October 24, 2008

From the Editor Emeritus / John F. Fink

Possible saints: Rose Hawthorne Lathrop

John F. Fink(Twenty-second in a series of columns)

Rose Hawthorne Lathrop was born in 1851, the daughter of novelist Nathaniel Hawthorne and Sophie Peabody, who traced her ancestry to the Mayflower at Plymouth Rock. Rose married George Parson Lathrop and they had a son. She also became an acclaimed poet and short-story writer.

When she was 29, their 4-year-old son died. When she was 40, she and George both converted to Catholicism. However, George became an alcoholic and, when Rose was 44, she separated from him. He died of liver disease three years later.

Through all this, Rose was searching for a greater purpose in life. Her parents had instilled in her a compassion for the poor, and she greatly admired St. Vincent de Paul and Father Damien de Veuster, the “leper priest” of Molokai. She finally found her calling when she realized the plight of cancer victims.

Cancer was considered a contagious disease in the late 19th century. Those with the disease were not treated in regular hospitals for fear of exposing other patients. Things came to a head for Rose when she encountered a young girl with cancer who could not afford medical care and had to move to New York’s almshouse on Blackwell’s Island in the middle of the East River.

After taking a three-month nursing course at New York Cancer Hospital, Rose moved to a small house in New York’s Lower East Side. From there, she visited the cancerous poor, wrapped their bandages, cooked their meals and cleaned their homes. Soon, she welcomed a few of the cancer victims into her home.

She realized that she needed help so she advertised in a newspaper, ending her appeal with, “Let the poor, the patient, the destitute, and the hopeless receive from our compassion what we would give to our own families.” A woman named Alice Huber, 36, saw the ad, contacted Rose and moved into her home.

In February 1899, a Dominican priest visiting the home noticed a statue of St. Rose of Lima, Rose’s patron saint. He suggested that the women consider becoming Dominican tertiaries as St. Rose was. With the approval of Archbishop John Corrigan, they did, with Rose taking the religious name Mother Alphonsa and Alice becoming Sister Rose. A year later, the archbishop permitted them to wear the Dominican habit, pronounce vows and form a community they called the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer.

In 1901, with the help of wealthy friends, the women bought nine acres of land, previously the property of French Dominican nuns who had returned to France, 30 miles north of New York in Sherman Park. It included a 60-room building suitable for their patients that Mother Alphonsa named St. Rose’s Home.

Thanks to donated services of doctors, their work with cancer patients flourished. In 1902, the townspeople changed the name of their town to Hawthorne in honor of Rose.

She continued her work, never charging any of her patients, until her death in 1926 at age 75. By then, her community had grown to 31 members. †

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