The 2nd annual Founders’ Day celebrated the legacy, perseverance, and resiliency of St. Mary’s Episcopal School. This year, we honored Sister Hughetta Snowden, who assumed the leadership of St. Mary’s following the death of Sister Constance and the other Sisters of St. Mary during the yellow fever epidemic. Sister Hannah Winkler, CSM, a member of the Sisters of St. Mary in Sewanee, Tennessee, shared Sister Hughetta’s story with our students. Below you can read an excerpt from her remarks.
When people hear the word “nun” or “Sister” several images may come to mind. People might think of Maria from The Sound of Music, and picture a young woman struggling to learn to obey the Reverend Mother, or twirling and spinning on a nearby mountain top. They may picture a stern, older woman, with a full habit and veil, who may – or may not – have a ruler in her hand that she used while teaching. They may think of a scary-looking woman – as portrayed in the horror movie ‘The Nun’ that came out a few years ago. But they might not be picturing someone like me.
Now – true confession – where I live in Sewanee is known as the “holy mountain” and I HAVE been asked to spin around the mountain just like Maria did – but that isn’t something I do just for fun. Before I dive in to talk about Sister Hughetta and her significance today, I wanted to share with you all my call story, as I’ve heard that most of you have not met a Sister before, so maybe you can see how someone might think that being a nun is what they want to do with their life.
When it was time for me to go to middle school, I was sent to Our Lady of Lourdes Catholic school because my parents heard they had a really good educational system. Before my first day, I heard that the school was run by the Sisters of Notre Dame. I had no idea what to expect. What would they be wearing? Would they be mean? Would they even like me since I wasn’t Catholic?
All of those fears went away when I met Sister Ruth, the director of the after-school program I was a part of. She wore a dark skirt and a white blouse with a blazer and was, surprisingly, very kind! She wasn’t stern. Actually, she was a very calming presence and had a good sense of humor. I was inspired by her example of her devoted life of prayer and service to the school, and to the deep, authentic, and long-lasting relationships she had with students and their families. Even after I graduated and left, I would go back regularly to visit her and continue our friendship.
I went to a public high school, and an agricultural university called NC State in Raleigh, NC, and then on to the University of North Carolina at Greensboro to study nutrition at both places. I worked as a hospital dietitian and became close friends with the chaplains at the hospital. After years of providing medical nutrition care, I found myself wanting to go deeper with life – to not just care for the bodies of people but for their spirits. One of the chaplains I worked with introduced me to the Episcopal Church, which I felt right at home in, and joined, and the priest there met with me to process my discernment. I said, “I just want to live with other women so that we can pray together and live lives of service and have a life of simplicity” and the priest looked at me and said, “That’s called a convent.”
My chaplain friend attended an Episcopal boarding school run by Sisters of St. John Baptist in Mendham, New Jersey. And she told me that there were Episcopal nuns! I had NO idea! So, I googled “Episcopal convents near me” and the Sisters of St Mary in Sewanee popped up, and I joined, and here I am before you today.
When I was training to become a life-professed Sister, and learning about the Community’s history, I learned that there was one person in particular whose hard work and efforts made it possible us for our Order in exist in Sewanee – and she is the woman I have to thank for being here with you all today – because if she had not been born and lived through all that she lived through, then our Order would not be in Sewanee, and I would not have known about the Sisters. The person I owe thanks to is Sister Hughetta.
Sister Hughetta was a Southern woman. She was born in Nashville, TN in 1848, the youngest child in her family. She was a girl of culture and prominence – just think, anytime you see the word Snowden here in Memphis, that’s her family, it was a very well-known and influential family. But she wanted to leave all of that behind because she felt the call to the religious life as a young woman. She joined the Sisters of St. Mary in New York (that is where we were founded), and we are the oldest group of Episcopal nuns in the United States. I think we need to take a pause here, and just think about how significant that was for a woman of her status and society at that time. Girls would have done anything to be a part of such a well-standing family, and women in those days were expected to get married and have children. To make her OWN path during that day and age took a lot of courage. It was not a popular thing to do. I’m sure there were some people that thought what she was doing, and what she was leaving behind, was a crazy idea. But she persisted in following her calling.
In 1873, when she was still just a novice, she was part of the group of Sisters that went to Memphis to manage St. Mary’s School for girls. In my research on Sister Hughetta, I discovered that she had a big role to play in getting the Sisters in Memphis from the original motherhouse in New York. This was because Sister Hughetta’s brother Robert, had come to Memphis as a young man, and married a woman named Ann Brinkley. Ann’s father donated the land for St. Mary’s Cathedral to be built. Due to the generosity of Robert and Ann, the Sister’s house, the school, and the chapel were built. And then, years later, Sister Hughetta was sent to be a part of the group to continue on this work.
The school was ready to start in October of 1873 when a Yellow Fever epidemic hit the city. The Sisters wrote for permission from the motherhouse to remain in Memphis, and when that was granted, they took charge of the sick in the Cathedral district and cared for 60 patients, of whom only eight died. In one month, half of the city’s 40,000 residents had fled. Of those remaining, 5,000 caught Yellow Fever, and 2,000 died. The Sisters worked from six AM to six PM every day, beginning each day with Eucharist, and then going off to make house calls on the sick whom even their own families would not approach for fear of infection. As the epidemic gradually died out in November, the Sisters remained, caring for the recuperating patients. Remember, these Sisters were teachers who were untrained in medicine and yet found themselves nursing victims of yellow fever. Again, we see the bravery of Sister Hughetta on display. She could have easily gone back to New York and been safe, and not put herself at risk, but she and the other Sisters remained. It also must have been challenging to have to learn an entirely new skillset of nursing, as her training was in teaching. But she chose to remain, and adapt, and learn.
After November, when the epidemic subsided, the school opened with 80 students, and all went well there for 4 years. Sister Hughetta taught art, mathematics, and English composition and supervised the Guild of the Holy Child, a group that existed for the spiritual training of school girls that was originally started by our Community’s founder, Mother Harriet, at St. Mary's, New York – but Sister Hughetta ran the extension of this group in Memphis.
Sister Hughetta wrote in her journal, about this period in her life, that they lived “in a flow of charity and prayers that made life very sweet and all burdens light.” Life wasn’t easy, but the challenges in their teaching were lessened by the fact that they knew that St. Mary’s was probably the best Church school in the southern states at that time.
In 1878, we all know that the yellow fever epidemic broke out. This was actually the fifth yellow fever epidemic in Memphis. When the epidemic was at its peak, the Sisters were asked to take charge of an orphanage for children of color and to make it a center for all orphans who had lost their parents from the fever. The goal was that this center would be open to orphans without distinction of race or religion. Sister Hughetta was placed in charge of it. This orphanage was in a part of Memphis not heavily infected. When she and Sister Constance were on their way to the orphanage, they were accosted by an angry mob demanding to know by what right they were bringing in children from infected areas. Sister Constance listened to them, and then asked them, “Are you not willing to trust the Sisters?” And the mob broke up, and the orphanage opened the very next day, and by the end of the week, Sister Hughetta had fifty orphans under her care. She and Sister Constance had to be firm enough in themselves and in their ministry to stand firm in this opposition to their work, and they prevailed. You would think that her care for the fever victims would make Sister Hughetta sad or scared, but she wrote in her journal “It is a wondrous happiness to be so near our Lord in his suffering now.” We know that the Bible teaches us that whatever we do to the least of these, we do to Him. And Sister Hughetta firmly believed that. So instead of being frightened, she saw Jesus in each man, woman, and child she cared for, and she was happy to be with them and care for them. But her ability to be calm in the epidemic, the worst was yet to come for Sister Hughetta and her ministry in Memphis.
On September 5th, Sisters Constance and Thecla were taken down with the fever. Sister Hughetta was out visiting the sick and came home to find Sister Constance lying down, flushed the fever on the sofa. Sister Hughetta wrote in her journal that Sunday, September 8, was the darkest day of all. Some two hundred new cases of the fever were reported, and as many deaths. She felt herself growing weak and feared she would die before Sister Constance. Late in the evening she was put to bed with a raging fever, and at midnight heard Sister Constance in the next room exclaim "Alleluia, Hosanna!" again and again until her voice trailed off. It was her last words. At ten on Monday morning, September 9th, Sister Constance died. On September 12th, Sister Thecla died. On September 17th, Sister Ruth died. And on October 4th, Sister Frances died. Sister Hughetta alone was left standing. I can’t begin to imagine how isolating and terrifying those days must have been for her. Her band of original Sisters was all gone. She was powerless to save them. She thought she was going to die too. But she didn’t.
She worked to bring order out of the chaos from all those deaths. When the frost came and finally brought an end to the plague, over 5,000 people were dead, and the city of Memphis was bankrupt. She was made Sister Superior of the Southern work in 1878 – a title that formerly was formerly filled by Sister Constance. Sister Hughetta was 30 years old at the time. It is written of her that she had a strong will and strong personality. She excelled in her work in Memphis. I find it touching that she never forgot about her original friends there in 1878 and wanted to commemorate them. In between her hard work of running the school, she worked with others to construct an altar in memory of her Sister companions who died in Memphis. She didn’t want anyone to forget their story or their legacy.
In 1888, the Sisters again increased in numbers, and a summer home was established in Sewanee and named “St. Mary’s on the Mountain.” Discovering that there was a great need for missionary work among the mountain people, Sister Hughetta wrote to the Mother Harriet and asked to obtain permission to start a training school for mountain girls. It began in 1897. Again, this act gives us a glimpse into her personality. Always looking for ways to be of service and to meet the needs of those around her. And to continue her dedication to girls needing education. Unfortunately, the school closed in 1899 because there were not enough workers.
In 1902 she stopped all of her work at St. Mary’s School in Memphis to go to Sewanee to re-open the mission school of St. Mary’s on the Mountain. She could have said, “It’s failed before, why try again?” But she didn’t. She tried again, a second time, to provide education for these poor mountain girls in Sewanee. And guess what? This time, it prospered beyond all expectations.
On the night of May 3rd, 1909, the school was completely destroyed by fire. I honestly don’t know what I would have done if I was her. This was a school she poured herself into once, and it closed, and now the second time, it was destroyed. I could have easily understood if she closed up shop and went somewhere else. But she didn’t! It was written of her, about this period of her life, “Undaunted, Sister Hughetta, being a woman of unusual optimism and magnetism, rallied her friends to her aid, and from the ashes of the old school created a new stone structure.” If that does give us all an example of perseverance, I don’t know what else could.
And she stayed and lived and worked there until she was 77 years old. She died at age 78. So, she was working for these mountain girls up to a year before she died. The only reason she asked to step down at age 77 was because she was feeling the weight of her years. She died on February 1st, 1926, and her name was inscribed on the steps of high altar at St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis, next to the names of her Sisters that she worked with in 1878 who had died of the yellow fever: Constance, Thecla, Frances, and Ruth.
The Bishop of Diocese of TN, Bishop Gailor, wrote of Sister Hughetta: “She gave her mind and heart and life to the service of the Lord she loved.” The service form of the memorial service says: “It seems fitting that a memorial should be created to this saintly woman in the hallowed place where she started her ministry in the South, contributed by those whom she loved and who loved her, and who have been benefited by her generous and unselfish service to humanity.”
The memorial gift, that was decided on, was an altar backdrop on the altar of St. Mary’s Cathedral in Memphis. It seemed a perfect gift to go behind the altar she had constructed in memory of her Sisters who died in 1878. And when you visit the cathedral again, now you know the story behind the altar and its backdrop and the love and sentiment that go with it.
The school that Sister Hughetta founded in Sewanee became a boarding school as the roads and transportation improved. It impacted generations of women until it closed in 1968. It then became a retreat center that the Sisters ran to invite people from all over to come to the mountain for spiritual rest and renewal. As our Community size got smaller and smaller, we were no longer able to run the retreat center, so we sold it to our Associate, Bob Ayres, in the 1980s, and we built a new convent and chapel in 1988, across the street from our former retreat center.
We express our way of life through care for the body, the soul, and the earth. We are located on the South Cumberland Plateau with stunning views of the mountains and woods – you can ask Mother Miranda about how beautiful it is, because she’s been there. Our community is made up of four Sisters in Sewanee and we have a branch house in the Philippines with one Sister who lives there. So, five in total.
I know that all our ministry is possible because of the courage of one woman, Sister Hughetta, who felt God calling her to Sewanee, and she said ‘yes’ and went. And because of her persistence in sticking it out despite all the challenges life threw her way. I hope that by remembering her example this morning, we can all be inspired to just ‘do the next right thing.’ That is what Sister Hughetta did. Each day, strive to listen to what God was telling her to do – who next to serve – and just quietly and bravely doing it – and not giving up.
I hope that by making you all aware that the Community Sister Hughetta founded in Sewanee is STILL around and thriving that you all will come visit, maybe be interns or Associates or Sisters, and make sure you let everyone know that there are Episcopal nuns! And we don’t just exist in the Sound of Music.