Editor's Note: While the name Rose Hawthorne is know locally both as a child of Nathaniel Hawthorne, and as the name of the former Catholic girls' high school on Keyes Road, few here know of her life and work. Born in the bosom of New England Transcendentalism, her and her husband's conversion to Roman Catholicism was considered quite radical at the time. Following the loss of a young child to illness, and the resulting escalating alcoholism of her husband, her departure from her marriage and the following of her calling are taken up below.The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne is an American religious community, founded on December 8, 1900 by two extraordinary women. Rose Hawthorne, daughter of American novelist Nathanial Hawthorne, began the work at age 45. She moved into a tenement in the poorest area of New York City, and began nursing incurable cancer patients. Rose, later to become Mother Alphonsa, was a convert to Catholicism. This work was the practical fulfillment of her conversion.
Alice Huber was one of the first to join Rose in the work of nursing the poor with incurable cancer. Alice was 36 years old and a successful portrait painter who had said to her friends, "When I find a work of perfect charity, I will join it." Alice later became Mother Rose. Neither woman had any prior nursing experience. Together, they founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne on December 8, 1900 as they professed their 1st vows.
Rose Hawthorne was an immensely cultured woman, part of the most cultured family tree in America -- the Peabodys and the Hawthornes. She and her husband, George Lathrop, were intimates of the leading literary figures of New England, London and Florence. Rose was herself an author, and had a number of pieces published.
And yet she was able to give all of this up and to undertake the work of caring for the poorest of the poor, the most neglected and diseased of her society, in a hands-on way. She took them into her home, changed their dressings, bathed them and fed them, became their friend and their protector. Given that she was dealing with an illness which was considered loathsome and communicable, like leprosy, hers was an act of immense charity and personal heroism.
Nursing the Poor with Incurable Cancer
She said at the time: "No description had given me a real knowledge of how dark the passages are in the daytime, how miserably inadequate the water supply, how impossible that the masses of poor in tenements should keep themselves or their quarters clean." But keeping her focus on God, she resolved "... to take the lowest class we know both in poverty and suffering and put them in such a condition, that if our Lord knocked at the door we should not be ashamed to show what we have done."
In November of 1897, Alice Huber was stirred by a newspaper article written by Rose about caring for the cancerous poor. Soon after reading the article, Alice visited the tenement on Water Street. "A fair, bright-faced woman, who was bending over an old woman bandaging up her leg, rose from her work and came forward to meet me. I looked at her as she stood there, the only bright being in all that mass of ugliness and misery. As I looked at her, a great feeling of affection and pity came into my heart for her. So, at last I mustered up courage and offered to help her one afternoon of each week."
On March 24, 1898, Alice joined Rose in her work. After a few short days she realized "... the sacrifice of life Rose Hawthorne was leading. We had not time for reading. I could not write, not even think for a time, the change was so great, the noise and confusion unbearable. I became extremely homesick and shed so many tears ..."
Rose as a Crusader and Inspiration
"Rose Hawthorne," Sr. Culbertson writes, "was an exceptional woman whose dedication, sacrifice, and sharp intellectual dialogue set an example that in any age would be hard to emulate. She was far ahead of her time in her thinking on and commitment to social justice. Her essays on spirituality and charity are inspiring and challenging. She was also a very loving woman, with close, tender relationships with her husband and family, and with strong spiritual female friendships. In Rose's time, strong friendships such as that which existed between Rose and Emma Lazarus [author of the poem "Give me your tired, your poor..." on the Statue of Liberty], and Rose and Alice Huber were very common and beneficial."
The letters and essays take the reader back in time to an age of high values and great expectations.
Rose Hawthorne and Alice Huber shared a profoundly spiritual human love, which sustained them both in this enormously difficult undertaking. In her introduction, Sr. Culbertson writes that Rose Hawthorne's piety "was completely dominated by her concern for the work to be done: the needs of the patients. When Rose wrote in her diary that she wanted to be of the poor, she knew what that desire implied. Her original concept of the ministry was one that the sisters were never to change. They were to be servants with all that the concept necessitated."
In one of her newspaper appeals for funds, Rose wrote: "I am trying to serve the poor as a servant. I wish to serve the cancerous poor because they are more avoided than any other class of sufferers; and I wish to go to them as a poor creature myself."
Free Homes for Impoverished Cancer Patients
Another concept essential to the work of the Sisters was the insistence that all of the nursing was to be done by the Sisters. There was to be no hired help. (Eventually male orderlies were employed for assistance with men patients.) Referring to the Sisters' work, Rose Hawthorne wrote: "A surgeon among hundreds of wounded soldiers brings a cup of water and a little care to a few of them -- all he can do he does -- with a groan of appeal to Heaven; and in this feeble though devoted way a few women see and succor suffering women who are agonized and forlorn."
But the two women persevered in the work. And in May, 1899 they moved several blocks to 426 Cherry Street, into their own house, the down payment for which was made by a group of benefactors. This was the first St. Rose's Free Home, named in honor of St. Rose of Lima.
A year later, December 8, 1900, Sister Alphonsa (Rose Hawthorne) and Sr. Rose (Alice Huber) were invested in the Dominican habit and took their first vows. Fr. Thuente presided. The new community adopted the Rule of St. Augustine, and were later incorporated as The Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer.
Two years later Sr. Alphonsa and Sr. Rose opened a second home, Rosary Hill, in Westchester County, north of New York City. It would come to serve as both a nursing home and the mother house and novitiate for the Dominican Sisters.
Mother Alphonsa died in her sleep on July 9, 1926. She had served the poor with incurable cancer for thirty years. Succeeding her as the superior general, Mother Rose opened four new Homes. Mother Rose died on September 30, 1942.
Under the guidance of these women and those who followed, the community continues to carry out the apostolate of loving service to those afflicted with incurable cancer. Faithful to the spirit of the foundresses, no payment is accepted from the patients, their families, any government agency, or any third-party payor. The sisters continue to rely on the loving providence of God through the generosity of benefactors for the support of the work and the community.
On Tuesday, February 4, 2003, having determined that Rose Hawthorne (Mother Mary Alphonsa, O.P.) earned a "reputation of sanctity," Edward Cardinal Egan of the New York Archdiocese gave his blessing and approval to begin the diocesan process which opens the cause for her canonization. He named Rev. Gabriel O'Donnell, a Dominican friar, Postulator of the campaign. The Postulator serves as the voice between the Congregation of Rites of the Holy See, and those who are participants in the process, including the Archdiocese, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, and the Rose Hawthorne Guild which will promote the cause by distributing information and religious articles.
The Cardinal also appointed a diocesan tribunal and a historical commission whose joint purpose is to investigate the life, virtue and reputation for holiness of Rose Hawthorne (Mother Mary Alphonsa, O.P.), Servant of God. This needs to be demonstrated through the brief of the historical commission. Since there are few living people who can witness to her life, the bulk of the brief will be formed from the documents and records in the Archives of Rosary Hill Home, the motherhouse of the Community Rose Hawthorne founded.
The road to canonization is long and uncertain. A candidate must first be declared "venerable," or worthy of being a role model for Catholics. The next step is beatification by the Pope which requires, among other things, that a miracle be attributed to Rose Hawthorne's intercession. The final step normally requires that a second miracle be attributed to the candidate.
Each person interested in the cause may assist with prayer, and by reporting any favors received. For more information, see the Domnican Sisters of Hawthorne. Also see the "The Rose Hawthorne Guild" for more of Rose's story.
Photos: Courtesy of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, the Rose Hawthorne Guild, and Art Today.