She came into the world, according to her father, "kicking valiantly and crying obstreperously." Perhaps she had some premonition of the immense suffering she was destined to endure throughout the course of her life.
We do know that on May 20, 1851, Rose Hawthorne, or "Rose-bud" as her father, the celebrated novelist and short story writer Nathaniel Hawthorne, affectionately called her, was born into an exceptionally happy and loving home. And Nathaniel's love for his daughter was fully reciprocated. Rose, who possessed no small literary gift of her own, once wrote, while reflecting on her stay in Rome as a youngster: "To play a simple game of stones on one of the gray benches in the late afternoon sunshine, with him for courteous opponent, was to feel my eyes, hands, all my being, glow with the fullest human happiness."
During that stay in the "Eternal City," the Hawthorne family was exposed, and most favorably so, to Catholicism. Seeds were planted that were to bear fruit in the lives of the children, especially Rose, many years later. An amusing incident occurred when little Rose left her mother one day and went dashing about in the Vatican Gardens. She suddenly bumped into someone who was walking toward her. It was none other than the Holy Father himself, the saintly Pio Nono (Pope Pius IX). He was most gracious and placed his hand on her tumbled red curls and gave her his blessing. An excited Rose could talk of nothing else all the way home.
Heart of Sorrow
The first great sorrow entered Rose's life when her father died suddenly on the day before her 13th birthday. Seven years later, her mother died of pneumonia. In the autumn of that same year, 1871, Rose married George Lathrop, a talented and aspiring writer. Tragedy, however, soon struck again. The only child they would ever have, Francie, died of diphtheria at the tender age of five. It was a crushing blow for the Lathrops, and they sought many avenues of diversion in order to fill the void left by their child's passing.
The Lathrops embarked on a spiritual journey. They commenced a serious study of Catholicism and began attending Mass with Catholic friends. They were received into the Catholic Church in 1891. Another sorrow, however, was on the horizon. Two years later, husband and wife were separated. It was said that their differences in temperament had finally won out. According to a friend, they were the original two of whom it was said that they could not live together nor apart. This alleged difference in temperament, however, was probably not as corrosive of their marriage as the "illness" which Rose tried her best to keep hidden from the world. George's chronic drinking problem took its toll on him. In 1898, at the age of 46, he died in the hospital of cirrhosis of the liver.
If George sought the comfort of alcohol to assuage his sorrow or to help fill the void created by the loss of his only child, Rose responded by charging straight into the very heart of sorrow. As she once confided to a friend, "A married woman, loving children as I do and bereft of them, must, it seems to me, fill the void in her life with works of charity." What would her beloved father have had her do? Among the first words she remembered him ever saying to her was, "Home duties are not so necessary or loving as duty toward the homeless."
Cancer patients in particular would become the object of her solicitude, especially those dying of incurable cancer. Her good friend Emma Lazarus, who labored for Russia's persecuted Jews, and who wrote the poetic inscription that is found on the base of the Statue of Liberty in New York City, had died of cancer. This tragic and untimely event had a strong influence on how Rose would spend the next 30 years of her life.
Resolute in Suffering
Rose Hawthorne Lathrop had endured a wave of terrible sufferings. Rather than indulge even in a hint of self-pity or any other crippling emotion that would deflect her commitment to performing works of charity, she endured her sufferings and remained steadfast. Aquinas states that endurance (sustenir) is "an action of the soul cleaving most resolutely [fortissimo] to good."1 He writes about how it is much more difficult to endure than to attack, to bear suffering than to become enraged about it.
She took a three-month course at the New York Cancer Hospital. When the course was over, she began the work that would occupy the remaining 30 years of her life. She began caring for those who were dying of incurable cancer and had no compassionate refuge to shelter them through their final days. She began by visiting cancer patients in their homes. She then proceeded to take patients into her own home, but soon needed to move into larger quarters. Using her literary talents, she was able to solicit donations and recruit personal assistance by writing newspaper articles. She also published a small magazine to publicize her work which she called Christ's Poor. Money came in, and volunteers, including medical personnel, offered their services. Rose's apostolate was growing.
On September 14, 1899, Rose Hawthorne became Sr. Mary Alphonsa. She and her close friend, Alice Huber, founded the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer (now known as the Hawthorne Sisters). As members of this newly established branch of the Dominican order, they offered free care to indigent sufferers of incurable cancer. Their work became more widely known and attracted support from far and wide. Novelist Mark Twain became one of their steadiest and most generous benefactors. In a personal letter to Mother Alphonsa, the great humanist assured her that her work would be permanent and would continue to prosper for, as he wrote, it "is banked where it cannot fail until pity fail in the hearts of men. And that will never be."
In time, seven hospitals were built. These hospitals stand today and continue to offer loving care at no cost to incurable cancer patients who have no money of their own.
Sr. Alphonsa strove to put her patients "in such a condition that if Our Lord knocked at the door I should not be ashamed to show what I have done." One day, not God, but the renowned psychiatrist and expert on death and dying, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, knocked on the door of the Rose Hawthorne Lathrop Home in Fall River, Massachusetts. She was so favorably impressed that she cited it in one of her books on death and dying as an ideal environment for the care of the terminally ill.
After Mother Alphonsa died shortly before her 75th birthday, several pages of jottings were found among her effects that attested to her complete acceptance of God's will: "I will obey God anywhere, at any time, with courage. I will see all things through the presence of God, thus freeing myself of personality and forgetting my existence." She exquisitely personified the essential paradox of Christianity that by doing God's will through imitating Christ, we most perfectly realize ourselves.
Mother Alphonsa was humanized through her suffering. Moreover, she used it to build a bridge uniting her not only with others who were suffering, but with Christ crucified. In the process, she found herself through losing herself, preserved her soul from the void of despair, and gave it life in the fullest sense. Despite her self-effacement, Rose Hawthorne (Mother Alphonsa) achieved an unmistakably beautiful personal identity. And the more she deferred to God, the larger she grew in stature. Her sorrow, indeed, built bridges, but bridges with two-way traffic, leading to others and from others back to her loving heart. She not only endured terrible suffering, but she prevailed, and we can all be richer for her moving example. In her own words:
Sorrow, my friend, when shall you come again,
more information on the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne,
Donald. "Endurance." Lay Witness (September/October 2003): 14-15.
Lay Witness is the flagship publication of Catholics United for the Faith. Featuring articles written by leaders in the Catholic Church, each issue of Lay Witness keeps you informed on current events in the Church, the Holy Father's intentions for the month, and provides formation through biblical and catechetical articles with real-life applications for everyday Catholics.
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