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Stained glass window from the University of the South featuring the logo and seal of the Community


Learn about the history of our Community & the Sisters' current ministries.

A black and white photograph of Sister Harriet Starr Canon
Stained glass window from the Cathedral in Memphis featuring Sister Constance taking care of a sick person
The Sisters standing on the steps of the Convent Chapel


The Community of St. Mary, an Episcopal Benedictine monastic community for women, was founded on the feast of the Presentation, February 2, 1865 in New York, when the Bishop of New York, the Rev. Dr. Horatio Potter received the vows of Harriet Starr Canon and four other women to form the community. It was the first Episcopal monastic community in the United States, and its Sisters first managed a “home for the reclamation of fallen women.” Since then it has been involved in a number of ministries, including establishing a free hospital for poor children in New York; establishing schools in New York, Tennessee, Wisconsin, and California; managing retreat centers in such diverse places as Manhattan, the Colorado Rockies, and Sewanee, TN; and developing women’s monastic communities in the Philippines and in Malawi.

At present, there are three provinces of the Community -the Eastern Province in New York, the Southern Province in Tennessee, and the Western Province in Wisconsin. It also has two branch houses, one in the Philippines and the other in Malawi.


In 1873, Bishop Quintard of Tennessee, a friend of Mother Harriet, our founder, invited the Community to send Sisters to Memphis to begin a school for girls and establish a Church home for the poor and needy. Four Sisters were sent to start this ministry, but their work was interrupted by the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1878 which devastated the population of Memphis, reducing the population to such an extent that Memphis lost its status as an incorporated city. During that time, the Sisters, though they had no formal training as nurses, cared for the sick and dying. All but one of the Sisters died in their attempts and are remembered today as the “Martyrs of Memphis” for their heroic service.

Sr. Hughetta Snowdon, the one surviving Sister from the Yellow Fever Epidemic, moved to Sewanee, TN, after the epidemic and in 1888, with the help of other Sisters, started what is now the Southern Province of the Sisters of St. Mary in Sewanee, Tennessee. The Sisters soon opened a school for mountain children known as “St. Mary’s on the Mountain,” for whom the county school was too distant and the road too difficult. As transportation improved, it became a boarding school for girls until 1968. Later, the school buildings became a retreat center sponsored by the Community of St. Mary, Southern Province. In 1988, the Sisters moved to a nearby location where they built the present convent. The retreat center property was purchased by Robert Ayres and is now known as “St. Mary’s Sewanee: The Ayres Center for Spiritual Development.” The center is its own separate organization with no legal or financial connection with the Sisters of St. Mary. However, the Sisters continue to have a relationship with the center as Board Members.


Today the Sisters’ ministries include providing spiritual direction, leading retreats, quiet days, and workshops, going out to preach and teach classes at churches both in-state and out-of-state, and training and working with our Oblates, Associates, volunteers, and Organic Prayer Program interns. The Sisters produce items to sell which include jams and jellies from the fruits of their garden, handmade colored cards, and framed photography all made by the Sisters. The Sisters provide Benedictine hospitality to all who visit and invite guests to stay at the Hermitage or the garden level of the convent. We welcome you to come and visit!

A painting of Sister Constance
A black and white photograph of the Sisters in Procession


Watch this video to learn about the Sisters' ministries and how they got their start.

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