Wednesday, July 1, 2015


Painting of Martyrs of Memphis
During the eight years that I've been living part of the year on The Mountain at Sewanee, Tennessee, I spend my "worship time" at St. Mary's Convent and have become an Associate of the Order of St. Mary. St. Mary's is a Benedictine Order, and the Sisters, Oblates, and Associates live according to a Rule that is a model of spiritual development—a Rule that, as writer Joan Chittister says, "is more wisdom than law...a way of life." (If readers want to know more about the Benedictine way of life, I refer you to the works of Joan Chittister and Esther de Waal, both of whom are scholars and members of the Order of St. Benedict).

Although I knew that the Order of St. Mary was not confined to The Mountain here at Sewanee, I didn't appreciate its far-reaching influence until I attended the annual Associates Retreat a week ago and joined in the celebration of fifteen decades of their history. At that gathering, speakers presented programs highlighting the ministry and hospitality of Sisters of St. Mary in the Philippines, New York, and Malawi, as well as that of our Order of St. Mary on The Mountain. Other speakers included women who attend historic St. Mary's Cathedral in Memphis, near which the Martyrs of Memphis—Constance and her companions of the Order of St. Mary—served during the 1878 Yellow Fever epidemic.

When one of the retreat speakers talked about her correspondence with the Order of the Sisters of St. Mary in Malawi, Africa and her plans for a trip there this year, I suddenly recognized that her description of the installation of an Episcopal Bishop in Malawi was similar to one that my good friend, Jane Bonin of Washington, D.C., a former Peace Corps worker, published in The Color Of A Lion's Eye a few weeks ago.

Bishop Biggers of Mississippi whom the speaker mentioned was the same bishop whose installation Jane had attended while stationed in Malawi. What Jane didn't know is that The Rt. Rev. Biggers later established an Order of St. Mary in Malawi that is still active. The speaker who will soon be going to Malawi wrote down the particulars for ordering Jane's book, and I called Jane in Washington to tell her about the Order of St. Mary that was established on her old work turf. I felt as though I had helped "connect the dots" for the work of the Sisters.

I had often heard about Constance and her companions from readings in the Episcopal Church's Calendar of Lesser Feasts and Fasts on September 9 each year, but I was moved by a reading the last day of our retreat that featured volunteer "players" who dramatized the work of Sisters Constance, Thecla, and other devoted Sisters of St. Mary. Sisters Constance and Thecla had come down from Peekskill, New York to Tennessee when they received word that Yellow Fever had struck in Memphis. The two Sisters were vacationing in the mountains of New York when they heard about the epidemic and immediately left their retreat to minister in St. Mary's Cathedral in Memphis. Prior to their Yellow Fever mission, they had managed St. Mary's School for Girls and the Church Home (both still operating) in Memphis. They began ministering in the middle of the infected section of Memphis and were on 24-hour call at St. Mary's Cathedral. They were joined by Sisters Ruth, Frances, and Hughetta, who exposed themselves to the disease while providing the Sacraments, working as nurses, taking in orphans, burying the dead, and feeding hungry people.

The Sisters were joined by The Rev. Charles Carroll Parsons, rector of St. Lazarus and Grace Churches in Memphis, The Rev. W. T. Dickenson Dalzell of St. Mark's Church, Shreveport, Louisiana, and the Rev. Louis S. Schuyler, a priest from Holy Innocents Church, Hoboken, New Jersey. The only survivor in this group of clergymen was the Rev. W. T. Dalzell who had become immune to the disease because he had suffered from the fever while serving military duty. Sr. Hughetta Snowden was the only Sister to survive the plague. During the epidemic, half the city's population of over 50,000 fled, and 5,000 died, and the Sisters of St. Mary's struggles at that time are documented in letters and diary entries that were pieced together to form a narrative for the reading that I heard at the retreat.

The speakers at this retreat gave me a wider lens with which to view the work of the Order of St. Mary's—i.e., the evangelization aspects of an Order whose Sisters practice solitude and contemplation but who are also involved in social justice and in extending charity to the neighborhood of the entire human community.

Note: For those readers interested in the history of the communities of the Sisters of St. Mary, Ten Decades of Praise by Sister Mary Hilary, CSM, is available at

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