Wikimedia // Public Domain
Besides writing The Scarlet Letter (1850) and other famous works, Nathaniel Hawthorne is best known for studying transcendentalism and hanging out with Ralph Waldo Emerson, Henry David Thoreau, and 14th President Franklin Pierce. But his daughter, Rose Hawthorne, had an arguably even more compelling life than her father. Although she belonged to a wealthy Protestant family and had connections to the literary and political elite, she switched careers from writing to nursing at 45 years old. While caring for poor terminal cancer patients in New York City tenements, she became a Catholic nun, founded a religious order, and took a new name. Today, she’s on her way to becoming a saint.
On May 20, 1851, Nathaniel wife's Sophia gave birth to Rose, the couple’s third child, in Massachusetts. Two years later, the Hawthorne family moved to Britain so Nathaniel could work as the American consul in Liverpool. As a child, Rose lived and traveled throughout England, France, and Italy. Though Protestant, she spent time at the Vatican Museum, listened to the chanting of Italian friars, and even saw Pope Pius IX on his balcony. These early experiences likely contributed to her later conversion to Catholicism.
By 1860, the Hawthorne family was back in Concord, Massachusetts. But Nathaniel died four years later after a mysterious illness, and in 1868, Sophia and her children moved to Dresden, Germany for its lower cost of living. When the Franco-Prussian War hit, they escaped to England in 1870, where Sophia died of typhoid the next year.
Less than a year after her mother's death, Hawthorne married George Lathrop, an American writer she had met in Dresden. The couple moved to New York and then Cambridge, where Hawthorne wrote short stories and poetry and Lathrop worked as an assistant editor of the Atlantic Monthly. In 1876, their son Francis was born, but he died of diphtheria in 1881. The couple’s relationship was stormy, and Hawthorne struggled with Lathrop’s alcoholism as well as the death of their son. At the end of the 1880s, they moved to Connecticut and got involved with the Catholic community there, eventually converting to Catholicism together.
In 1895, Hawthorne got permission from the Catholic Church to separate from her alcoholic husband (he died a few years later of cirrhosis). Now single and in her mid-40s, she decided to make a major life change. Inspired partly by hearing a sad story about a seamstress with cancer who died alone in an almshouse, Hawthorne trained to become a nurse and decided to devote the rest of her life to caring for poor, terminally ill patients. “A fire was then lighted in my heart … I set my whole being to endeavor to bring consolation to the cancerous poor,” she wrote.
Hawthorne moved to Manhattan’s Lower East Side, renting rooms in tenements there. She spent her days caring for ill patients, helping sick mothers feed their children, and attending Mass daily. To get donations and support, she also wrote articles and newsletters about her mission. Although most of her contemporaries thought cancer was contagious, Hawthorne didn't treat her patients as pariahs. Instead, she aimed to fulfill what she thought of as God’s will by alleviating their suffering and giving them dignity before they died.
In 1897, Alice Huber, an artist who read about Hawthorne's work, joined her as a volunteer, eventually working full-time with her to care for the sick. Two year later, Hawthorne and Huber raised money from New Yorkers to open a house in lower Manhattan, which they called St. Rose’s Free Home for Incurable Cancer, after Saint Rose of Lima. In 1900, after a Dominican friar vouched for them, the New York Archbishop approved Hawthorne and Huber to take their vows, wear Dominican habits, and become nuns. Hawthorne, who took the name Mother Mary Alphonsa, founded a religious order, The Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, later called the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne.
Mother Alphonsa also started a magazine called Christ’s Poor to publicize and raise money for her charitable work. The project was successful—writer Mark Twain made regular donations. Until her death in 1926, Mother Alphonsa continued her mission to care for impoverished people with terminal cancer.
In 2003, the Archdiocese of New York commissioned a tribunal to study her life and deeds, as well as her writings. A decade later, the Vatican received documents in favor of her canonization. Although it could take years for the Pope to decide if Mother Alphonsa will become a saint—among other hurdles, there must be proof she committed two miracles—her legacy of selflessness, generosity, and courage continues. Today, the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne operate three homes—Rosary Hill, Sacred Heart, and Our Lady of Perpetual Help—in New York, Pennsylvania, and Georgia, respectively. These homes offer free palliative nursing care for patients with incurable cancer, continuing the work that Mother Alphonsa began over a century ago.