Rose Hawthorne Declared ‘Venerable’

Daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne continues on path to sainthood.

Rose Hawthorne was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, into a family that was able to trace its lineage back to the earliest Massachusetts Bay colonists.
Rose Hawthorne was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, into a family that was able to trace its lineage back to the earliest Massachusetts Bay colonists. (photo: Courtesy photo / Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne)

The Vatican’s Congregation of Saints in Rome recognized the heroic virtues of Mother Mary Alphonsa (Rose Hawthorne, 1851-1926), declaring her “Venerable” on Thursday.  

Mother Alphonsa is the youngest of three children of Sophia Peabody and American author Nathaniel Hawthorne (1804-64), whose famous literary works include The Scarlet Letter and The House of the Seven Gables. Rose converted to Catholicism in 1891, and after she was widowed, she went on to found the religious community typically known today as the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne or Hawthorne Dominicans. New York archbishop Cardinal Edward Egan opened her cause for canonization in 2003.

Rose Hawthorne was born in Lenox, Massachusetts, into a family that was able to trace its lineage back to the earliest Massachusetts Bay colonists. Her religious influences growing up included the Unitarian Church and the Transcendental movement. Dominican Mother Marie Edward, superior of the Hawthorne Dominicans, told the Register that Nathaniel Hawthorne’s Puritan background and his desire for simplicity and plainness led to his distaste for the pomp and celebration he observed in the Catholic Church. One exception, Mother Marie Edward noted, was the sacrament of confession: “Although he didn’t have the Catholic’s understanding of it, he did see the great relief bearing one’s soul to another could have.”

The family read the Bible at home and, interestingly enough, also the Catholic spiritual classic The Imitation of Christ by Thomas à Kempis.

Nathaniel was a college friend and supporter of the 14th president of the United States, Franklin Pierce, who rewarded him with a diplomatic post in England. Therefore, as a girl, Rose was introduced to the “Roman Church” while visiting England, France, Portugal and Italy. At age 7, Rose saw Pope Pius IX during Holy Week from his balcony. She recalled:

“I became eloquent about the Pope, and was rewarded by a gift from my mother of a little medallion of him and a gold scudo [coin] with an excellent likeness thereon, both always tenderly reverenced by me.”

Another positive influence was the piety of the Catholic servants assigned to them while in Europe. Before they returned home, Rose’s parents had the children baptized in the Unitarian Church.

The family returned to the United States and lived for a time in Concord, Massachusetts. While not wealthy, they enjoyed many privileges, including society parties and visits by such popular literary figures as Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville.  

Nathaniel was in ill health, however, and died in 1864. Sophia died in 1871.

Acting impulsively and against the wishes of her family, Rose married George Parsons Lathrop. They lived in Connecticut, where George served as editor of Atlantic Monthly, while Rose wrote poetry and short stories. It was an unhappy union, as George was an alcoholic. Mother Marie Edward noted that while Rose never spoke of George’s vices, she once related in her writings that “George was becoming dangerous to live with.” 

Additionally, although the marriage produced one child, Francis, he died of diphtheria at age 4.

The couple converted to Catholicism in 1891. And, although Rose had suffered much, Mother Marie Edward related, “She had been so emptied out of self in her suffering that the beauty of the graces she received flourished in her.”

Rose and George separated in 1895, and he died in 1898. Desiring to commit herself to a good work, Rose studied nursing at New York Cancer Hospital, recalling that “a fire was then lighted in my heart, where it still burns. … I set my whole being to endeavor to bring consolation to the cancerous poor.”

In pursuing this new direction in life, Mother Marie Edward explained, Rose “wanted to be useful. She had had enough of being a socialite and wanted to do something for God and the poor.”

Rose went to work ministering in New York’s Lower East Side. She sought to “take the lowest class both in poverty and suffering [the cancerous poor] and put them in such a condition, that if Our Lord knocked at the door we would not be ashamed to show what we had done.”

Another woman, Alice Huber, joined in her work, the first of many. They became Third Order Dominicans and opened a home for the suffering poor in New York named for St. Rose of Lima in 1899. The following year, Archbishop of New York Michael Corrigan approved the Hawthorne Dominicans with Rose, now Mother Mary Alphonsa, as superior.

More women joined the community, and additional homes to serve the sick were opened, starting with Rose Hill Home in a New York City suburb in 1901 (the community was later named Hawthorne in honor of Mother Alphonsa’s father). Six other homes would open around the country. Mother Alphonsa continued her work until 1926, when she died at age 75.  

Today, the Hawthorne Sisters have 47 members and are consolidated in two homes, the Rosary Hill Home motherhouse in New York and a second home in Atlanta. Continuing Mother Alphonsa’s work, they serve about 45 terminally ill cancer patients, both men and women, of all religious backgrounds. Their homes are skilled nursing facilities offering palliative care. Patients must have a financial need. All services are offered free of charge, funded by generous benefactors, as the sisters do not accept either government funding or money from private insurance.

The sisters wear a traditional habit and share a common life; there are currently eight women in various stages of formation.

Mother Marie Edward joined the community in 1979 because it was the place she believed “God wanted me to be.”  

Sister Mary Joseph told the Register she joined the community in 1978, attracted by the traditional habit (at a time when many communities were no longer wearing them) and a desire “to help those who are dying and have no one else to care for them.”

Sister Mary Joseph continued, “Our patients typically have no family, so we become their family. In this way, they’re no longer alone.”

Both are delighted at Mother Alphonsa being declared “Venerable.”  

Mother Marie Edward believes “she demonstrates to us heroic charity and an astounding faith in God.”  

Dominican Sister Mary Joseph added, “She was also courageous. She took in cancer patients at a time when families were putting family members with cancer out of their homes, as the common belief at the time was that cancer was contagious.”

Mother Marie Edward concluded, “Mother Alphonsa received a unique charism from the Holy Spirit in order to do what she did. Once we entered the Hawthorne Dominicans and professed vows, we received that charism and continue Mother Alphonsa’s work. However, ultimately, the work is not hers, but God’s.”