By Richard J. Mammana, Jr.
Harriet Starr Cannon was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 7, 1823. Both of Harriet’s parents died of yellow fever when she was 17 months old; she was left with her elder sister and closest friend Catherine Ann, then three years old. An aunt welcomed the two orphaned sisters into her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut — making for seven children in one house in this then-bustling mercantile center on Long Island Sound. As a young girl Harriet lost her sight in one eye in an accident, but all accounts point to a happy childhood despite many significant early setbacks. One relative described her as fond of dancing, “a great society girl and not at all religious.”
The decision to consecrate her life completely to God came in the wake of a personal tragedy. Catherine Ann Cannon married in 1851 and moved to California, intending for Harriet to join her when she had established a home on the West Coast with her husband. A telegram brought the news in 1855, just as Harriet was preparing to leave for the West, that Catherine had died. The event changed the direction of her life completely; later, she wrote: “You know, she was my all — neither father, mother, or brother. We were two, but were one — but if God had left her with me, I should not have been here.”
In New York City in 1856, the 32-year-old Harriet was received into the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, a parochial association of “evangelical sisters” who worked under the direction of William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) as nurses at his newly built St. Luke’s Hospital. Harriet thrived in her earliest medical and religious work among the poor. By 1863, however, conflicts with Muhlenberg’s collaborator and friend Anne Ayres, who was in immediate charge of the sisterhood’s activities, led to the withdrawal of four sisters and the essential dissolution of the order. (The last Sister of the Holy Communion died in 1940.)
Harriet was one of the four who left. During the following two years, she and her former associates felt a strong call to continue on new lines the work they had begun under Muhlenberg and Ayres. On Feb. 2, 1865, Harriet and four friends, Jane Haight, Mary Heartt, Amelia Asten, and Sarah Bridge, were received by Bishop Horatio Potter of New York (1802-87) as members of the newly formed Sisterhood of Saint Mary. They had the strong support of the diocesan bishop and a circle of committed local clergy who understood the critical importance of a recognized form of women’s ministry to meet the needs of the Church, and to provide a way for these five individuals to share their gifts in an organized way. Before the end of the summer they received their first novice, and undertook management of a variety of ministries among the homeless and orphans. They had formed the first stable and sustainable women’s religious community in the Episcopal Church.
Opposition to the Community of Saint Mary (CSM) and its good works was swift and intense. Sermons and newspapers denounced the fledgling order as “Romanist,” “ritualist,” full of “popery,” a threat to family life and the Protestant character of Anglicanism. Acceptance of the order grew, however, after the sacrifices of four sisters who died while nursing yellow fever victims in Memphis in the summer of 1878. James DeKoven wrote near the end of his life that the deaths of these four sisters, Constance, Thecla, Ruth, and Frances, gave “the sisterhood a place in the hearts of the people which cannot be shaken.” They are commemorated on the calendar of the 1979 Book of Common Prayer on September 9, and known widely along with their priest and physician collaborators as the Martyrs of Memphis.
For the last two decades of her life, Mother Harriet directed CSM’s growth from what was to become the order’s motherhouse in Peekskill, New York. In her history of the community, Sister Mary Hilary notes: “Whatever her burdens of responsibility, she lived the quiet routine and performed the small chores of the conventual life. Frequently she took on additional jobs to relieve a sick or absent sister. At one time, serving as sacristan, bookkeeper and Novice Mistress, she reported merrily that she was monarch of all she surveyed.”
From the original group of five sisters, 104 sisters had been professed when Mother Harriet died on Easter Day in 1896. CSM sisters were in charge of more than a dozen church institutions — hospitals, orphanages, schools, convents and mission houses — in New York City and Peekskill, Memphis and Sewanee, Chicago, and Kenosha, Wisconsin. They lived under a rule formed by the community itself with the advice of Morgan Dix and founding Cowley Father Richard Meux Benson. A full round of daily prayer and the Eucharist framed all of their activities.
Today, the order Mother Harriet guided into stability and lasting growth has three autonomous provinces. The Southern Province, begun in 1871 when Harriet sent the first CSM sister from New York to Memphis, has a convent and retreat center near the University of the South at Sewanee. The Western Province, created in 1904, had historic ministries of retreat direction, education and altar bread production throughout the upper Midwest — particularly in Chicago, and in Milwaukee, Kenosha and Racine, Wisconsin. The Eastern Province’s convent is in Greenwich, New York, where the sisters share a 603-acre facility with the Diocese of Albany’s Spiritual Life Center. The sisters in Greenwich farm host and lead retreats and assist with activities at the Spiritual Life Center. A branch house of the Eastern Province opened in Malawi in 2002.
The two most complete accounts of Mother Harriet’s life are Morgan Dix’s Harriet Starr Cannon: First Mother Superior of the Sisterhood of St. Mary (1896) and Sister Mary Hilary CSM’s Ten Decades of Praise: The Story of the Community of Saint Mary during Its First Century (1965). Both are available free, along with a wealth of other material about the early history of the Community of Saint Mary, at anglicanhistory.org/usa/csm.