Like her famous father, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop had a way with the written word.
“The distance up Fifth Ave. sometimes seems as far and as frozen as the road to the famous mines of Alaska,” the daughter of Nathanial Hawthorne, author of “The Scarlet Letter” and one of the most celebrated American literary figures of the 19th century, wrote in a diary entry in 1896 describing her seemingly bleak circumstances “Or so it seems when I stand in my little room very nearly at the end of my money for the time being and ask myself, what am I doing down here among the poor?”
Then she answered her own question with characteristic selflessness and profound faith: “... to take the lowest class we know, both in poverty and suffering, and put them in such a condition, that if our Lord knocked on the door we should not be ashamed to show what we have done.”
The journey that led Rose Hawthorne, born into a cultured Protestant New England literary family—through the devastating loss of her only child and a failed marriage—to the squalid, teeming streets of New York City’s Lower East Side at the end of the 19th century as a single Catholic woman caring for impoverished, terminal cancer patients, is essentially a faith journey.
On April 9 at the New York Catholic Center in Manhattan, documents and artifacts illustrating the incredible life of Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, who became Mother Alphonsa, foundress of the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, were sealed for shipment to Rome to commence the final leg of her incredible journey that could see her canonized for sainthood.
“There is a diocesan process in the canonization procedure and that took us from 2003 until now,” explained Sister Mary De Paul Mullen, O.P., director of nurses at Rosary Hill, the palliative care hospice in Hawthorne that is the successor to the tenement hospice established by Hawthorne Lathrop and her friend Alice Huber among the slums of the Lower East Side. “Now it goes to Rome for the next phase. Father (Gabriel B. O’Donnell, O.P., the cause’s postulator) will take the transumption and documents to Rome, actually on April 20, and present them to the Congregation for the Causes of Saints. They will have a small ceremony and I believe then they’ll be studied to determine her heroic virtue before she would be named venerable. We have a long process ahead of us.”
On the road to sainthood, Mother Alphonsa would first have to be declared venerable, judged a worthy role model for Catholics. The next step is beatification by the pope, which requires that a miracle be attributed to her intercession. The final step to sainthood requires a second miracle be attributed to the candidate.
By any measure, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop’s incredible life is worthy of celebration.
Born in 1851, one year after “The Scarlet Letter” was published, she had the rare opportunity at that time to travel to and live in Europe because of her father’s literary and diplomatic careers. She was first exposed to Catholicism in Europe.
Her early life was marked by “an urgent sense of purpose,” wrote Father O’Donnell in a letter to members of the Rose Hawthorne Guild. “She was always impulsive about serious matters and yet was always searching out the deeper meaning of things.”
She met her husband, George Lathrop, in Germany and they were married in 1871. George would soon become assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly. They moved to New York in 1891 and there they converted to Catholicism, scandalizing Protestant America. Anti-Catholicism was still virulent in those days, even among cultured classes. Their only son died at age 5, and George turned to alcohol for solace. Meanwhile, Rose became more devout as the marriage disintegrated.
With their separation, she embarked on a life of service to the poorest. In the fall of 1896, having competed a three-month nursing course, she rented a three-room, cold-water flat in the slums of Manhattan’s Lower East Side. There she began her vocation of nursing to the poor.
“No description had given me a real knowledge of how dark the passages are in the daytime,” she wrote, “how miserably inadequate the water supply, how impossible that the masses of the poor in tenements should keep themselves or their quarters clean.”
“At that time cancer was thought to be contagious. So you realize what a courageous thing it was for her to do,” said Sister Mary Joseph Powers, O.P., bursar general and vicar of the congregation. “For some reason she was convinced it would not be a danger for her or her sisters.”
No payment was requested from her patients or their families. She depended on the providential care of God. She begged for nearly everything she needed. She believed that to help the poor she must live as they did. She had another stipulation: no medical experiments or operations were to be performed on her patients. Anyone who came to work was also told they could show no sign of revulsion at the horrific wounds they might see.
Fortunately she soon had a helpmate. Alice Huber, inspired by an article Rose had written about her work among the cancerous poor, visited the tenement. In March 1898 she joined her full time. Like Rose, she had no previous nursing experience. The next year, they moved to their own house at 426 Cherry St., making the down payment with money received from a group of benefactors. They named the new home St. Rose’s after St. Rose of Lima. In 1900 the two women took the final step founding what was initially known as The Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer on Dec. 8, the feast of the Immaculate Conception. They were invested in the Dominican habit and made their first vows.
Two years later the two women opened a second home, Rosary Hill, in Westchester County, which became both a nursing home and the motherhouse for the novitiate of Dominican Sisters. Their work for the care of terminal cancer patients continues there to this day.
In a newspaper article she wrote appealing for funds, Mother Alphonsa explained her ministry plainly. “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,” she wrote. “And I wish to go to them as a poor creature myself.”
“We continue to do that,” said Mother Mary Francis Lepore, O.P., superior of the Hawthorne Dominicans. “We’ve been very careful to follow that wish of Mother’s. We don’t take any money from the government either or from private insurance, so we depend, as she called it, on the generosity of the public for our work. That is really a daily miracle for us.”
When Mother Alphonsa died July 9, 1926, she had worked among the poor cancer sufferers of New York’s worst slums for 30 years.
Of her cause for canonization, Mother Mary Francis said, “I think the fact that she had all that suffering, she can speak to so many people. She can speak to mothers who have lost children, people in troubled marriages. There is so much in mother’s life, so many people that her life could inspire and help. She’s a gift to us but it’s like a quiet hidden gift in a way. I think if we were to make that gift of her life known, her heroism, her courage and trust and love of God, I think it would be a great gift to all the Church as well.”