The remarkable Rose Hawthorne

In 2001, when chairman Leon Kass was organizing the President’s Council on Bioethics (which was recently and foolishly disbanded by President Obama), he sent the Council members some interesting homework to read before their first discussion in 2001: Nathaniel Hawthorne’s short story, “The Birthmark,” which doesn’t figure in too many high school American literature anthologies these days. Dr. Kass knew precisely what he was doing, however: he was asking those charged with advising the President of the United States about the management of humanity’s new genetic knowledge to think about today’s challenges through the prism of a story about beauty, hubris, and the lethal dangers of the Promethean quest for human perfection.

In Hawthorne’s tale, Aylmer, a scientist, has married an exceptionally beautiful woman named Georgiana, whose face is marred (in Aylmer’s view) by a birthmark. Eventually convinced by Aylmer that the birthmark should be removed, Georgiana submits to a procedure, designed by Aylmer, that is supposed to eliminate what her husband regards as a blemish on her beauty. The birthmark disappears but Georgiana dies. Aylmer’s quest to make his wife perfect, as he understands perfection, has killed the women he sought to perfect.

I’d known about Kass’s striking assignment to the Bioethics Council for years. But it was only recently that his effort to get America thinking seriously about the moral and human costs of striving for physical perfection brought to mind another member of the Hawthorne clan—Rose Hawthorne, the author’s youngest child, whose cause for beatification is now underway.

Born in Lenox, Mass., in 1851, Rose Hawthorne spent her childhood years in Liverpool, England (where her father was U.S. consul), and Italy before coming home to Concord, Mass., in 1860. At age 20, Rose married George Parsons Lathrop and the couple eventually settled in Boston, where Lathrop worked at the Atlantic Monthly and Rose established her own reputation as a writer, publishing short stories and poems. After five years of marriage, a son, Francis Hawthorne Lathrop, was born; but the lad succumbed to diphtheria when just 5 years old. Rose and George Lathrop were both received into the Catholic Church in 1891, 10 years after their son’s death. But their marriage became impossible; George Lathrop had problems with “intemperance” (as the New Catholic Encyclopedia delicately puts it), which led to his inability to keep a job. With her confessor’s permission, Rose began to live alone and, after taking appropriate training, started work with patients suffering from incurable cancer—a heart-breaking ministry of charity to which she devoted the rest of her life.

After George Lathrop’s death in 1898, Rose Hawthorne became a Dominican sister, establishing the Dominican Congregation of St. Rose of Lima, also known as the Servants of Relief for Incurable Cancer. A center for cancer patients was established in Hawthorne, New York, where Mother Mary Alphonsa, O.P., as Rose was known in religion, spent out her years, dying there in 1926.

As Father Gabriel O’Donnell, O.P., the postulator for her beatification, once wrote, “service to Christ’s poor did not simply mean that this lady of culture, education, and social status would put on an apron and offer gifts from her abundance. She decided to live among the poor, to beg for them as they did for themselves, and to establish a home where they could live in dignity, cleanliness, and ease as they faced their final days on earth. …There was to be no class system, no ‘upstairs/downstairs’ for her residents. She and her religious sisters would be the servants. The residents would be the object of all their care and concern.” Rose Hawthorne saw in disfigured men and women suffering from horrible cancers what Aylmer could not see in the near-perfection of the beautiful Georgiana in Nathaniel Hawthorne’s story: the face of Christ.

The Rose Hawthorne Guild (600 Linda Ave., Hawthorne, NY 10532) promotes the cause of Rose Hawthorne; a prayer asking cures and other favors through her intercession is available at http://www.hawthorne-dominicans.org/guild/nl_gld.3.htm. It would not be misplaced to add a prayer for any future President’s Council on Bioethics in such intercessions.

COMING UP: On Fathers and Christian Masculinity

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The Year of St. Joseph points us to Jesus’ adoptive father, Joseph, as the essential model for fathers. Joseph not only manifests genuine masculinity, he also images God’s own fatherhood, as Pope Francis makes clear in his apostolic letter, Patris Corde: “In his relationship to Jesus, Joseph was the earthly shadow of the heavenly Father: he watched over him and protected him, never leaving him to go his own way.” Jesus, though the Son of God, obeyed Joseph, learned from him, and worked with him, acknowledging Joseph as a true expression of God’s own fatherhood.  

God does not just use fatherhood as an image of himself, because he himself is Father, even within his own triune life. Earthly fatherhood comes forth from him and should manifest his life and love. St. Paul speaks of honoring the “Father, from whom all fatherhood in heaven and on earth is named” (Eph 3:15). God wants everyone to be able to see his own fatherly love and called certain men to share in his own paternal gift of bringing forth life and caring for others. Every father is called to be liked Joseph, “an earthly shadow of the heavenly Father” for his own family. 

Our culture, however, often denigrates masculinity, sometimes viewing even its proper expressions as toxic. We too often see maleness in its fallenness — dominating and selfish — rather than showing self-sacrificial service. In fact, later in Ephesians, Paul speaks of the true vocation of the husband and father: “Husbands, love your wives, as Christ loved the church and gave himself up for her” (Eph 5:25). He also speaks of the role of fatherhood: “Do not provoke your children to anger, but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” (Eph 6:4). Paul shows us the goal of fatherhood — sacrificing himself for the flourishing of the family by putting the good of his wife and children before his own desires.   

No matter what the contrary voices of our culture say, we need strong men and fathers. God created man and woman in complementarity, and they need each other to thrive, helping the other in relation to their own strengths and weaknesses. Children need the strong presence of a father to discipline and teach, as Paul reminds us. Study after study has shown that fathers have the largest impact on the faith of their children. Christian Smith explains in his sociological study, Young Catholic America, that “the faith of Catholic fathers is powerfully determinative of the future faith of their children (125). The same can be said for general wellbeing and success. When fathers are absent or refuse to exercise their role, a moral and spiritual vacuum appears. A strong majority of felons, for instance, grew up without fathers in the home.  

St. Joseph helps us to understand the strength of Christian fatherhood. First, like any good husband, Joseph listened — not just to his wife but also to God. Woken up frequently by angels, he demonstrated obedience and trust, quickly leaving everything behind to follow God’s instructions and to protect his family. We also know Joseph for his work as a carpenter and builder, content to live simply and to work hard. Importantly, he also taught Jesus how to work, showing that fathers model and teach by drawing their children into their life and work. And we can also learn from Joseph’s humility, serving the Incarnate God and his Mother without even a single recorded word in the Gospels.  

This humility points us to the essence of Christian fatherhood. Although living with two perfect people, Joseph was still called to lead. He quietly and humbly did what was needed for his family and taught his own maker how to share in his work. Fathers do not lead in order to be in charge or to get their own way. They lead because God asks them to care for and protect their families. Fathers and mothers share in the great and beautiful partnership of family life, although fathers cannot simply sit back and let mom take the lead in the spiritual life, as they are often tempted to do. Like Joseph, fathers should act firmly and lovingly to put God and the family before self, obeying God and leading the family in the right direction. They are called to model faith, work, and sacrifice to their children. 

On Father’s Day we can affirm that masculinity and fatherhood are not just good — they are essential to understanding God and his plan for human flourishing. If our culture turns around, it will be because, in large part, Christian men stand up and fight. As Christians, we cannot give in to the culture’s attempt to denigrate masculinity and fatherhood or to pit men and women against each other. We can use this celebration to affirm the essential role that our fathers play, leading their families like St. Joseph.