The vowed life

Daily Reading for May 7 • Harriet Starr Cannon, Religious, 1896

The Bishop of New York, Dr. Horatio Potter, from the outset grasped the future as they did, and saw and felt that there was an abundant work for them and such as they to do in our Church, under the conditions for which they yearned. . . . The wise counsel of the Bishop of New York and his quiet influence in certain quarters helped to prepare the way for the birth of the Sisterhood of St. Mary, on the Feast of the Purification, 1865, when he received by profession, in St. Michael’s church, New York, five sisters, Harriet, Jane, Sarah, Mary, and Amelia. Their work went on as before, but a great change had come in their inner spiritual life. They were not their own as they had been before. No one belongs to himself, for, “No man liveth to himself and no man dieth to himself,” but men and women largely forget this divine ownership, and live as though they owned themselves. The vows of Baptism are an act of self surrender, the vows of the sacred ministry are a still further self surrender on the same lines, and the vows which the dear sisters Harriet, Jane, Sarah, Mary and Amelia took on the Feast of the Purification, 1865, are, as far as human infirmity will permit, an absolute self surrender to God. . . . This profession of five sisters, the “five wise virgins,” was a very quiet service; few knew of it at the time, and none took note of it beyond the circle of friends who were immediately interested. It was like the original Presentation in the Temple. The Lamb of God was there, and with Him, we can count them they were so few, His blessed Mother and St. Joseph and the Priest and St. Anna and St. Simeon. Jerusalem was not stirred and the Scribes and Pharisees were not aroused, but the Saint of God sang his Nunc Dimittis and the event passed. . . .

It would be difficult to make those who have grown up since 1865 understand the temper of those days. The extraordinary gifts of the Holy Ghost in His manifestations of self surrender in holy lives of humiliation and fasting and prayer, and the power to suffer patiently and bless the hand of the persecutor, were out of sight in our Church and almost out of mind, except as a lost art, which had died with the apostles and confessors and martyrs; hence when the attempt was made to recall these gifts and revive them and reproduce them among us, it provoked amazement and in some quarters amusement, and when it was seen that the effort was serious, and had a respectable if not a powerful support, consternation and ridicule were turned into wrath, and the powers of this world were invoked to overcome the forces of Heaven. Dense ignorance was the parent of intense prejudice, and the fierceness of men and women thus generated knew scarcely any bounds. Clergymen forgot their holy calling in denouncing religious orders and entangling vows. Ladies and gentlemen of the highest social position laid aside their good manners and behaved like barbarians to defenceless sisters, and the general voice and temper of our Church were to the effect that all who sympathized with such extravagancies, not to say follies and wickedness, as entangling vows and a common life based upon spiritual affinities exhibited, must be content to be contemned if not forgotten. That storm has long since spent its fury, that tyranny has been broken, and that fierceness and vindictiveness have been changed into gentleness and praise. . . .

What a wonderful life to contemplate is that of Mother Harriet! “The baby from Charleston,” an orphan, dependent, thrown upon her own resources, called of God by bereavement and consequent loneliness, and heeding the call, and persevering in heeding it in spite of other voices and obstacles from friends, as well as those opposed, and at last with congenial spirits, united by God under the same holy vocation, reaching the haven where she would be, the heavenly rest of home, sheltered by vows of self-surrender to Christ as the Bridegroom. And now, when Easter 1896 dawned, God called with a tenderer tone than she had heard and heeded from early womanhood, and said, “Daughter, thou hast done well, come up higher,” and she obeyed and went; and men say that she is dead, but we say she lives a higher life than she ever lived on earth, and remembers us and her spiritual household; and the Master tells us that she is with Him in Paradise, and we believe Him and trust Him, and write her epitaph in our hearts: “Mother Harriet was faithful unto death, and lives now nearer to her Lord in Paradise, waiting for us and all of God’s children, since she without us cannot be made perfect in the enjoyment of the beatific vision in heaven.”

From Mother Harriet of the Sisterhood of St Mary: A Sketch by the Rt. Rev. George F. Seymour, D.D., LL. D., Bishop of Springfield; found at

Past Posts