Thursday, July 11, 2013

Henrietta's Story

Henrietta's marker
in St Patrick's Cemetery
“Treat them with respect,” she said to me as she passed the yellowed volumes across the desk.  Sister Francis Bernadine was the archivist of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur in Ipswich.  What she was handing me were the original volumes of the Annals that the Sisters kept, recounting their daily lives in the convent at Notre Dame Academy in Lowell starting in 1852.  In my hands were the pages of the first years of the Lowell community written by Mother Desiree, the first Superior.  Sister’s aged hands held onto the handwritten pages; her eyes cast down on them.  Her black veil framed her face momentarily making me think I was looking upon Mother Desiree herself.  I felt that her notation about respect wasn’t just for the care of the books, but of sharing the information within them.  I hope I kept that promise.
Within those pages was one story that I could not let go of.  It is that of Henrietta, a young girl who died at the Academy.  There were only a few lines about her arrival and untimely passing, but they stayed with me.  We’re told that one day a woman named Bridget arrived at the convent door seeking placement for her young ward.  Henrietta was either 8 or 10 years old, depending on which source is quoted.  More than likely, Bridget was the girl’s Godmother and had been left with the child upon the death of her parents.  Why would Bridget do such a thing?  It was not uncommon.  The Poor Farm in Tewksbury and Saint Peter’s Orphanage were filled with such cases.  Death was not uncommon to those living in the Acre in the 19th century.   Each week the newspapers listed the number of burials.  Those in the Catholic Burying Ground often exceed the rest of the city.  Poor diet and living conditions were major factors.  Early records followed diseases such as cholera making its deadly path through neighborhoods.
We do know that Bridget told the nuns she was leaving Henrietta in their care to seek greener fields in California.  Once again, this was not an uncommon practice.  There were newspaper articles stating the fact that a number of Lowell’s Irish population was seeking opportunities out West.  Lowell was not the only city to see such an exodus.  It was repeated in other cities.  The golden fields of the West held new opportunities and new beginnings.  Was Henrietta holding Bridget back from these?
Henrietta’s life in the convent was not long, no more than a few weeks.  She may have run small errands for the Sisters or performed light duties.  The Sister’s Annals noted her sadness saying she dragged herself around the house.  Just as the new year of 1864 dawned, the nuns noted she began to languish.  They put her in the Sister’s infirmary.  After a week “she gave up her beautiful little soul saying, ‘Jesus, Mary, Joseph.’”  It was the feast of the Holy Name, January 17th. 
Her passing must have moved the Sisters.  If you enter the first gate of St. Patrick Cemetery, pass the old slates and cross St. Malachy's Ave., you would come across the lots for the Sisters of Notre Dame.  Their plain, white marble markers reflect the simplicity of the Sisters’ lives.  Nestled among them is one stone that is slightly different.  The engraving says that Bridget donated the stone and that Henrietta was her “adopted daughter” 10 years old.  The epitaph is simple, “Blessed are the meek for they shall see God.”  The Sisters gave Henrietta the best honor they could, a place among them in the cemetery.  She would spend eternity surrounded by those who cared for her.
Later research revealed her full name was Henrietta Hassett, the daughter of James and Maria Hassett, both of Ireland.  She was born in Lowell in 1856, which makes her age at death to be 8.  Her Godmother recorded it as 10; an error or perhaps a rouse to make sure the Sisters would take in an older boarder.    Her death certificate reveals the cause of death as consumption, but the Sisters hint of her extreme sadness.  Could she have died of a broken heart?  Her father may have passed two years before in Lawrence, MA.  No other vital records can be found for family or extended family.  A short life, preserved only by a caring soul who recorded her name in a little volume of notes that weren’t meant to be read by anyone, except the author. 


  1. Lowell Daily Citizen
    January 25, 1864
    Report of Deaths for the week ending January 23
    Buried in the Catholic Ground
    17th Henrietta Hassett, 8, consumption

  2. A life summed up in so few words.

  3. a sad but beautiful story