Stephanie A. Mann is the author of Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation, available from Scepter Publishers. She resides in Wichita, Kansas and blogs at www.supremacyandsurvival.blogspot.com.
Sister Frances Margaret (Fanny) Allen of the Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph died on Sept. 10, 1819 in Montreal at the Hotel-Dieu, the hospital and convent founded by Venerable Jerome Le Royer, Venerable Marie de la Ferre, and Jeanne Mance.
She was a Vermonter in Canada, the first woman from New England to become a Catholic religious, and the daughter of deist, rationalist, and American Revolutionary hero, Ethan Allen.
Fanny Allen was born on November 13, 1784. Her father died when she was four years old and her mother, also named Fanny, remarried (to Dr. Jabez Penniman). Neither the Allen nor the Penniman household was particularly religious. In the midst of the great religious revivals in the British colonies and the post-revolutionary period, Ethan Allen had written and self-published Reason: The Only Oracle of Man (1785). So few copies sold that the printer demanded more money to cover his losses. Fanny laughed through her baptism ceremony when she was an adult. Her mother insisted she be baptized by an Episcopalian minister in 1805 before she went to Catholic Montreal to study French. The minister, Daniel Barber, did not appreciate her mirth.
But the rationalist Fanny had a mysterious event in her past, one that reason had failed to explain, as she recounted:
When I was twelve years old, I was walking one day on the banks of the river which flowed not very far from our house. The water, although very clear, rolled by in torrents. Suddenly I beheld emerging from the river an animal more resembling a monster than a fish, for it was of extraordinary size and horrid shape. It was coming directly toward me and sent a chill of terror through me. What aggravated my peril was that I could not turn away from this monster. I seemed paralyzed and rooted to the ground. While I was in this torturing situation, I saw advancing toward me a man with a venerable and striking countenance, wearing a brown cloak and carrying a staff in his hand. He took hold of my arm gently and gave me strength to move while he said most kindly to me: "My child, what are you doing here? Hasten away." I then ran as fast as I could. When I was some distance off, I turned to look at this venerable man, but I could see him nowhere.
Her mother sent a servant to find the man and thank him but he had vanished.
She had another mysterious experience in the boarding school of the Sisters of the Congregation of Notre Dame in Montreal while studying French. One of the sisters asked her to place some flowers on the Altar and to make some recognition of the Real Presence in the tabernacle. Allen agreed to arrange the flowers but did not intend to acknowledge something she did not believe in. She then found herself physically unable to enter the chapel or approach the Altar until she suddenly believed in the Real Presence, fell on her knees, and adored Him.
So the daughter of a deist was on her way to becoming a Catholic and soon even to discern a religious vocation. She received instructions and was re-baptized by a parish priest in Montreal on the grounds that she had not assented to being baptized. Fanny went home to announce her conversion and her intention to become a religious sister.
But there were obstacles: her mother and stepfather threatened to cut her off financially and would not pay for her dowry. They asked her to wait a year before taking such a crucial decision. She was engaged to be married; Fanny and Jabez were upset that she was throwing away her chance for security and wealth. When she came home to Vermont they tried to distract her with parties and asked an Episcopalian friend to persuade her to join his High Church parish. Fanny resisted all these blandishments and wanted to back to Montreal to join a convent.
She had not decided which one, however, until she visited the chapel of the Hotel Dieu, where she saw a painting of the Holy Family above the altar. Fanny recognized the figure of St. Joseph as the man who saved her when she was 12 years old. Therefore, she decided her vocation was in an order named for St. Joseph. After a year of residence at the Hotel Dieu, she joined the novitiate on September 29, 1808 with the approval and assistance of her parents. She made her final vows on May 18, 1811, with many Vermont friends watching.
Fanny Allen, influenced by her family’s deist and rationalist views, had experienced two mysterious events that defied rational explanation. Inspired by those events, she had overcome the common prejudice, based partly on ignorance, against Catholics and Catholicism, to study Church doctrine and practice. As a Religious Hospitaller of St. Joseph, Sister Frances Margaret served the sick and tended to the wounded during the War of 1812, until her death at age 35 of consumption on September 10, 1819.
One of her biographers notes that after her death several family members and friends became Catholics, inspired by her witness. Her erstwhile fiancé, Archibald Hyde, helped build the first church in Burlington, Vermont (which was burned down by anti-Catholic arsonists). One of her brothers-in-law, William Brayton, and a longtime family friend, Cynthia Martin, who married Jabez Penniman after Fanny’s mother died, also followed Fanny into the Catholic Church. The Anglican minister who baptized the laughing Fanny, Daniel Barber, converted and lived near his son Victor after his conversion.
(Father Victor Barber, SJ’s life is worthy of another blog post: he was married, with children, when he left the Episcopal Church. His wife Jerusha became a Visitation nun, he joined the Society of Jesus, and eventually all their children joined religious orders.)
Sister Frances Margaret still has an influence and presence in Vermont. The Religious Hospitallers of St. Joseph established a hospital named for Fanny Allen in 1894 near Burlington on land owned by her step-father Jabez Penniman. It’s now part of the University of Vermont Medical Center.
Like all converts, Fanny Allen had to overcome many obstacles, including the almost inbred fear and hatred of Catholicism of her family and her state. Her conversion surprised many friends at the time because they thought she was too intelligent to accept what they thought of as Catholic superstition. But she was open to assent to truth when she found mysteries that could not be explained by the oracle of reason alone. Thus she found peace and love.
This story originally appeared at the Register on Sept. 14, 2016.