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Rose Hawthorne’s remarkable life story in the spotlight as sainthood cause advances

Rose Hawthorne, daughter of author Nathaniel Hawthorne, is pictured in a photo taken before her work with cancer patients. Later known as Mother Mary Alphonsa, she founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, N.Y., and Rosary Hill Home, a Dominican-run facility in Hawthorne. Pope Francis advanced her sainthood cause March 14, 2024, declaring her venerable. (OSV News file photo)

(OSV News) — Losing a young child. Struggling in a troubled marriage with an alcoholic husband. Separating, starting a nursing career in midlife, downsizing to a rental apartment and becoming a widow.

And now, moving one step closer to sainthood.

On March 14, Pope Francis authorized the Dicastery for the Causes of Saints to decree as “venerable” Mother Mary Alphonsa Hawthorne — also known as Rose Hawthorne, the daughter of an American literary icon and founder of the Congregation of the Dominican Sisters of St. Rose of Lima.

Her extraordinary journey from 19th-century U.S. and European literary circles to religious life and caring for the critically-ill poor is “very relevant” to the faithful today, Mother Marie Edward Deutsch, superior general of the Hawthorne Dominicans, told OSV News.

Born in 1851 in Massachusetts as the third child of writer Nathaniel Hawthorne and his wife, Sophia Peabody, Rose Hawthorne enjoyed a comfortable life as her father gained literary acclaim. She grew up in England, where her father had been appointed U.S. consul in 1853, and during their travels through Europe, the Protestant Hawthorne family encountered Catholicism.

The Hawthornes returned to the U.S. in 1860, but four years after Nathaniel’s death in 1864, Sophia moved the family to Germany to conserve finances amid New England’s high cost of living. In Dresden, Rose met fellow American expat, George Parsons Lathrop, an aspiring writer from a prominent family. The Hawthornes returned to England, followed by Lathrop. Shortly after her mother’s death in 1871, Rose — over the objections of her family — married Lathrop in the Anglican Church.

The couple struggled with financial difficulties and with the loss of their 5-year-old son Francis (“Francie”) to diphtheria in 1881. Over the subsequent decade, Rose and George pursued their literary careers, but the latter’s depression and alcoholism began to strain their union.

Returning to the U.S., the Lathrops settled in Connecticut and, to the shock of many friends, converted to Catholicism. The husband and wife founded the Catholic Summer School Movement in Connecticut and New York, and co-wrote a history of the Georgetown Visitation convent.

However, the Lathrops’ marriage foundered due to George’s alcoholism, and Rose sought church permission for a permanent separation in 1895. She then focused on a life of charity and service, training as a nurse at age 45 to serve the poor, especially those with cancer — and she was at the bedside of her former husband when he died of kidney and heart disease in 1898.

Following George’s death, she established St. Rose’s Free Home for Incurable Cancer, dedicated to St. Rose of Lima, in New York. In 1900, she received official church approval to found her order, now known as the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, Congregation of St. Rose of Lima.

Hawthorne died in 1926, and her cause for canonization was opened in 2003 by the late Cardinal Edward M. Egan of New York, and submitted to the Vatican in 2013.

Today, the order has 47 sisters and cares for “around 45 to 50” incurably ill patients between its two facilities in Hawthorne, New York, and Atlanta, Mother Marie Edward said, adding that the charism of their foundress continues to infuse the sisters’ day-to-day ministry.

“We’ve always known her to be a saint,” Mother Marie Edward said. “She could not have done what she did without having heroic virtue.”

A patient is pictured in a file photo chatting with Dominican Sister Catherine Marie at Rosary Hill Home, a Dominican-run facility in Hawthorne, N.Y., that provides palliative care to people with incurable cancer and are in financial need. Rosary Hill was founded by Rose Hawthorne, later known as Mother Mary Alphonsa. She also founded the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, and on March 14, 2024, advanced her sainthood cause by declaring her venerable. (OSV News photo/Gregory A. Shemitz)

Mother Marie Edward said once Hawthorne accepted the Catholic faith, “she just kind of ran with it.”

“Her growth in sanctity was astounding at certain parts of her life, because I think she was hungering so much for God,” Mother Marie Edward said, noting that the Catholic faith enabled Hawthorne to navigate “the loss of her child when he was so young and (her) marriage (which was) a tremendous frustration.”

“I think that the fulfillment came as soon as she received the grace of baptism and the knowledge of the richness of the Catholic Church,” said Mother Marie Edward, who announced the news to her fellow sisters over the Hawthorne community’s public address system and alerted their sisters in Atlanta.

Mother Marie Edward said the beauty of Hawthorne’s charism was “her dependence upon the providence of God.”

“(That) has carried over to this day where we still do not take any payment — Medicare, Medicaid, insurance, anything — for the patient’s care” in the order’s homes, she said. “It’s all (funded) by the benefactors that have been so generous to us over these … 123 years.”

Following the pope’s announcement, the community is mulling a request to Hawthorne’s postulator in Rome for the transfer of their foundress’ remains to their chapel in Hawthorne, New York, Mother Marie Edward added.

Mother Marie Edward said she could not speak regarding any possible canonization miracles that may have been effected through Hawthorne’s intercession — but noted that she and her fellow sisters have an “intuition” any such miracle might be “related to a child,” since Francie’s death at age 5 “broke her heart.”

She said Cardinal Timothy M. Dolan of New York, who extended congratulations to the order, told her, “If it weren’t Lent, I would say ‘Alleluia.'”

Mother Marie Edward’s response was even more succinct.

“Our dear mother,” she said.

Gina Christian is a multimedia reporter for OSV News. Follow her on X (formerly Twitter) at @GinaJesseReina.

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