Servant of God Mother Mary Alphonsa, formerly Rose Hawthorne Lathrop (1851-1926), founded an order of Dominican sisters that cares for incurably ill cancer patients.
The daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, Rose was born in Massachusetts and raised in Europe. Her mother and sister both died in England. Rose would know much loss throughout her life.
In 1871, she married George Parsons Lathrop. The couple settled in Boston and had a son, Francis, who died of diphtheria at the age of five. In 1891, they both converted to Catholicism. But George, an alcoholic, became increasingly violent and unstable. They separated in 1895. George died of cirrhosis three years later.
In the late 1800s, cancer was thought to be contagious. Few hospitals would accept or treat those who suffered from it.
Moved by the story of a penniless seamstress who was suffering from cancer and had died in an almshouse for the insane, Rose would later write: "A fire was then lighted in my heart, where it still burns."
At the age of forty-five, she took a course in nursing, then rented a three-room tenement in New York's Lower East Side in which to welcome and care for terminal cancer patients. She was soon joined by a helper, Alice Huber.
In 1900, they founded a community that came to be known as the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer. Rose was elected superior and was henceforth known as Mother Mary Alphonsa.
From the beginning, the sisters took a radical vow of poverty and refused any form of compensation for their work.
Father Gabriel O'Donnell, O.P., the postulator for her beatification, observed: "This lady...decided to live among the poor, to beg for them as they did for themselves, and to establish a home where they could live in dignity, cleanliness, and ease as they faced their final days on earth."
After staying up late to write fundraising letters, Mother Mary died in her sleep on July 9, 1926.
The community, now known as the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, to this day refuses money from patients, their families, private insurance, or any governmental entity.
The Catholic short-story writer and novelist Flannery O'Connor came across the sisters in 1960. From the home they ran in Atlanta, the religious sisters asked her help in writing a book about a girl named Mary Ann whose face had been disfigured since infancy by a cancerous tumor, who had lived at the home for nine years, and who had died there at twelve, touching all whom she met by her spirit and good cheer.
Notoriously wary of sentimentality, O'Connor at first steered clear of the project. Won over by the sisters' clear-eyed compassion, however, she ended up writing the introduction to A Memoir of Mary Ann.
"Most of us," she observed, "have learned to be dispassionate about evil, to look it in the face and find, as often as not, our own grinning reflections with which we do not argue, but good is another matter. Few have stared long enough to accept the fact that its face too is grotesque, that in us the good is something under construction."
Heather King. "Servant of God Mother Mary Alphonsa." excerpt from Magnificat (October 2016).
Reprinted with permission from Magnificat.
Heather King is a sober alcoholic, an ex-lawyer, a Catholic convert, and a full-time writer. She is the author of: Parched, Redeemed: Stumbling Toward God, Marginal Sanity, and the Peace That Passes All Understanding, Shirt of Flame: A Year with St. Thérèse of Lisieux, Poor Baby, Stripped, Holy Days and Gospel Reflections, and Stumble: Virtue, Vice, and the Space Between. She lives in Los Angeles. Visit her website here.Copyright © 2016 Magnificat
back to top