Lathrop, Rose Hawthorne (1851–1926)
Lathrop, Rose Hawthorne (1851–1926)
American Catholic convert and founder of an order of sisters dedicated to caring for terminally ill and destitute cancer patients. Name variations: Mother Alphonsa; Rose Hawthorne. Born in Lenox, Massachusetts, on May 20, 1851; died in New York on July 9, 1926; youngest of three children of Nathaniel Hawthorne (the novelist) and Sophia Peabody Hawthorne (1809–1871); married George Parsons Lathrop, in 1871 (separated 1893); children: Francis Lathrop (1876–1881).
Hawthorne family moved to Europe (1853); returned to America (1860); Nathaniel Hawthorne died (1864); Sophia Peabody Hawthorne died (1871); Rose and George Lathrop converted to Catholicism (1891); Rose moved to the Lower East Side of New York and began her work with cancer victims (1894); along with Alice Huber, Rose became a Dominican, taking the name Sister Alphonsa (1899); founded sisterhood, Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer; established home in Hawthorne, New York (1901); served there (1901–26).
There is an honorable tradition in Roman Catholicism of women caring for the poor, the special work of many orders of sisters. Though Rose Hawthorne Lathrop was the descendant of American Puritans, she converted to Catholicism and joined in this tradition, taking under her protection one of the most despised and outcast groups, penniless terminal cancer victims. After an early life which showed few premonitions of this vocation, she turned to it following the failure of her marriage, and devoted to it the last 32 years of her long life.
The youngest child of Sophia Peabody Hawthorne and the novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose was born in 1851 at the family's home in Lenox, Massachusetts, just after family fortunes had taken a turn for the better with the success of her father's The Scarlet Letter. When she was two, her family moved to England. Nathaniel had been at Bowdoin College with Franklin Pierce, and he wrote a campaign biography of his old friend when Pierce was a presidential candidate in 1852. As a reward for his help, President Pierce made Nathaniel American minister to Liverpool. Much of Rose's early childhood was spent in Britain, but there was also an excursion to the major cities of Europe and a long stay in Rome, during which her father conceived and wrote The Marble Faun. Despite his success as a writer, Nathaniel did not want his children or his wife Sophia to follow his example. When he overheard young Rose tell a friend that she was writing stories, he was angry: "Never let me hear of your writing stories! I forbid you." He deplored all literary work by women, saying that "it does seem to me to deprive women of all delicacy."
The Hawthornes were back in America by 1860, and Rose was only 13 when her father died in 1864. The family stayed in Concord at first, and Rose attended Dio Lewis' Seminary for Young Ladies in nearby Lexington, which specialized in healthy outdoor activities, but after two years it burned to the ground. Sophia Hawthorne then decided to return to Europe and the family settled in Dresden, Germany. Rose's brother Julian described Rose as an impetuous young woman:
She was very critical of others, and would endow this or that person with virtues which they lacked or with faults of which they were innocent; vehemently repenting afterward, her errors of judgment, but prone as ever to repeat them. She had no girl confidantes; and in spite of her beauty and charm, she disturbed rather than won her male acquaintance…. If she ever had a love affair, it was in some region of the imagination beyond the scope of daily life.
In Dresden, the Hawthornes met George and Francis Lathrop, young Americans studying poetry and art, and the two families soon became friends. The relationship continued when both families moved to London to escape the Franco-Prussian War of 1870. After a flirtation with her elder sister Una Hawthorne , George fell in love with Rose. She reciprocated, and they were married in England, when both were aged just 20. In the same year, Sarah Hawthorne died of pneumonia and was laid to rest in London. Una decided to stay in Britain, while Rose and George returned to the United States.
George Lathrop was a talented poet and author who wrote the first critical biography of Rose's father, which was highly regarded at the time. He became assistant editor (under William Dean Howells) of the Atlantic Monthly, then editor of the Boston Courier. He also founded the American Copyright League in 1883 to protect the rights of British authors in America and Americans in Britain: it drafted what later became the basic international copyright laws. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop spent the first years of her marriage illustrating children's books, writing poetry (including a collection, Along the Shore, 1888), and later publishing an affectionate reminiscence of her father's life, Memories of Hawthorne (1897), but she doubted her literary talent and was afraid that what progress she made as a writer might be through the influence of her husband and the memory of her father rather than by her own merits.
Rose gave birth to a son Francis in 1876, and, after several restless years of moving from place to place, the Lathrops managed to buy back the Concord house where her parents had spent their happiest years. They also had their son baptized a Catholic, though neither of them had yet "gone over to Rome." When he was five, however, Francis caught scarlet fever and died. After his death, George Lathrop began to drink heavily. Always a lover of convivial drinking, he now began to deteriorate into alcoholism, though he was still working hard and winning praise in literary society. In 1877, Rose's sister Una had also died. She had been working at a social settlement house in the slums of east London, and her example seems to have been influential in Rose's later decision to work with incurables.
In 1891, influenced by their Italian memories and by a persuasive friend, Alfred Chappell, Rose and George converted to Roman Catholicism, much to the surprise of their Concord neighbors. Rose later wrote that her father himself had had a thoroughly Catholic sensibility, which had prepared her mentally for conversion. Within two years, however, and notwithstanding the powerful Catholic emphasis on the sanctity of marriage, she found her husband's continued drinking intolerable and decided to leave him. They were reconciled later in 1893 and together researched and wrote A Story of Courage, the history of a Catholic convent, the Visitation Order in America at Georgetown, many of whose distinguished members were also converts. Soon after its publication in 1895, however, Rose left George again, and they were never subsequently reconciled. He died of cirrhosis of the liver in 1898, at age 47.
Among Rose's literary friends was Emma Lazarus , the wealthy daughter of Jewish immigrants and author of the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty. They had met at the New York literary salon of Richard Watson Gilder in the mid-1880s and become mutual admirers. But Lazarus developed cancer and died in her late 30s; and witnessing her painful death also helped lead Rose Hawthorne Lathrop to her life's vocation, the care of terminal cancer patients.
In the 1890s, many doctors shared the popular belief that cancer could be passed on from person to person like an ordinary infection, with the result that sufferers were often shunned even by their own families. Rose Hawthorne Lathrop was convinced from what she had seen that this view of cancer as contagious was false. In 1894, she began to prepare herself by volunteering as an unpaid nurse in a New York cancer hospital; for three months, she changed dressings, studied
treatments, and did what she could to comfort the dying. The work was gruesome; many of the women she cared for had foul-smelling cancers on the surface of their bodies, and only by an intense act of will could Rose overcome her physical horror of what she saw and smelled. Emma Lazarus' sister Annie Lazarus had tried this work and found it intolerable. Rose was indignant to learn that cancer hospitals usually discharged patients once they were convinced that a cure was impossible. She became friendly with one woman in her ward, Mrs. Watson, only to discover her suddenly missing one morning following the doctor's diagnosis that her condition was terminal. The result of ejection for poor patients was often a death in the most squalid surroundings, sometimes in the poorhouse or even on the streets.
[As a child, Rose was] an innate patrician…. Ugliness, dirt, disharmony, revolted her, and she averted herself from them with a haughty disgust. In view of her after career, this trait of hers must be emphasized.
Rose Hawthorne Lathrop had no formal medical training and never showed any interest in becoming a doctor. Instead, she wanted to give comfort and dignity to the dying by providing them with a clean, dry, safe place to stay in the last months of their lives, at no cost. To begin her experiment, she rented a small apartment on the Lower East Side of New York City and took in women cancer patients whom doctors had discharged as incurable. She also visited those still living with their families, changing their dressings and making them as comfortable as possible. In the early years, Rose had no accommodation for men, so they too had to be "out-patients."
Her friends and relatives were both impressed and dismayed by the work she had chosen. Several sent contributions of money and a few came to work with her occasionally, but found the work gruelling and painful. In 1897, Rose hired a permanent assistant, Alice Huber , who had come to New York from Kentucky to study art but now moved into the hospice and took on the cancer work full time. Their first patient was the same Mrs. Watson whom Rose had befriended earlier, and whereas the hospital had excluded her, she now became part of the new household until her death. Another early assistant and enthusiast for the work was James J. Walsh, a Catholic doctor and popular historian who later wrote a book about Rose Hawthorne Lathrop and championed her cause among wealthy potential donors. Walsh also gave popular courses of public lectures and donated all the proceeds to the hospice.
Lathrop and Huber, coming from prosperous families, found their new situation a jolting change from earlier life. The sheer noise of street life all around them was unnerving to women who had grown up in spacious, silent surroundings. They had to give up all their leisurely diversions from earlier life. Rose wrote in Christ's Poor, her fund-raising journal:
I don't believe there was anyone who loved fancy work, the reading of novels, painting, the theaters, chatting socially with friends about jolly matters, more heartily than I have done. I remember that on the day when I realized there would be no more time for me to paint in oils or water colors again if I attended faithfully to the work heaven seemed to be giving me to perform, it was as if a sword entered my bosom and I said, "O God, I cannot make that one sacrifice for You." But all the same I knew I should make it.
She was convinced that her Catholic faith gave her the strength to do this work and suggested to Huber that they wear plain dresses similar to those worn by nuns. This was partly to afford them a little more safety in the dangerous area where they worked but also partly a declaration that they were doing the sort of work the Catholic sisterhoods undertook. In recognition of her earlier preconversion life, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop at first chose the name "Daughters of the Puritans." Later, as they attracted new recruits, and with the enthusiastic assent of Archbishop Corrigan of New York, they became Third Order Dominican Sisters, taking the title "Servants for the Relief of Incurable Cancer." Rose now adopted the name of Sister Alphonsa, in honor of St. Alphonsus of Liguori, while Alice Huber became Sister Rosa, in honor of St. Rose of Lima . When their ranks had swelled to eight nurses, they became Dominican sisters, dedicated to St. Rose of Lima.
Rose disliked the sternness of contemporary attitudes to charity and insisted on maintaining a humane environment. Experience soon told her that middle-class views (such as that poverty was the result of laziness and that generous charitable giving merely encouraged it) were hopelessly inadequate. "Severe theories will never satisfy a hungry person," she observed, "even if they eradicate poverty in the twenty-first century." Besides, "Christ did not ask us to eradicate poverty—on the contrary we are allowed to make it at home with us. The poor are a very valuable opportunity for kindness, and help for them is never degrading unless it is falsely given."
Rose was a skillful and inexhaustible fund raiser and as the years passed the Servants' funds began to swell (Mark Twain was one of many literary celebrities who contributed generously), enabling them to buy first a large Cherry Street house a few blocks from their first site, and later a hilltop estate, Rosary Hill, overlooking the Hudson River a few miles outside New York City. Further extensions and enlargements continued through the next two decades, and in the last years of her life Lathrop watched with relief as a fireproof building rose on Rosary Hill to replace its rickety and flammable predecessor. The cost of maintaining these establishments and trying to find accommodations for growing numbers of residents led to perpetual financial crises, but determined fund raising enabled the Servants to survive each one. They also raised money to give dignified funerals to their guests, since burial in Potter's Field was a source of particular dread to many. The little graveyard at Rosary Hill had as its centerpiece a stone cross donated by one of poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's three daughters.
Visiting Lathrop at Rosary Hill in the early 1920s when they were both in their 70s, her brother Julian observed: "I found her … naive and childlike, like the little girl who had been my playmate, but with this difference. The passions of her nature, doubtless as urgent as ever, centered no longer round her personal fate…. She lived, labored, and prayed only for those incarnations of mortal misery which she had drawn about her." But even then, in her black robes, "cheerfulness emanated from her like a fragrance." Rose Hawthorne Lathrop remained active to the end of her life despite deteriorating health, dying in 1926 at the age of 75.
Patrick Allitt , Professor of History, Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia