesus, all praises be addressed.
Thou, Lord, didst win the battle, that they might conquerors be;
Their crowns of living glory are lit with rays from Thee."

And so, instead of dwelling on the details of her earthly service of our Master and Saviour, I desire to bring out, if I can, the salient motive, the inner spiritual ideal which actuated her, and which rendered her service, in a sense, peculiar. For at the epoch when her lifework began, the duty which she undertook was, in a true sense, peculiar, so far at least as our Anglican Communion was concerned. It was laid upon Anne Ayres to revive in the Protestant Episcopal Church of the United States of America the ancient Catholic idea of woman's undivided service for Christ and His Church, whether in connection with the administration of divine worship in God's house, or of works of mercy, or of Christian education. If you will read her biography of Dr. Muhlenberg with close attention from end to end, you will finally perceive what the underlying idea of her own life was, and what were the range and the atmosphere in which her spirit moved; or if you are still in some doubt about it, your doubts will be dispelled when you peruse, in the volume entitled "Evangelical Catholic Papers," which Anne Ayres also edited, Dr. Muhlenberg's essay on "Protestant Sisterhoods."

In the history of the long, large life of the Church Catholic as a whole, the work of women specially set apart for Christ's service has assumed, in the main, one or other of three forms: First there is the work of the deaconess proper, which is, in its main idea, individual and single; even as that of each of the three orders of the Christian ministry proper, bishops, priests, and deacons, is, in its main idea, individual and single; and the deaconess is intended to be the workfellow and assistant of some particular bishop, or, under the bishop, of some parish priest or rector. Secondly, there is the corporate sisterhood, whereby a number of women, each of whom is for her own part consecrated individually to work for Christ and His Church, go further and band themselves together in an Order, where there is careful, corporate discipline, with a head and members, and a central home, and a visible property, and an organized rule partaking of the military. Here the connection with some parish priest or rector, and the obedience to some bishop, is less complete and continuous; the idea of the order is paramount, and each order of sisters is likely, in process of time, to acquire an entity and traditions of its own. Thirdly, besides these two--the single deaconess on the one hand, and the corporate sisterhood on the other--the vocation of women set apart to Christian work in the Church has taken a form which partakes of the characteristics of both of the others and is intermediary between them. Of this third type of the service of women in the Church the Kaiserswerth Deaconess Association, as established by the Lutheran Pastor Fliedner, affords the best known example; although lately in the Church of England, associations of women have arisen, calling themselves sometimes deaconesses, sometimes sisters, which seem to be successful instances of the same general method. In this third type, while the idea of the corporation is kept in the background, subordinate to that of the deaconess or sister as an individual servant of the Church for Christ's sake, nevertheless there is a recognized community, to which the individual belongs for a longer or shorter period; and this community life entails the undoubted advantages of mutual sympathy and support, and greater unity and efficiency in action; the various individuals with various gifts being held together under an acknowledged leader of their own kind and sex, so long as they choose to remain together. Each of these three main forms of woman's work in the Church has its evident advantages, and each also its drawbacks and dangers. And underlying each and all of them is this main question to be settled: whether the woman's dedication to her work shall be for a period of time, at her own discretion, or for life under a vow. Among Roman Catholics some of the strictest conventual orders take vows for definite periods, renewable from time to time; and even where the vow is meant to be for life, it is nevertheless in the power of the Pope or bishop to give release. And, on the other hand, in the case of the Protestant Deaconess Association at Kaiserswerth, and of those associations in our Anglican Communion which resemble it, although the vows are in form renewable from time to time, nevertheless the spirit, and the practical ideals of the association, as now developed and crystallized, are such that the individual members, even though they be Lutherans, distinctly lose caste, and are considered by their associates to have fallen from their true profession, if they give up the regular deaconess work and marry, or go back into the secular world. Now, as far as our own Anglican Communion is concerned, no one who is familiar with the history of the last sixty years can fail to perceive that all these three types of women-workers for Christ and His Church have made themselves at home among us. When Sister Anne Ayres was first set apart by Dr. Muhlenberg one winter evening in this church where we are now gathered, after daily service was over and the congregation dispersed, and only the priest and the postulant were left, she on her knees before the chancel rail and he in his surplice within, with the good old sexton as the only witness, waiting to put out the lights--when, I say, Sister Anne Ayres was thus set apart, she evidently had in mind to found an organized body of sisters not unlike the Kaiserswerth deaconesses. And such, on the whole and in a general way, was the character of the association which she did inaugurate, and which, changing somewhat with the changing years, exists to-day under the name of the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion. Ere long, three of those who were at first associated thus, desiring a stricter, closer, and more formal organization, left the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion and founded the Sisterhood of St. Mary, whose noble work has likewise been widely recognized and blest throughout our Church in this country and beyond it. Meanwhile, Sister Anne Ayres followed Dr. Muhlenberg himself first to St. Luke's Hospital and afterward to St. Johnland; and, though she still worked more or less as one of the Sisters of the Holy Communion, nevertheless, by reason of her practical independence, she in effect reverted in later years to what New Testament scholars regard as probably the most primitive of all the types of woman's formal ministry in the Christian Church, namely, the single deaconess, like Phoebe commended of St. Paul. Anne Ayres was not called by this name of deaconess, for she was still known as Sister Anne, and was often side by side with her old associates; nevertheless, her actual work, in its comparative separateness and singleness, its dependence on the single pastor alone, and in other regards easily distinguishable--her actual work was rather like that which is now conducted under our recent Canon of Deaconesses. And in this Anne Ayres was following not merely the leading of circumstances, but the final bent of Dr. Muhlenberg's mind, and doubtless of her own.

Whatever their original intention may have been in 1845, the ultimate feeling as to the work they wished to prosecute is clearly expressed in Dr. Muhlenberg's paper on "Protestant Sisterhoods," which was issued in 1852:

"When the Sisterhood degenerates it will come to an end. It depends for its continuance wholly upon the continuance of the zeal which called it into being. The uniting principle among its members is their common affection for the object which has brought them together; but there is no constraint from without on the part of the Church, nor any from within, in the form of religious vows or promises to one another, to insure their freedom of conscience as individuals. Not that they hold themselves ever ready to adjourn. Each and all feel that they have entered upon a sacred service, which they are at liberty to quit only at the demand of duty elsewhere. Handmaidens of the Lord, waiting upon his good pleasure, they are not anxious for the future, content to leave it in His hands. We want no combinations, no widespread order of charity, under one head or Church control, nor in any way capable of holding property in their own right."

Such was Sister Anne's view of her vocation; and it was in strict keeping with the above quoted sentiments that when the course of years, duty, as she believed, called her less and less to associate work, and more and more to individual work, she lived more as a single worker. Far be it from you or me, my brethren, to say that one of these types of workers that I have mentioned is better or more useful than the others. Human nature has many sides, and opportunities for Church work vary in their aspects and demands. The wind of God, the Holy Spirit that moves individual souls to this task or to that, bloweth where it listeth; and thou hearest the sound thereof, but canst not tell whence it cometh or whither it goeth. Our Church in these last fifty years has found a place and function for each of these methods of work; and noble and notable results have been accomplished by all these types of laborers in the vineyard. Some women are called of God to one of these vocations, some to another; and, under certain safeguards which history and experience suggest, all of these ministries are likely to be wanted in the future, as they have been in the past. Each type has its strong points and its weak points, its peculiar disabilities and limitations, and each its own reward--the "name that no man knoweth, save he that receiveth it."

But my duty to-day is a simple one: to single out and emphasize the particular type of character and of task which belonged to this woman whose noble name we distinguish for commemoration, and the tablet to whose memory we to-day unveil. And what I desire to say in conclusion is this: I chose my text because it suggested, as I believe, the key-note of the character of Sister Anne Ayres. Just in proportion as our work for Christ is a separate and single work, not supported by definite and indissoluble ties to some large organization, just in that proportion, if we are to succeed and to persevere, do we need to realize what our text expresses--the absolute nearness of God to the soul, and the absolute dependence of each single soul on God. "All live unto Him." "My soul hangeth on Thee." Here is where the really devout Romanist and the really devout Protestant meet on common ground--John Bunyan, and John Wesley, and John Keble, with Xavier and Loyola and Francois de Sales and Fenelon. You may criticise these men, for they were human; you may differ from them, for they were fallible; but you cannot deny that, one and all, they were permeated through and through by the consciousness of God our Father; that day by day and hour by hour they "looked to Him." And such, too, was Anne Ayres. This it was which enabled her to be true to her vocation up to the very end without resting on those outward helps of association and daily rule which most of us require to keep us straight and true. It seemed as if she never met a human being, without first saying secretly to herself that ejaculation of the saint: "In whatsoever way Thou wiliest, bind me faster to Thee." In her was manifested the power of the personal recollection of God to reinforce and fructify the other powers of mankind; and there lay the secret of her pervasive influence over her fellows. Other people might tell them, but she first made them feel that for each and all of us there is but one life to live, and that directly with God. "As the eyes of a maiden unto the hand of her mistress, so her eyes looked unto the Lord her God."

Project Canterbury