January 24, 2024 // Perspective

A Culture of Life and Civilization of Love

Earlier this month, I traveled to Washington, D.C., with a large group of students, faculty, and staff from the University of Notre Dame to participate in the annual March for Life. For years, Notre Dame has sent one of the largest groups to join in this joyful witness to the dignity of all human life, and in these years after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade, the march has been even more joyful. The work of building a culture of life is not done, but we have great reason for hope.

The March for Life is an amazing gathering of people from across the country. I’ve met people through the years who’ve traveled from as far as California and Idaho to join the event. I wouldn’t be surprised if nearly every one of the 50 states is represented in the crowd. But the thing that amazes me the most is the overwhelming number of young people who attend – college and high school students, even babies in strollers and swaddles. These young people often hold signs that proclaim, “We are the pro-life generation,” and it’s easy to believe this is true. This is a great encouragement to those of us in middle age (and older) who have carried the torch for life since the court’s terrible decision in 1973.

As part of the March for Life weekend festivities, I helped lead an “Art for Life” tour at the National Gallery of Art, focusing on pieces in the collection that illustrate the culture of life. One of the items I spoke about was a medallion honoring the author Nathaniel Hawthorne, the 19th-century writer of “The Scarlet Letter” and “The House of the Seven Gables.” He was a descendant of the first Puritans who came to North America to avoid religious persecution. In his books and stories, he dealt with themes of sin and guilt in the human heart, and expressed an anti-Puritan attitude that grew out of his own experience as the scion of a prominent New England family. His great grandfather had been a judge in the Salem witch trials, and Nathaniel worked to distance himself from this association through his writing.

Hawthorne’s legacy also includes a prominent contribution to building a culture of life in America. His youngest daughter, Rose, born in 1851, married a writer named George Lathrop, and together they welcomed a son, Francis. Tragedy struck the family several years later when Francis died of diphtheria at age 5. George took to drinking as an attempt to cope with his grief, leading to periods of increasing instability in his character.

The couple surprised many of their closest Protestant friends when they were received into the Catholic Church in 1891. They got involved with the Catholic summer school movement and accepted the invitation to co-author a well-received history of the Georgetown Visitation Convent, one of the prominent early Catholic religious communities in America. However, after several years of marital difficulties because of George’s descent into alcoholism, the couple formally separated.

Rose threw herself into charity work. At age 45, she enrolled herself in a nurse training course to learn to care for those with cancer, which was (and remains) the dreaded disease of the day. At the time, the common belief was that cancer was contagious, so her choice to care for patients was considered a death sentence. Because of this fear of contagion, most hospitals would not accept dying cancer patients.

After finishing her nursing course, Rose established a care facility on the Lower East Side of Manhattan called the Saint Rose Free Home for Incurable Cancer, dedicated to St. Rose of Lima. She welcomed and cared for indigent men and women who suffered from cancer but had nowhere to live. The home had no hot running water, but it was clean. She begged for donations to support her work, writing letters to the editors of various newspapers and to various philanthropists, refusing to take payment from her patients or the government.

In 1899, at the suggestion of a Dominican friar who visited the Saint Rose Home to minister to one of his parishioners, Rose and her co-worker at the home, Alice Huber, were received as Third Order Dominicans. In December of 1900, the archbishop of New York formally approved them as a new religious order. Today known as the Dominican Sisters of Hawthorne, Congregation of St. Rose of Lima, their mission remains, as Rose wrote in a letter, to “take the lowest class both in poverty and suffering (the cancerous poor) and put them in such a condition, that if Our Lord knocked at the door we would not be ashamed to show what we had done.”

Rose Hawthorne Lathrop, known in religious life as Mother Mary Alphonsa, died on July 9, 1926, at Rosary Hill Home, Hawthorne, New York, in the motherhouse of her congregation, having spent the day writing letters to seek donations.

In 2003, the late Cardinal Edward Egan of New York approved the opening of her cause for canonization, and we know her today as “Servant of God Mother Mary Alphonsa.” We can think of Rose and her congregation as one of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s greatest legacies.

May Mother Mary Alphonsa intercede that we may recognize the dignity of all human life, from conception to natural death!

Ken Hallenius is a syndicated radio host and podcaster living in South Bend.

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