Rose Hawthorne was born on May 20, 1851 in Lenox, Massachusetts, the youngest child of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne, famed American author of The Scarlet Letter and other novels. As were many New Englanders of the time, the Hawthorne family were Unitarians and active in the Transcendental Movement.
When Rose was two, her father accepted an appointment as the American Consulate in England. The family spent the next seven years traveling Europe, to many of the Catholic countries there, and Rose experienced her first encounters with the Roman Catholic Church. She recalled seeing Pope Pius IX from his balcony during Holy Week one year. She wrote, “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.”
By 1860, the Hawthornes were back in Massachusetts, living in Concord, with the Alcotts and Emerson family as neighbors and regular visits by such prominent literary giants as Henry David Thoreau and Herman Melville.
Nathaniel Hawthorne’s death in 1964 changed the family’s financial situation drastically for the worst, and Sophia could no longer afford the high cost of living and education in New England. She moved the family to Dresden, Germany, where her American holdings were of greater value.
It was in Dresden that Rose first met George Parsons Lathrop, son of a prominent New York doctor, who was studying law in Germany, but who had his heart set on being a writer. The Hawthornes moved back to England and George, after studying for a while at Columbia University back in the U. S., moved to England as well, in 1871, where George began to court Rose.
Sophia died in 1871. George came to the aid of Rose and her sister, Una, while their oldest brother, Julian, planned to return to his sisters from America. George and Rose announced their engagement, but her brother and aunt were opposed. They felt that George was not mature enough and were concerned that Rose’s decision was influenced by the grief she felt over her mother’s recent death. Nevertheless, Rose and George were married at the Anglican Church of St. Luke in Chelsea, England.
As the family feared, Rose and George’s first years together were difficult, including financial strain. A son, Francis, was born in 1976, giving both parents much joy. Tragically, they lost “Francie” to diphtheria in 1881. In his grief, George turned to alcohol and both he and Rose absorbed themselves in their literary careers and social engagements.
To the shock of family and friends alike, Rose and George were received together into the Roman Catholic Church on March 19, 1991, the Feast of St. Joseph, at St. Paul the Apostle Catholic Church in New York. There really should have been no surprise. The Lathrops had recently moved to New London, Connecticut, and there became fast friends with Alfred and Adelaide Huntington Chappel, both active in the Lathrop’s social circle and both recent converts to Catholicism. They moved Rose and George with the testimony of their faith and the example of their lives. They also met Fr. Alfred Young, CSP, a Paulist father and disciple of Fr. Isaac Hecker, founder of the Paulists, who was himself a convert from Transcendentalism. Both Alfreds, Chappel and Fr. Young, introduced the Lathrop’s to writings in Catholic spirituality and doctrine.
Rose and George became dedicated to their work for the Church, founding the Catholic Summer School Movement in New London and in Plattsburg, New York. They were commissioned by the Georgetown Visitation Nuns to write the history of their convent.
Sadly, George’s drinking and erratic behavior forced Rose to seek from and receive permission from the Church for a formal separation, believing it had become to dangerous for her to continue living with him. The separation was announced in 1895. From that point on Rose dedicated herself even more to her commitment to Christ and to a way to serve His Body in charity. Fr. Young described to her the plight of a seamstress who suffered with cancer and was unable to support herself financially or find support within her family. As such, she was sent to Blackwell’s Island, where resided New York’s prisons and sanitariums. There the woman died, without comfort or medical care. At that point Rose said a fire was lit in her heart. “I set my whole being to the endeavor to bring consolation to the cancerous poor.” She enrolled in the nurse’s training course at New York Cancer Hospital.
In 1896, after completion of the nursing training, Rose took a streetcar to the Lower East Side, the poorest area of the City. There, she rented rooms in a cold water flat near Grant Street. She wrote the commissioner of health and charities, communicating her plan to help the destitute ill, though she at the time had no plan of care and had secured no financial support. Even still, she received a commission and began her work. As she cared for the cancerous poor with the few resources she had, she came across others who needed her help: widows with children who couldn’t pay their rent, those suffering consumption, those with other wounds and injuries. She did housework, paid rent and met the needs of the poor and ill as best she could. A homeless woman with cancer of the face asked to live with her, and Rose took her in. She wrote that she desired 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.”
Consumed by her work, Rose still made time for daily Mass, frequent confession, the recitation of litanies and novenas, and spiritual direction. She wrote a book, Memories of Hawthorne, and made appeals for assistance in newspapers. One of these appeals reached the eyes of Alice Huber, an art student and daughter of a Kentucky physician. Ms. Huber joined Rose and became her companion on religious life. In 1899, Father Clement Thuente, O.P, a young Dominican from St. Vincent Ferrer priory, visited Rose while she cared for the poor. Impressed with her work and inspired by a statue of St. Rose of Lima in her tenement apartment, Fr. Thuente promised his spiritual support and encouraged Rose and her companions to become Dominican Tertiaries.
George died in 1898, and Rose was a widow. The next year, with the financial backing of influential New Yorkers, Rose acquired a house on Walter Street. Dedicated to St. Rose of Lima, St. Rose’s Free Home for Incurable Cancer opened, and Rose took in fifteen poor cancer patients. On September 14, 1899, Rose and Alice Huber were received as Dominican Tertiaries and Fr. Thuente continued their novitiate training to enter religious life. Archbishop Michael A. Corrigan of New York granted his permission for the formation of a new community of Dominican Sisters, the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, founded on December 8, 1900. Rose Lathrop Hawthorn became Mother Mary Alphonsa and Alice Huber became Mother Rose. The home moved from Walter Street to Cherry Street, and then to a community just north of the City in what is now Rosary Hill Home in Hawthorne. The Sisters are now known as the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne. For the next quarter century, Mother Alphonsa dedicated her life to the service of the cancerous poor in her home, and now the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne support seven such homes in six states.
After a long and dedicated life of service to the poor in the Name of her Savior, Jesus Christ, Mother Alphona passed to her heavenly reward on July 9, 1926 at Rosary Hill Home, Hawthorne, New York, in the Motherhouse of the Congregation.
In 2003, Edward Cardinal Egan of New York formally opened the cause for Rose’s canonization and she was given the title, “Servant of God.”
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.
Most Sacred Heart of Jesus, have mercy on us (3 times)
Our Father, Hail Mary, Glory be to the Father
Be Christ for all. Bring Christ to all. See Christ in all.