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The Passion of Abby Hemenway: Memory, Spirit, and the Making of History (review)

From: The Catholic Historical Review
Volume 90, Number 3, July 2004
pp. 580-581 | 10.1353/cat.2004.0119

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The Catholic Historical Review 90.3 (2004) 580-581

The Passion of Abby Hemenway: Memory, Spirit, and the Making of History. By Deborah Pickman Clifford. (Montpelier: Vermont Historical Society. Distributed by University Press of New England, Hanover. 2001. Pp. x, 350. $40.00 cloth; $24.95 paperback.)

The name Abby Hemenway is not a household word among Catholic historians, and that is no surprise. During her lifetime Hemenway (1828-1890) was best known as a regional historian, editor of the Vermont Historical Gazeteer, a multi-volume work in which Hemenway sought to include a history of every Vermont village and town. This ambitious project consumed most of her energies and all of her resources from age thirty-one until she died at sixty-one, alone in Chicago where she had fled in 1885 to escape mounting financial troubles connected with the Gazeteer.

Although Clifford focuses attention upon Hemenway's career as editor of the Gazeteer, she also covers terrain that is of great interest to Catholic historians. In April, 1864, Hemenway, a member of the Ludlow Baptist church since 1843, was received into the Roman Catholic Church in Burlington, Vermont. Hemenway, who had written "The Mystical Rose," a poem reflecting upon the life of the Virgin Mary, even before her conversion, soon became known in Catholic literary circles, and reached out to other well-known literary converts with New England roots, including Orestes Brownson and Eliza Allen Starr. Her devotional poetry caught the attention of Father Edward Sorin of the University of Notre Dame, editor of the newly established Catholic weekly Ave Maria. Mother Angela Gillespie of St. Mary's Academy, Notre Dame, provided spiritual support and hired her to teach Latin during the spring term of 1880. Hemenway stayed with the Holy Cross Sisters at Notre Dame more than once, and also boarded at the Sacred Heart convent in Burlington, Vermont. Clifford speculates that she was attracted to convent life and might have joined the Holy Cross Sisters if it were not for her other vocation, the Gazeteer (p. 263).

The Passion of Abby Hemenway raises important questions about the spiritual and material lives of single Catholic women of the nineteenth century, especially those committed to vocations in the world, and dependent upon their own talents and limited resources for their survival. It takes us into the convents where they were boarders and into other Catholic institutions for working women such as the St. Joseph's Home in Chicago, where Hemenway lived for most of 1885. It illuminates their hopes and desires for something more. In an article published in Ave Maria in 1865 Hemenway described a visit to the Chicago home of another literary woman, the art teacher and lecturer Eliza Allen Starr, in rapturous terms. In Clifford's words: "visiting this modest but cozy house with its ample work space, pious furnishings, and virginal white bed was like walking into a dream" (p. 195). Clifford examines why the Catholic Church, whose beliefs "justified... the worth of the single, chaste woman" (p. 210) had such allure for Hemenway, as well as for Ethan Allen's daughter Fanny (d. 1808), about whom Hemenway wrote a play entitled Fannie Allen, The First American Nun (1878). Clifford's biography is a significant contribution. The worldly asceticism of Hemenway and other single Catholic women merits far more attention from historians than it has received thus far.

Debra Campbell

Colby College