Spirituality for Today – September 2010 – Volume 15, Issue 2

Profiles In Greatness: Rose Hawthorne

By Sister Lou Ella Hickman, I.W.B.S.

Before M.D. Anderson Cancer Center, St. Jude's Hospital for Children, chemotherapy, radiation, mammograms and palliative care there was Rose Hawthorne. In 1896, a cancer diagnosis for the poor was more than a death sentence thanks to New York City's policy of exiling them to Blackwell's Island. This policy was in force because people believed cancer was contagious. In this environment of fear, at the age of 45, Rose would begin a revolution in cancer health care in the United States when she changed the bandages of a woman dying of cancer. Her hands-on care was so radical it was akin to St. Damien's care for lepers on Molokai. (Fr. Damien would be one of the several influences on Rose's decisions to serve the poor.)

A photo of Rose HawthorneRose Hawthorne

If her name sounds vaguely familiar; her father was Nathanial Hawthorne of "The Scarlet Letter" fame. As a writer, I try to imagine the heady atmosphere of the home she was born into. She was the last of three children and her father's favorite child. Her family would host the superstars of young America's literary elite such as Henry David Thoreau, Ralph Waldo Emerson and Herman Melville. In 1853 Nathanial took his family to England where he served as the American counsel for four years When his term ended, they traveled to Italy before returning to New England in 1860. Yet, in spite of this cultured environment, her formal education was sporadic. Rose's beloved father died when she was thirteen and her mother would die a few years later, adding to her loss. Had Rose lived today, she would fit in well with Generation X — for she too, was restless and searching for something greater than herself.

She married at twenty and her husband, George Lathrop, was also a writer, who went on to work at The Atlantic Monthly as the assistant editor. He eventually became an alcoholic and for some twenty-five years theirs was a marriage of disaster as well as loss with the death of their only child, Francis, at the age of four. During this time she wrote poetry which appeared in magazines such as Harper's Monthly and Scribner's. Many of these poems were published in a book collection called "Along the Shore" in 1888. Both she and her husband were attracted to the Catholic Church and converted in 1891 which seemed to help stabilize their marriage. That conversion made headline news due to Rose's aristocratic Hawthorne background. However, their marriage's fragile stability evaporated and four years later she and her husband formally separated with the Church's permission. George died in 1898 leaving her alone and much of her wealth gone.

This fastidious and cultured woman would undergo another conversion with its call to minister to people her proper and formal society marginalized. During a retreat she read a biography of St. Rose of Lima who cared for the cancerous poor of her own era. Rose was also inspired by the examples of St. Vincent de Paul and Father Joseph Damien serving his lepers on Molokai. Finally, it was "The story of a poor seamstress who died of cancer on Blackwell's Island (that) occasioned the spiritual turning point for Rose." (United States Catholic Catechism for Adults, p. 66.)

Her next step was to take a three month nursing course offered by the New York Cancer Hospital. From there, she moved into the poorest section of New York City — the Lower East Side where she visited the poor in their own homes to attend to the needs of those dying of cancer. She then moved into her own Lower East Side apartment and opened her door to bathe, feed, and change the dressings of those considered too loathsome to touch. Her writing also continued, this time to beg for money in the city's newspapers. One such article brought Alice Huber to Rose's flat on Water Street. Alice, 36, was a successful portrait painter who offered to help one afternoon a week. Just a few months later, Alice would join Rose in her work. They both entered the Dominican order in 1900 and in 1906 they began their own religious community—the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, Servants of the Relief of Incurable Cancer. And even as a Catholic religious, she remained in touch with the literary elite as Mark Twain was one of her greatest benefactors. Taking the name of Mother Alphonsa, Rose would befriend the untouchables for thirty-three years before dying in 1926. Today the sisters continue Rose's refusal to accept any payment from the patients or their families.

It is fitting that Rose's biography graces the introduction of Chapter 6 of the United States Catholic Catechism for Adults. This chapter deals with the dignity of each man and woman who are created in the image of God; something Rose recognized and embraced on a daily basis. Unofficially, some people have called her a saint. One person who wants to make that title official is Cardinal Eagan of New York who introduced her cause for canonization in 2003. As a concluding side note, perhaps it was by chance Rose was born in May and May is National Cancer Research Month. But, for those who see with the eyes of faith, that wasn't coincidental at all.