Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, the youngest daughter of Nathaniel Hawthorne, is a candidate for something the Puritans abhorred: Catholic sainthood.
She was born on May 20, 1851 in Lenox, Mass., the third child of Sophia Peabody and Nathaniel Hawthorne. He was then basking in the success of his first best seller, The Scarlet Letter, which chronicled the Puritan mind.
She would spend the first 50 years of her life as one would expect of the well-to-do daughter of a literary giant: marriage, travel to Europe, mingling with the literati and East Coast society.
But after 50 years she took on a new identity. After her closest family members died, her marriage disintegrated and her only brother feuded with her, she took her vows as a nun.
During her first nine years, Rose Hawthorne lived in Massachusetts, Paris, Italy and England, where her father served as U.S. consul general to the British government. His friend President Franklin Pierce appointed him to the post.
Her father died in 1864, the day before her 13th birthday, while the family lived in Concord, Mass.
After his death, Sophia Hawthorne brought her children to Germany, then England, to live.
Marriage — And Then
Rose got married in London at 20 to George Parsons Lathrop, a poet, novelist and editor. At first their marriage was happy. They moved in literary circles; he as editor of the Atlantic Monthly and the Boston Courier, she as a poet, short story writer and daughter of the great Nathaniel Hawthorne.
They had one son, Francis. They returned to the United States and bought The Wayside, where she had lived twice before as a child. When 5-year-old Francis died of diphtheria, the couple moved out.
George began to drink heavily and Rose spent more time on her own. Her family began to fall away: Her mother died in 1871, her sister in 1877. She feuded sporadically with her brother Julian.
In 1881, she befriended with Emma Lazarus, who wrote the poem at the base of the Statue of Liberty. Lazarus’ death from cancer at age 38 affected Rose profoundly – as did her involvement with the Catholic Church.
George and Rose Hawthorne Lathrop had moved to New London, Conn., in 1887. In 1891 they both took the then-radical step of converting to Catholicism. It didn’t save the marriage.
Rose finally walked away from George in 1895. He died three years later of cirrhosis of the liver.
A New Chapter
Rose Hawthorne Lathrop was in her mid-40s and alone. But Lazarus had made her aware of the plight of people who were far worse off than she – impoverished cancer victims.
There was no place, no aid for them. Once diagnosed, they were banished to die alone. People then believed cancer a highly contagious disease.
Rose moved to New York and took a three-month nursing course at New York Cancer Hospital. In the fall of 1896, she moved into a cold-water flat on New York’s Lower East Side.
At first she visited poor cancer victims in their homes. Then she invited them into her own apartment, where she washed their sores and changed their bedclothes. To help raise money, she wrote Memories of Hawthorne.
A few years later she moved into a house on the Lower East Side with an assistant, Alice Huber. Benefactors had contributed the down payment to the house, known as St. Rose’s Free Home.
Rose Hawthorne, Nun
On Dec. 8, 1900, Rose Hawthorne was invested in the Dominican habit and took her first vows. She established a community called the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer, and she took the name Mother Alphonsa.
Her mission, she said, was:
To take the neediest class we know — both in poverty and suffering — and put them in such a condition that if our Lord knocked at the door I should not be ashamed to show what I have done. This is a great hope.
For the next 26 years she would care for destitute cancer patients. She established a second nursing home, Rosary Hill, in Westchester County, just north of New York City.
She died in her sleep on July 9, 1926, her parents’ 84th wedding anniversary.
In 2003, Rose Hawthorne Lathrop was nominated for sainthood. The road to canonization is long and uncertain. The Puritans, though, thought all Christian believers are saints.
This story about Rose Hawthorne was updated in 2020.