“I am trying to serve the poor as a servant. I wish to serve the cancerous poor because they are avoided more than any other class of sufferers; and I wish to go them as a poor creature myself, though powerful to help through the open-handed gifts of public kindness, because it is by humility and sacrifice that we become worthy to feel the holy spirit of pity and to carry into the disorders of destitute sickness the cheerful love we have gathered from the Heavenly Kingdom for distribution.”
These words of Mother M. Alphonsa Lathrop, foundress, and until her unexpected death on July 9, 1926, Superior General of the Dominican Congregation of St. Rose of Lima—the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer—memorably embody the special work to which, once she had taken it up, she devoted herself until summoned to give an account of her stewardship.
Of a long line of Puritan ancestors, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the daughter of Natahaniel Hawthorne, with her husband, George Parsons Lathrop, withdrew from the Unitarianism professed by her immediate family, and was received into the Catholic Church. Shortly afterward, and not long before the death of Mr. Lathrop, they both united in writing a last book, “The Story of Courage.”
Conversing with her spiritual director, a Paulist Father in New York, Mrs. Lathrop on an occasion asked: “What can I do for God?” The priest had just come from the bedside of a cancer patient—a woman of refinement, left without money and without friends, who had become a city charge at Blackwell’s Island. This and all the misery it meant told his listener. “Oh.” She exclaimed, “why do any of us sit idle when such suffering exists!” It was then that her resolve was made. Within a few weeks she had entered the Memorial Hospital (for cancer cases) at Central Park West and 106th Street, New York City, for training in the nursing of such patients.
In 1896, and in New York City, Mrs. Lathrop was ready to begin her life-work for God. Her first patient—a worn-out old woman deserted by her family—she not only nursed but took to rooms she rented on Scammel Street, and there she, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, scrubbed the floors, cooked the meals, and did all for the care and relief of her poor suffering patient. In the corner of one of the rooms she set up a little shrine. It was to the Dominican saint, St. Rose of Lima.
Other patients were commended to her, and to provide for them larger quarters being required, a frame house on Water Street, also on the lower East Side of the city, was secured, and transfer made to it. It was to this house that in mid-December of 1897 Miss Alice Huber, of Louisville, Kentucky, made her way, with a letter from the noted Passionist, the Rev. Father Fidelis Stone, introducing her to Mrs. Lathrop.
Mrs. Lathrop, “beautiful and youthful-looking, with a mass of rich auburn hair,” and wearing a nurse’s dress, she found ministering to one of the cancer patients, who two others almost impatiently awaited her attentions. Before concluding her visit, Miss Huber was impelled to offer her assistance to Mrs. Lathrop an afternoon a week. The one afternoon of help in the dispensary room became two, and in a few months she asked to share for all time in the work that was being carried on.
On May 1, 1899, for still larger accommodations than the tenement quarters on Water Street could afford, the patients were transferred to a comfortable, old-fashioned house at 426 Cherry Street, which was at once named St. Rose’s Free Home for Incurable Cancer.
Here, then, in a little chapel which had been arranged, Mrs. Lathrop and Miss Huber, having long since consecrated God to their lives in their work, received the Dominican habit from the hands of the Rev. Clement M. Thuente, O.P., Mrs. Lathrop becoming in religion Mother Alphonsa, and Superior, and Miss Huber, Mother Rose, taking the name of the foundress as well as the patron of the congregation.
Others having joined in the heroic work being carried on, and who likewise received the Dominican habit, the Cherry Street house soon became too small for community and patients, and on June 1, 1901, Rosary Hill Home, at Hawthorne, New York, was also opened.
There in Westchester County, far away from even the echo of the city’s turmoil, yet near enough for easy access, is Mother Alphonsa’s second institution. There the daughter of one of America’s greatest authors, and the noble congenial wife of another, spent more than a score of years serving God in the afflicted poor. Often through the still watches of the night she rose to attend the sick and dying, the warm, firm clasp of her hand giving strength and confidence to the sufferer whose soul was passing to its Maker.
At Rosary Hill Home Mother Alphonsa planned and developed the work of the Congregation, which also continues to carry on its activities in New York City at St. Rose’s Home for Incurable Cancer, this institution, with a bed capacity of ninety, and now located at 71 Jackson Street, ranking as a hospital for incurable cancer cases among the destitute poor of all religions, nationalities and colors.
To her first companion and associate worker, Mother Rose Huber, who has succeeded to the office of Superior General of the Congregation, is left the completion of the needed fire-proof buildings of Rosary Hill Home at Hawthorne, the erection of which Mother Alphonsa, after long years of waiting, had finally been able to inaugurate.
Assuming the responsibilities of her position, Mother Rose is also devoting herself to the task of financiering, by means of public appeals—the policy established by Mother Alphonsa, in place of modern drives—the completion of this lasting monument to the memory of one of America’s noblest women, a woman of the world who, laying aside worldly habiliments for the sacred garb of a religious, won other fervent workers who will not let the work she founded die with her, but perpetuate it in the Dominican Congregation of St. Rose of Lima—the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer.
Elinor Tong Dehey, Religious Orders of Women in the U.S. (Hammond, IN: W.B. Conkey, 1930), 165-168.