March 2012 Print

Rose Hawthorne: From Literati to the Dominicans

Christopher Check

In his final—and favorite—romance, The Marble Faun, Nathaniel Hawthorne wrestled with the failure of Yankee Puritanism to confront sufficiently the problem of evil, and he allowed the possibility that better suited to answering evil are the rites, pieties, and sacraments of Catholicism, especially the sacrament of Confession. Hawthorne’s Yankee prejudices and his Puritan roots ran deep, however. His great-great-grandfather John Hathorne was a Salem Witch Trial judge, and although some have suggested Nathaniel added the “w” to his name to distance himself from his ancestor, the great writer died neither Puritan nor Catholic.

We may well hope for his soul nonetheless, for he has a powerful intercessor. His last born, Rose, whom he called his “autumnal flower” and “the comfort of my declining years,” converted to Catholicism, took the veil, and founded a community of Dominican nuns who to this day care for destitute victims of incurable cancer. Moreover, in 2003, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, Mother Mary Alphonsa, O.P., was declared “Servant of God” by Cardinal Edward Egan of New York, thereby formally opening her cause for canonization.

Visit to Italy

When Rose was a young girl, the Hawthorne family spent several months in Rome following her father’s term of service as President Franklin Pierce’s consul in Liverpool. In the Eternal City the Hawthornes felt the powerful tug of Christianity made incarnate in the beauty of Catholic painting, sculpture, architecture, music, and liturgy. Nathaniel remarked that it was a pity that Protestantism had “so entirely laid aside” the value of art in cultivating religious fervor. The family also warmed to the atmosphere of joyful celebrations that attended the liturgical calendar, an atmosphere starkly contrasted with the dourness of Sundays in puritan New England. During a family visit to the Vatican Gardens, seven-year-old Rose was dashing from one flower to the next when she collided with an old man in white. Looking up, she beheld Pio Nono, himself, who dismissed Mrs. Hawthorne’s apology for her daughter with a broad smile and, resting his hand on her red hair, gave Rose his blessing.

On a visit to Florence, Rose was taken by a statue of another Rose, St. Rose of Lima, standing in the Basilica of Santa Maria Novella. Rose lingered at length before the likeness of the Dominican saint, the first canonized saint of the Americas. Knowing as we do the end of the story, we cannot doubt that the event, affectionately recorded in her father’s correspondence, was anything less than Providence planting a seed in a soul cultivated by months of exposure to Italian Catholic beauty. Two Roses, who in the economy of Salvation both brought glory to Catholic America, beheld the beauty of one another’s souls.

A Difficult Marriage

The seed would be many years in coming to fruition. Back in New England, Rose lived surrounded by her Father’s friends, the region’s literary lights: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Hermann Melville, and Louisa May Alcott, to whom the young Rose confided her desire to nurse wounded soldiers from the War Between the States. Nathaniel Hawthorne died before the war he did not support ended, and one day before Rose’s thirteenth birthday. In time, Nathaniel’s widow, Sophia, took Rose and her older brother and sister to Dresden, Germany, where Rose came of age and met George Parson’s Lathrop, a literary figure in his own right, who would go on to be assistant editor at the Atlantic Monthly, editor of the Boston Courier and then the New York Star, as well as author of many novels. Lathrop would also found the American Copyright League, the institution that crafted the laws securing international copyrights for authors.

The young Lathrops were married in 1871 in an Anglican ceremony at St. Peter’s in the Chelsea neighborhood of London, a church the rectory of which sits on land deeded as a gift from Clement Clarke Moore, whose “Visit from Saint Nicholas” has probably done more to influence the American imagination’s picture of Santa Claus than any other work. Returning to the United States, George pursued his literary career and Rose did also, writing for Harper’s, Ladies’ Home Journal, and publishing a collection of poems. They moved in the inner circle of the New York literati, attending parties hosted by George’s mother at her home on Washington Square. But the charm of New York literary life could not ease the sorrow of what from the first turned out to be a difficult marriage. Where Nathaniel and Sophia had been famous for their mutual affection and devotion, their daughter and her husband were too often at odds.

Francis’ Baptism

The marriage was strained by George’s intemperance with the bottle, a temptation he would fight to his grave. The bright light in their home was their only child, a boy named Francis, who had his mother’s blue-gray eyes and red hair, and who brought them greater joy than they might have guessed. When it came time to have him baptized, Rose declared, “I want him baptized in a Church like those in Italy. I was so happy those years in Rome, George. And the Catholics do things up so nicely—not cold and just dripping a little water, but they make a more supernatural thing out of it. They do something with a baby’s soul, more than the other churches do.” The baptism of Francis inspired George to pen the following poem:

Today I saw a little calm-eyed child,

Where soft light rippled and the shadows tarried,

Within a church’s shelter arched and aisled,

Peacefully wondering to the altar carried…

Wise is the ancient sacrament that blends

The weakling cry of children in our churches

With strength of prayer or anthem that ascends

To Him who hearts of men and children searches.

And the baptism set the Lathrops on the road to Rome, although when they finally came into the Church in 1891, their little boy had gone to his reward, dead of scarlet fever at the age of five.

With the zeal of converts, the Lathrops helped to found the Catholic Summer School at New London, an adult-education symposium where George lectured to Catholics and non-Catholics alike seeking to learn more about the Faith. They also collaborated on a history of the Visitation Order at Georgetown, during the research for which Rose explored the rhythms, practices, community, and serenity of the consecrated life. The collaboration was a great success, but it did not keep the Lathrops together. By the end of 1894, Rose separated from her husband who could not separate from drink.

Helping the Victims of Cancer

One might expect a woman who had struggled for more than two decades in a failed marriage to retreat into a life of self indulgence, but Rose immersed herself in self-giving. Seeking her seamstress one day, Rose discovered that the woman had exhausted what little money she had treating her incurable cancer. Now penniless, the seamstress was forced to live her remaining days in the squalor of a Blackwell’s Island (today Roosevelt Island) tenement. When Rose went out to the Island to find the woman, she learned she had died and been buried in a pauper’s grave. Overcome with pity for the Island’s poor, Rose decided to devote her life to easing the suffering of the dying, but not just any dying, the destitute victims of incurable cancer.

Her dear friend Emma Lazarus, the Jewish poetess, had succumbed to cancer in her forties, but not before she told Rose, “You must suffer to care, I am afraid. Until you suffer you cannot quite understand.” Her own father understood the sufferings of the poorest of the poor. “Human beings owe a debt of love to one another,” he wrote in the Miraculous Pitcher, “because there is no other method of paying the debt of love and care which all of us owe Providence.”

Rose enrolled in a three-month nursing course at the New York Cancer Hospital. The staff expected her to run in terror on the first day of her training, but like Catherine of Siena drinking the wash water of the cancerous old courtesan, Rose fought back her revulsion at the fetid wounds she learned to dress and began to see the face of Christ in her patients. When her training was complete she rented rooms on the lower East Side, painted and modestly but cheerfully refurnished them, and living like the poor, began to dress at no cost the wounds of the victims of incurable cancer. She worked from sunup until well past sunset, and at night she wrote letters of appeal sometimes until two or three in the morning. That a daughter of Hawthorne had become a Catholic had caused a quite a stir; that she was dressing the wounds of the dying in the poorest neighborhoods of New York caught the attention of the New York Times. The subsequent story was dignified and proved a great blessing, for a steady stream of small checks and donations trickled in keeping her operation going from one day to the next.

The terms of her operation were these: neither her patients nor their relatives must have money to pay, and they must be declared incurable by the doctors. As her work grew and attracted volunteers, she charged them never to express disgust at the sight or smell of cancer and never to permit her patients to be used for medical research. To this day, these rules inform the care that the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne give their patients.

Giving Herself to God

In 1898 George Lathrop succumbed to cirrhosis of the liver. Rose sat at his bedside as he died with the Last Rites of the Church. It was shortly thereafter that she made the acquaintance of Father Clement Thuente from the Dominican Parish of Saint Vincent Ferrer (to this day New York City’s most beautiful church). Under his guidance she took the direction that led her at last to make the vows of a Dominican Tertiary. Inspired by the life of Alphonsus of Liguori, who left worldly society to give himself to God, she took the name Sister Mary Alphonsa. Her principal assistant, Mary Huber, took the name Sister Mary Rose, after Rose of Lima. In time they formed a community of Third Order Dominicans calling themselves the Servants of Relief of Incurable Cancer.

It was a common belief at that time that cancer, like leprosy, was contagious. Sister Mary Alphonsa knew it was not, but it nonetheless made it difficult for the new community to rent rooms for their patients. A novena to the Sacred Heart brought a great gift, a visit from a French Dominican named Father Coutheny, whose community was selling their home in Sherman Park in Westchester County. They were eager to part with it cheaply if the Servants of Relief wanted it. To their new home on Rosary Hill, the community moved in 1901. Though the property has been expanded, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne continue to serve there the victims of incurable cancer who have no means to pay for their care. At Rosary Hill, they accept no government money, relying entirely on the Providence of God, as Rose did from the moment she accepted her vocation.

Sister Mary Alphonsa became Mother Mary Alphonsa and her community grew, supported by donations great and small. Mark Twain, with whom Mother Mary Alphonsa kept a correspondence, was a generous benefactor and an enthusiastic promoter. Before she died in the summer of 1926, she saw the beginning of a new 100-bed facility at Rosary Hill. Her order today operates five homes in the United States and one in Kenya.

The life of this extraordinary woman, lovingly set down in a charming biography, Sorrow Built a Bridge, by Catholic journalist and biographer Katherine Burton, offers an abundance of inspirations to consider, among them confidence in Providence, finding the face of Christ in the wretched, perseverance under the most trying circumstances, and that love is an act of the will expressed in our deeds. We should consider the way the outward manifestations of the beauty of the Catholic Faith worked on the inward transformation of Rose’s soul. Indeed, good art is a kind of apologetics.

Rose also offers an example of thoroughness of conversion. It cannot have been a simple matter for a girl who grew up with an excellent education and opportunity for world travel, and who lived among the top American literary minds, to say nothing of having lived in the security of material comfort, to leave all of these things behind and dive headlong into the suffering of the most destitute of New York. It is an unlikely story, but then, from the first Our Lord has made a practice of selecting the unlikely to bring to fruition His great works. We need only say yes with the fervor and faith that Rose Hawthorne did to see those great works in our own lives.