Mother Mary Alphonsa, Daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, is Now Called a Servant of God

Rose Hawthorne's story, with its hints of literary romance and reality of separation and sorrow, demonstrates how strong the call to holiness can be.

(photo: Register Files)

Nathaniel Hawthorne added the “w” to his last name because one of his ancestors was John Hathorne, a Salem witch trial judge, and he wanted to distance himself from that legacy. Raised in a Calvinist milieu, Hawthorne was not a regular churchgoer, but as anyone who read The Scarlet Letter in high school knows, he was conversant with religious themes of sin, judgement, forgiveness, and mercy. A supporter of Franklin Pierce, the 14th president of the United States, he was rewarded with a diplomatic post—the consulship in Liverpool, England. The Democratic Party did not nominate Pierce to run for a second term, however, and the Hawthorne family toured Portugal, France and Italy in late 1850’s after leaving that post.

Hawthorne’s wife, Sophia Peabody, had been raised a Unitarian and both Nathaniel and Sophia were influenced by the Transcendental Movement, being friends with Bronson Alcott, Henry David Thoreau, and Ralph Waldo Emerson. They had three children, Una, Julian, and Rose. Nothing in the family background could have prepared them for the conversion of their youngest child to the Catholic Church—except perhaps those years in Europe where they encountered “the Roman Church” in art and architecture, music, culture and prayer.


Marriage, Conversion, and Separation

Rose Hawthorne’s conversion to Catholicism in 1891 shocked the family. Her father had died in 1864 and her mother moved the family to Dresden, Germany, where Rose met George Parsons Lathrop. Because of Franco-Prussian War, Sophia moved again, back to England. There she died in 1871; Rose and George were married later that year in an Anglican Church over the objections of her brother and sister; they thought it was too soon after their mother’s death and that Rose was too young and vulnerable to marry.

They had a troubled marriage; he abused alcohol and their only child Francis died of diphtheria in 1881. George edited The Atlantic Monthly and Rose wrote poetry. They lived in New London, Connecticut and took instruction from a Paulist, Father Alfred Young, and were received into the Church. Like many new converts, they were filled with zeal and worked for the Church together on several projects, including the Catholic Summer School Movement and a history of the Visitation Convent in Georgetown.

In 1895, Rose and George took the extraordinary step of asking the Catholic Church for a permanent separation—not an annulment of their marriage—because of George’s instability and alcoholism which endangered Rose. Neither would be free to marry until the other died so they demonstrated their belief in the indissolubility of marriage and in the Sacrament of Matrimony even as they separated. George died of cirrhosis of the liver three years later.


A New Cause; A New Vocation

Rose had witnessed the decline and death of the poet, Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem inscribed at the base of the Statue of Liberty, “The New Colossus”. Rose noted that although there had been no cure for Emma’s cancer, she had been comfortable and cared for during her illness. Rose began to think of those who suffered from the same disease without the same palliative care and studied nursing the New York Cancer Hospital. She went out to the poor in their tenements and opened Sister Rose's Free Home on the lower East Side with the assistance of Alice Huber.

At the same time that she was engaged in such practical nursing and care for the poor. Rose attended daily Mass, went to Confession frequently, prayed, wrote (publishing a collection of family letters as Memories of Hawthorne), and worked to raise funds. At the urging of Father Clement Thuente, O.P., Rose and Alice became Third Order Dominicans. On December 8, 1900, with the approval of the Archbishop of New York, Michael A. Corrigan, Rose founded a new religious order, the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, and became its first Mother Superior with the name Mother Mary Alphonsa. She died on July 9, 1926 when she was 75 years old. Her parents had been married on July 9 in 1842.


Servant of God

The late Edward Cardinal Egan, Archbishop of New York, approved the opening of her cause for canonization in 2003. Her story, with its hints of literary romance and reality of separation and sorrow, demonstrates how strong the call to holiness can be. Out of her disappointment and grief from her failed marriage, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop as Mother Mary Alphonsa found a new vocation and a way to serve the poor and destitute in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century. The Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, as her order is known today, offers this prayer for her canonization on their website:

Lord God, in your special love for the sick, the poor and the lonely, you raised up Rose Hawthorne (Mother Mary Alphonsa) to be the servant of those afflicted with incurable cancer with no one to care for them.  In serving the outcast and the abandoned, she strove to see in them the face of your Son.  In her eyes, those in need were always “Christ’s Poor.”

Grant that her example of selfless charity and her courage in the face of great obstacles will inspire us to be generous in our service of neighbor.  We humbly ask that you glorify your servant, Rose Hawthorne, on earth according to the designs of your holy will. Through her intercession, grant the favor that I now present (here make your request).

Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

She is now called a Servant of God.