Rose Hawthorne was the third and last child born to Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne on May 20, 1851 in Lenox, Massachusetts. Born into well-rooted American families, Rose’s lineage traced back to the original Massachusetts Bay Colonists who first settled on Plymouth Rock. Her parents sought a Christian life, which evolved out of their Puritan heritage and found its expressions in the Unitarian Church and the Transcendental Movement.
Nathaniel, renowned today as a historic American author, was just beginning to reap the benefits of literary fame and financial stability at about the time of Rose’s birth. In 1853 Nathaniel accepted the political appointment of American Consulate to England and moved his small family of five, including two-year-old Rose, near Liverpool, England. Rose spent the next seven very formative years of her life in Europe. Their travels through England, Portugal, France and Italy exposed the Hawthornes to the “Roman Church,” often misunderstood in the Protestant circles of New England. Later Rose would write of her experience at the age of seven of seeing Pope Pius IX during Holy Week from his balcony: “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 with an excellent likeness thereon, both always tenderly reverenced by me.”
In 1860, the Hawthornes were once again living in Concord, Massachusetts. Their home, the Wayside, stood among the homes of the Alcott and the Emerson families. Along with these, other figures of literary fame such as Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville visited Nathaniel and Sophia. Sophia’s family was very influential in the education system of New England. Rose approached adolescence in the mainstream of America’s intellectuals, social reformers and artists.
Life changed for the Hawthorne family after Nathaniel’s death in 1864. Sophia tried to maintain a high level of social and educational life for her children, but the inflated cost of New England life was draining her financially. In 1868 she moved her family to Dresden, Germany greatly increasing the value of her American holdings and continuing the education of her children.
In Dresden, Rose first met George Parsons Lathrop. George, like Rose, was born into a notable American family. His father an eminent New York doctor served the American Consulate in the Marine Hospital of Honolulu where George was born in August 1851. George was preparing for law school in a well-known university preparatory school in Dresden, yet he had his heart set on being a writer. During the Franco Prussian war the Hawthornes moved to England. George initially returned to the States to study at Columbia University; then moved to England in 1871.
While in England, Rose continued her art classes at the Kennsington Art School. Sophia became ill and died February 1871. George Parsons Lathrop came to the aid of Rose and her sister Una, while Julian, Rose’s brother, was attempting passage from America. When George and Rose announced their plans to be married so soon after Sophia’s death, Julian along with Aunt Elizabeth Peabody voiced strong dissent. They felt that George was not mature and that Rose was not able to make a consciously free decision while still grieving the loss of her mother. On September 11, 1871, George and Rose were married in the Anglican Church of St Luke in Chelsea, England.
As Rose’s family feared, the marriage was beset by insurmountable difficulties including financial strain. But in 1876 a bright light of hope and joy shone in their lives in their newborn son Francis. That light went out on February 6, 1881 when Francie died of diphtheria. Through the next ten years of their lives, Rose and George became very absorbed in their literary careers and their social events. Alcohol betrayed the grief and depression that George battled even as he continued to produce literary works of note, fought for the cause of standardized international copy write laws and edited the Atlantic Monthly. Rose found some expression in writing poetry as well as short stories and partaking in the musings of friends such as Emma Lazarus and Helena de Kay Gilder.
Not long after they built a new home in New London, Connecticut, George and Rose were received into the Roman Catholic Church under the instruction of Father Alfred Young, C.S.P. at Saint Paul the Apostle Church, New York City on the feast of Saint Joseph, March 19, 1891. To many of their old friends this conversion came as a shock; but to Rose and George it was grace filled and inspired by many factors including the exemplary lives of Alfred and Adelaide Huntington Chappel also converts and socialites of their New London community. Father Alfred Young no doubt was the perfect instructor for the intellectual couple. Father Young was a student of the Paulist founder Father Isaac Hecker, a convert and former Transcendentalist. Father Young and Alfred Chappel introduced Rose and George to Catholic writings such as Cardinal Gibbons’ Faith of Our Fathers, Monsignor Capel’s The Faith of Catholics and Cardinal Nicholas Wiseman’s Lectures on Doctrines of the Church.
In their new lives as Catholics, George and Rose attempted to devote themselves to work for the Church. They initiated the founding of the Catholic Summer School Movement in New London, Connecticut and Plattsburg, New York. Through this effort, they met devoted and gifted Catholic educators and evangelizers. Dr. James J. Walsh, M.D., who later would become Mother Alphonsa’s first biographer, was a distinguished member of this cause. Together George and Rose were commissioned by the Georgetown Visitation Nuns to write the history of their convent.
When the formal separation of Rose and George was published in 1895, only those closest to them understood the years of struggle and difficulties these two individuals shared in their married lives. Rose intimates in letters to relatives and friends that George’s intemperance had become so severe with behavioral manifestations that she felt it was dangerous to continue living with him. After seeking permission from the Church for a permanent separation, Rose, unlike George, became resolute in her decision to live apart and to focus her life on Christ while finding a noble work of charity in accord with the Church.
Rose was forty-five years old when she enrolled herself in a nurses’ training course at the New York Cancer Hospital. What prompted her to take this step was the description of a poor seamstress related to her by Father Young. The seamstress became afflicted with cancer, the dreaded disease of the day, and unable to maintain an income or rely on family to care for her was sent to Blackwell’s Island, the city’s site of prisons and sanitariums, to die in an almshouse devoid of medical or skilled nursing care. While questioning who should be responsible for such poor souls she realized: “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.”
After completing the nurses’ course, she took a streetcar downtown getting off in the most destitute area of the City, the Lower East Side. She rented rooms in a cold water flat near Grant Street; then sought permission from the office of the commissioner of health and charities stating her purpose clearly although without a documented plan or an outline of financial support. Surprisingly she received approval from the official on duty. Her next battle was to win the trust of the people she sought to serve. From the start her purpose was to care for the poor afflicted with cancer and to obtain the means and ways to do this; however as she set out to serve she found herself confronted with many charitable tasks for other needs as well. She did housework and served food to the children of young mothers with consumption. She paid the rent for other young widows with small children. Elderly men and women came to her with leg ulcers. Gradually she won the approval of her poor neighbors; and finally, after a homeless woman with cancer of the face asked to live with her in her clean but impoverished flat, she realized that she could: “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.”
While this work took up a great portion of her strength and time, she records in her diary daily Mass attendance, frequent confession, the recitation of litanies and novenas, and spiritual direction. She also managed to complete her book Memories of Hawthorne as well as make appeals in the newspapers of the day. It was through one of these appeals that Alice Huber, an art student and daughter of a Kentucky physician came to assist her and become her companion in religious life.
In February of 1899 a young Dominican, Father Clement Thuente, O.P from Saint Vincent Ferrer Priory paid Mrs. Lathrop a visit as she nursed one of his poor parishioners. Impressed with the work of Rose and her companions and inspired by a small Statue of Saint Rose of Lima in their tenement dwelling, he pledged his spiritual support and guidance and encouraged them to become Dominican Tertiaries.
By May of 1899, Rose had been a widow for a full year. With Alice Huber and the financial support of influential New Yorkers, she acquired a house on Cherry Street where she lived and cared for fifteen poor cancerous women. Their establishment, St Rose’s Free Home for Incurable Cancer, was dedicated to St. Rose of Lima. From 1896, the first days of her work on the Lower East Side, Mrs. Lathrop sought the approval of Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan. On September 14, 1899 he granted Father Thuente permission to receive Rose and Alice as Dominican Tertiaries. Father Theunte continued to prepare the women for religious life amidst their exhausting work.
In November 1900 Archbishop Corrigan surprised Father Thuente by his approval of December 8, of the same year as the founding day for the new community of Dominican Sisters: “You have passed through a long, hard novitiate and I am going to give you permission to wear the Dominican Habit, pronounce your first vows and form a Community.”
From this beginning the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, Congregation of Saint Rose of Lima have revered Mother Alphonsa as their foundress and intercessor. Her vision has sustained them as they have extended their care in the establishment of seven nursing facilities in six different states, all owned and operated by the community. Thousands of the poor with cancer have been cared for in this way and always it was Mother Alphonsa’s example and teaching about the religious life that has been handed down from generation to generation. All patients are cared for free of charge without any government subsidies. Through Mother Alphonsa’s carefully outlined directives the Community to this day is wonderfully sustained financially through the providence of God.
For thirty years Mother Alphonsa’s life, dedicated to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, was at the service of the poor. She placed herself “at the foot of the cross alongside our Blessed Mother” and thus became a servant of those afflicted with incurable cancer. She died July 9, 1926 at Rosary Hill Home, Hawthorne, New York, in the Motherhouse of the Congregation.