May 7: Harriet Starr Cannon, Religious, 1896

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Harriet Starr Cannon founded the Community of St. Mary. Cannon was born in Charleston in 1823 and was orphaned in 1824 when her parents died of yellow fever. She grew up with her only surviving sibling in Bridgeport, Connecticut, in the home of relatives. In 1851, Cannon entered the Sisters of the Holy Communion, an order founded
by William Augustus Muhlenberg, Rector of the Church of the Holy Communion in New York City. The Sisters were heavily involved in the operation of clinics and care facilities that would become St. Luke’s Hospital in the City of  New York. During her years with the Sisters of the Holy Communion, Cannon served as a nurse.

Over time, Harriet Cannon yearned for a more traditional monastic form of religious life. When agreement could not be reached with Sisters of the Holy Communion, Cannon and a small group of her sisters moved to form a new order. On the Feast of the Presentation, February 2, 1865, Horatio Potter, Bishop of the Diocese of New York, received from Harriet Cannon and her sisters the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience, at St. Michael’s Church in Manhattan. The sisters began life together as the Community of St. Mary and Harriet Cannon became the Order’s first Superior.

The apostolate of The Community of St. Mary began with nursing and the care of women who had endured difficult circumstances. After time, however, Mother Cannon and her Sisters became increasingly committed to providing free schools for the education of young women in addition to their medical work. The Community continued to grow and developed girls’ schools, hospitals, and orphanages in New York, Tennessee, and Wisconsin.

The Community of St. Mary played a critical role in response to the yellow fever epidemic in Memphis in the 1870’s. Sister Constance and her companions are remembered on September 9.


I. Gracious God, who didst call Mother Harriet and her companions to revive the religious life in the Episcopal Church by founding the religious community of St. Mary, and to dedicate their lives to thee: Grant that, after their example, we may ever surrender ourselves to the revelation of thy holy will; through our Savior Jesus Christ, who liveth and reigneth with thee and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.

II. Gracious God, you called Mother Harriet and her companions to revive the religious life in the Episcopal Church by founding the religious community of St. Mary, and to dedicate their lives to you: Grant that, after their example, we may ever surrender ourselves to the revelation of your holy will; through our Savior Jesus Christ, who
lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever.  Amen.


Psalm 131

2 Esdras 2:15–24

Hebrews 13:1–2,5–8,15–16

Mark 9:33–37

Preface of a Saint (2)

From Holy, Women, Holy Men: Celebrating the Saints © 2010 by The Church Pension Fund. Used by permission.

* * *

We invite your reflections about this commemoration and its suitability for the official calendar and worship of The Episcopal Church. How did this person’s life witness to the Gospel? How does this person inspire us in Christian life today?

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23 thoughts on “May 7: Harriet Starr Cannon, Religious, 1896

  1. This commemoration is for Trial Use. All elements (Title, Collect, Lections, and Proper Preface) are new.

  2. Collect. The ‘c’ of Community of St. Mary needs to be capitalized.

    Bio. 2nd paragraph. A ‘the’ is missing in the second sentence: ‘… with the Sisters of the Holy Communion …’.

    3rd paragraph. Last sentence. ‘… and developed schools for girls …’ rather than ‘girls’ schools’ Just try to say girls’ schools five times fast! Soon it sounds more like couscous than girls’ schools.

    4th paragraph. Memphis, Tennessee, please.

  3. Re: First sentence:

    Please Select One:

    1. Charleston, SC- Charleston County
    2. Charleston, WV- Kanawha County
    3. Charleston, IL- Coles County
    4. Charleston, AR- Franklin County
    5. Charleston, IA- Lee County
    6. Charleston, KS- Gray County
    7. Charleston, ME- Penobscot County
    8. Charleston, MO- Mississippi County
    9. Charleston, MS- Tallahatchie County
    10. Charleston, NV- Elko County

  4. Love stories of inspiring women. Just wondering when she died and where she is buried?

  5. Last sentence in 2nd paragraph needs a comma “….Community of Saint Mary” and “Hariot Cannon became..” As ut stands, it looks like the name of the order was “The Community if Saint Mary and Harriot Cannon.”

  6. What is the implication in the Collect of the phrase “revive the religious life in the Episcopal Church”? Had not the religious life already been revived a few years earlier by Muhlenburg and Anne Ayers (April 8) with the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, which Harriet Starr Cannon joined before she and her companions founded the CSM? Obviously the founding of the CSM was an important and early part of the revival of the religious life, but it wasn’t the first. (All the previous comments are points well taken!)

    • Thanks, Bill– I had the same thought. She left one congregation, already well-established, to form one based on stricter observance. This made me wonder: did the Sisters of the Holy Communion take traditional vows? In what ways was their life less “traditionally monastic?” I didn’t think of these questions when we discussed Anne Ayres– it’s only by contrast that this comes up.

      There’s an interesting (and rather sweet) account of the consecration of Anne Ayres in the American Journal of Nursing for December of 1929, as part of a series on nursing by religious orders in the US. It has this wonderful epigram which I think HWHM could adopt: “These have ensured their remembrance by their deserts.” (Virgil) This is the citation (JSTOR is notoriously stingy about free access…)

      The first chaplain for the Communion of St Mary, Morgan Dix, wrote a biography of Harriet Starr Cannon & addresses these questions (; p 26-27): “But Sister Anne Ayres had also her limitations; her sympathies were not with those who desired to reproduce the Anglican, or, let us say, the Catholic, type of the Religious Community in this country and in our Church: her ideal of woman’s work was of a less pronounced and more free type. In this respect also she was in accord with the man whom she venerated above all others in this world.” Interesting insight!

  7. Harriet Starr Cannon was born 7 May 1823 in Charleston, SC and died 5 April 1896 at Peekskill, NY. Cannon grew up with Bridgeport, CT with her older sister but they were raised by an aunt and uncle. The two girls were not totally bereft of family as the second of the first paragraph of the biography seems to imply.

    Another biographical source states that Cannon was not only a nurse but in charge of hospital ward. The importance of this is rather lost on most contemporary Episcopalians. The 1850s was the time period when nursing was just beginning to develop as a profession.. Institute of Protestant Deaconesses at Kaiserswerth (Dusseldorf, Germany) founded in 1833 was by the 1850s thee only training school for women nurses in Europe. Nothing like this even existed in the U.S.A. In was not until the fall of 1854 that Florence Nightingale, ten Roman Catholic Sisters, eight Anglican Sisters of Mercy, six nurses from St. John’s Institute, and fourteen nurses from various hospitals in Great Britain left for the Crimea to quite literally “clean up” the military field hospitals and dramatically reduce the mortality rate. Though nuns had worked in hospitals for centuries, the establishment of nursing as a scientific profession was just at its beginning.

    Instead of saying “small group” would it not be better to say that Sister Cannon and four other women left the Sisters of the Holy Communion in 1863 and founded the Community of St. Mary in 1865, under the direct supervision of the Bishop of New York.

    As has been previously commented upon, the term “to revive the religious life in the Episcopal Church” (as it appears in the Collect) is easily misunderstood by an Episcopalian who is not familiar with the history of the Anglo-Catholic part of the church. Here “religious” does not have the usual meaning of pertaining to faith, belief, and observances but refers to a nun. And this is a far step from the other question asked earlier about the Mother Anne Ayers and the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion. Apparently the difference between the Sisters of the Holy Communion and the Community of St. Mary has to do with episcopal supervision. The Community to St. Mary was the first instance of control and supervision of Sisters by a Bishop since the time of the Reformation.

    Instead of simply mentioned the work of the Community of St. Mary during the Memphis, TN yellow fever epidemic, it would be helpful to have the correct year: 1878. The Community of St. Mary had established a school and hospital under the supervision of the Bishop of Tennessee in Memphis in 1873.

    I think the fact that the Community of St. Mary still exists in three houses should be mentioned.

    Beside her work in the founding of the Community of St. Mary, should something more be said about Mother Cannon and her life in Christ? Since the Community is mentioned in September 9 when Constance and her companions of recognized, is founding a order of nuns sufficient in itself to be included in Holy Women, Holy Men. Given what I read about Mother Cannon, she was an extraordinary woman . One author stated that she possessed “equanimity and dignity and holy calm, [and] revealed the power of faith, the steadfastness of hope, the sweetness of charity, and the strength of her convictions.” Perhaps a bit more should be said about her character. []

    • All well said, pertinent and interesting! I’m glad you posted it, Suzanne. Thanks. –JFL

  8. Collects:

    1. Versions I and II don’t quite sync. Either change v. I to “Thou didst call” or change v. II to “who called.”

    2. Is this a commemoration of Harriet Starr Cannon or “Harriet Starr Cannon and her Companions.” If the former, then delete “and her companions” from the collect.

    2. I realize that as a religious she was known as “Mother Harriet,” but the more common form in HWHM for modern saints seems to be to use the full name, so perhaps the collect should be changed to “Mother Harriet Starr Cannon.”

  9. Harriet Starr Cannon is ceetainly a significant fugure in American ChurchHistory and in the history of Anglican religious orders and deserves a place in the calendar. The readins seem appropriate.

  10. Harriet Starr Cannon
    PARAGRAPH 1: In the first sentence, I believe “The” is part of the name of the community, and thus a proper noun that requires an upper case T. “Charlestown” needs its state, er, stated. Sentence 3 withholds a plethora of information for no apparent reason: sister or brother, which relation, and every single possible clue about her religious background, education, likes, talents, activities and character. Sentence 4 gives the title “the Sisters of…” whereas the HWHM commemoration for Anne Ayers/Ayres(?) is careful to name that organization “The Sisterhood of the Holy Communion.” Here we name Muhlenberg as founder of the Sisterhood, whereas on page 314 Ayres/Ayers “was the founder.” (Does it matter enough here to name the founder of that order?) The statement that Cannon “served as a nurse” left me wondering if she had any training for that work or if it was just something she was required to do, regardless. The final sentence begins, “During her years with the Sisters of the Holy Communion,” and “Sisterhood” would bring it into line with the actual title (otherwise I wonder what “the Holy Communion” means in this context).
    PARAGRAPH 2: “Over time” says nothing specific, and is a truism. Of course it was. “More traditional form of religious life” has a host of difficulties. (1) So far as we know, she already belonged to the only other religious order of sisters, about which we know nothing from HWHM to suggest it was “less traditional” – or by what measure it might be so. (2) Monastic codes of life have a rich history of variety, ethos, spiritual disciplines, work, polity, and vows. There is no single model cookie cutter for “traditional” monasticism. Specifying what she desired would be more informative for HWHM readers and less of a “slam” of the implicitly nouveau-monastic hippies who, by implication, belonged to the commune at The Sisterhood of the Holy Communion. Sentence 2 has a blithe reference, “When agreement could not be reached” – but says nary a word regarding WHAT wanted agreeing. Why hold back on the basics? It leaves me more puzzled than edified. “Moved to form” – I’ve noticed in several write-ups an affinity for infinitives, which always then require a second verb since the infinitive alone doesn’t actually convey any action. How about just “formed”? The sentence containing “[Bishop Potter]…received from Harriet Cannon and her sisters the traditional vows of poverty, chastity, and obedience,” I’m not sure of the language we actually use, but in the order I belonged to the brothers “professed” their vows, or “made” their vows, or even “pronounced” their vows, “before” or “in the presence of” X (i.e., some representative of the Church). The bishop receiving their vows just doesn’t strike me as a meaningful thing to say – even though I may be speaking in ignorance. (God knows there are other things that don’t make sense to me, and sometimes my weirdness is to blame.) In canons today the diocesan bishop is not automatically the ecclesiastical authority for religious houses within the local diocese. In those days, these communities being so new, there might not have been canons adopted yet. But still, I would think of the bishop as witnessing, and maybe even blessing the intentions of, the professing candidate rather than “receiving” anything. (I’m probably wrong, and Michael will explain it to me — very slowly.) “In Manhattan” – it’s nice they visited Kansas; I’m from Brooklyn and even I don’t know the right way to say this one. Maybe it can be omitted, since the bishop of the Diocese of NY receiving (or something) their vows implies they’re not in Kansas (…anymore?). I also had the reaction noted concerning “The Community of St. Mary and Harriet Cannon.” (End after “Mary,” then begin a new sentence with “Harriet.”)
    PARAGRAPH 3: “Apostolate” is not a commonly used term in most Episcopal churches and I suspect is more like to puzzle listeners than enlighten them, either about a new vocabulary word or about the ministry undertaken by the new order. I notice a fondness for passive verb forms. It might be advantageous to combine the first two sentences, looking for a more economic and direct way to say what needs to be said. “Women who had endured difficult circumstances” is certainly vague. Something more succinct, if not more specific, would improve it, in my overbearing opinion. In this paragraph I notice we have stopped saying anything at all about Harriet Cannon and simply told about the order she founded. From reading Michael’s link that other information is available about her as a person of faith and reaching out to others from the heart. A brief but poignant quote expressing her compassion for others, or her passionate care for children and others, would make her more of a “person” and less of a “founded by” label, for me.
    PARAGRAPH 4: This “conclusion” to the “commemoration” illustrates my previous sentence perfectly. It’s not about her. It doesn’t say if, when, where, from what, at what age, why she was retained as Mother Superior for Life, or anything about the person (allegedly) commemorated. It functions as advertising for the excellence of The Community of St Mary – well deserved, I expect, but not the title of the commemoration. It does mention Sister Constance; anyone else think that’s peculiar at the end of today’s commemoration? It cross-references us to a different commemoration and date – are we having trouble staying focused?
    (Happy HARRIET CANNON day! )
    COLLECT: “Revive” come across as offensive to those who respect the previous expressions of the religious life in the Episcopal Church. (Are there no men’s orders by this time?) It focuses on founding, and on those who founded it, not on the quality of religious life they themselves were supported in living, not on God’s work undertaken and done by the order, and not on those who have shared in its community life since the founding. Pretty exclusive! Mutatis mutandis, it doesn’t feature Harriet Cannon as a “holy woman.” The title of the order is incorrect. “Mother Harriet” is not mentioned in the narrative at all (Mother Cannon is). “Dedicate their lives to you” seems peculiar if it implies they had not done so prior to joining an order. The petition is wishy-washy and generic for already baptized Christians, and there is no “so that” clause indicated, suggesting perhaps that a commemoration focused around a religious order doesn’t have implications for ordinary Christians. It’s not a well thought out collect.
    READINGS: The psalm is absolutely wonderful, and I have no objectivity where it is concerned. I’d use it at the drop of a hat on every occasion when we gather for any purpose at all. (I’d add a silence in the course of its use.) The BCP translation is the most prayerfully nuanced I’ve seen. I love it.
    2 Esdras 2:15-24 – On the surface it seems to be quite topical. In the context of the whole chapter it’s not so simple, and in the whole book it’s downright confusing. But this particular selection sounds like a commendation of the sorts of work undertaken by The Community of St. Mary and by Harriet Cannon.
    Hebrews 13:1–2,5–8,15–16 – It’s very cut up: three sections separated by 2 sections, and also 8 verses read, and 8 verses skipped. That makes it logistically less than ideal. It raises an eyebrow about why it has to omit so much. In part, it seems attributable to Hebrews’ sometimes unclear references to OT liturgical matters, but there is also some “cherry picking” to make it fit the poverty/chastity/obedience context by eliminating references to the holiness of matrimony, prison ministration (not part of the described ministry of the CSM), food regulations (meaning kosher, but sounding perhaps like monastic dietary mortification), and a reference to “outside the wall” which might not go well with a romanticized idea of the cloistered aspect of religious community life. I don’t think it’s the best choice of a NT reading. Besides which, my feeling is that the commemoration title names Harriet Cannon, and the readings should resonate with her particular expression of Christian grace and holy living, not just monastic life in general and this particular order’s founding and undertakings.
    Gospel: Arguing about who is greater, and taking a child as an object lesson, doesn’t strike me just right, either. (Sorry.) Not far removed might be the foot washing in John’s gospel 13:3-17.
    PREFACE: Incarnation (mentioning Jesus’ mother), Baptism (embracing all commemorating the feast), or All Saints seem equally good or better than Saints (2) for the Preface.

    • In “Gospel” above, I failed to explain that I see connections in the message of service and servanthood in John, without the distracting bit about arguing over who will be greatest among Christian followers — and it doesn’t just take a human person and use him/her as an “object” lesson (as if there were no “person” inside that object!) Good night!

  11. This commemoration should be moved from the date of her birth to the date of her death–April 5. Under the new guidelines, she could share that day with Pandita Mary Ramabai.

    Line 2, first paragraph: substitute “on May 7, 1823” for the second “in”.

    Delete the fourth paragraph: this has nothing directly to do with the person being honored.

    Add a new fourth paragraph: “Harriet died on April 5, 1896, in Peekskill, New York”.

  12. I don’t think I can agree that God ‘called’ Harriet and her companions either to to revive or develop, whichever is more accurate, the religious life in the Episcopal Church by founding the religious community of St. Mary, although I do think what they did was a reasonable and Christian response to God’s call on the lives of all Christians to ‘surrender ourselves to the revelation of your holy will’. I wish a better way could be found to express God’s role in this.

    And if it is the policy to use full names in collects, I wish that could be changed, too. It gives such a mundane, bureaucratic tone, keeping our attention on something earthly at a point that calls us to raise it to the heavenly.

  13. Fascinating! Despite four years at St. Mary’s School, Mount St. Gabriel, Peekskill, NY, and in my senior year celebrating the Centennial of the Community of St. Mary, I never knew this history until today. I just finished reading Rev. Dix’s biography and it brought back many memories.

    And I agree that it should be celebrated on April 5th. – that’s what we do for all the other saints – or so I was taught at … St. Mary’s School, class of ’65

  14. […] Gracious God, you called Mother Harriet and her companions to revive the religious life in the Episcopal Church by founding the religious community of St. Mary, and to dedicate their lives to you: Grant that, after their example, we may ever surrender ourselves to the revelation of your holy will; through our Savior Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen. Learn more about Mother Harriet. […]

  15. While, My friends, we tend to focus on the collects I believe Bishop Tutu really gets to the heart of her work and indeed, the work of many others. To paraphrase him- All the little Acts add up to great Acts. Each little thing we can do does add up like all the tiny grains of sand make up the beaches and the ocean floors.

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