Mother Lurana, Foundress of the Sisters of the Atonement

In a recent lengthy article, we wrote of the saintly Father Paul of Graymoor, Founder of the Franciscan Friars of the Atonement. Mother Lurana (pronounced Lu ray na) White is such an important part of the story of Graymoor that she deserves at least a short piece of her own. Much is said of her and her part in Graymoor’s founding in that earlier article, but little is noted of her early life and her later years.

Like Father Paul Wattson, the future foundress was born into a High Church Episcopalian family. The place of her birth was Warwick, New York. Unlike Father Paul, though, whose father struggled to pay the bills on his pastor’s salary, Lurana Mary’s family was well-to-do, her maternal grandfather having been the president of Grocers’ Bank in New York City. Her father’s family included important and influential officials of the town of Warwick. She was a child of privilege and of culture.

Even as a young child, she was noticeably bright and observant, remembering well her own baptism, in 1873, at the age of three, in Christ Church. Her worry then was that her little sister, Annie, eighteen months old at the time and also a Baptismal candidate, would cry when the saving waters were poured upon her head. Little Lurana was very relieved when she did not!

Early Indications

Her family was continually amazed at the seriousness of her probing questions and her open acceptance of the things that she was taught. When her grandmother saw fit to break the news to her at age seven or eight that there really was no Santa Claus, the little girl was shaken to the core. “Is all that you have been telling me about God a lie, too?” she queried her horrified grandmother, who could see that – at least for a few moments – her faith in her family very nearly had been destroyed.

Another impactful incident, which occurred when she was about ten or eleven, seemed to have marked her for life. One early summer morning, as she was skipping happily along to school, she distinctly heard a loud voice say, “Someday you will die.” By her own admission, that experience caused her to reflect every day for the rest of her life on the brevity of life and the certainty of death.

One of Lurana’s early heroes was Saint Thomas a Becket, about whom she read in a Charles Dickens’ work, A Child’s History of England. Strange for a Protestant child, especially when Dickens clearly made Saint Thomas the villain who was disobedient to his heroic king, Henry II. Young Lurana disliked the dour Puritans and Pilgrims, even though her own ancestry could be traced to them. She was fun loving within the family, who, because of their wealth, traveled a good deal for pleasure. She shunned dolls for the pleasure of living things; animals were dear to her, especially her pony “Beauty,” and as she grew, she became an accomplished horsewoman. Lurana excelled in her studies (except for algebra which she found “illogical”) and developed an early love for the Latin language.

The future Mother Foundress’ love for the High Church Anglican liturgy was fostered at St. Agnes, her Episcopal finishing school in Albany.The girls at the school would attend daily services at the Gothic-style Cathedral of All Saints, which was just across the street. Lurana did not yet realize it, but God was directing her little by little to the one, true Church.

Childhood Left Behind

Lurana Mary’s mother wanted the “good life” for her daughters: moving in acceptable social circles, marrying well, and raising their families in privilege just as her own children had been raised. For a time, Lurana followed her mother’s wishes, but something was stirring within her, something deep and very spiritual – and so very unlike what her mother wished for her daughter!

Writing of this time in her life, she said, “I knew that God was speaking to my soul more clearly than ever before; desires and ideals that I can best summarize in the word “sacrifice” began to form somewhat chaotically, but, notwithstanding, with partially definite shape, and I became conscious of two things: first, that my life was to be different from that of my girl friends, for I knew that I should not marry; and secondly, that I wished to do and suffer something worth while for God and for others.”

She did not wish to upset her family, but, finally, in 1894, she revealed to them her desire to lead the life of a religious nun and to return to St. Agnes to become a member of the Anglican Community of the Sisters of the Holy Child. Disappointed and chagrined, her mother initially refused permission. After much prayer and persuasion on her part, however, Lurana finally convinced her to grant permission. Lurana Mary White was received as a postulant into the Community in Albany in October of 1894.

Even this move, however, did not satisfy her longing for sacrifice and poverty, since the Sisters of the Holy Child did not take vows of poverty, chastity and obedience. Her Bishop did allow her to make these vows privately, but this did not bring her satisfaction. Not only was she called by God to pronounce these vows personally, her fervent prayer was to take the vow of poverty, especially, corporately, as a member of an Order, something which was not to be found in the Anglican religious community. In retrospect, we can see her Franciscan spirituality awakening at this early time in her religious life. When we compare her journey to Catholicism to that of Father Paul’s, the parallels are astonishing. One can only see the Hand of Providence in the eventual weaving together of their lives.

Mother Lurana’s journey to the Church of Rome in conjunction with Father Paul’s is thoroughly outlined in my article Father Paul of Graymoor. We will only say here that their intentions, their prayers, and finally their lives meshed beautifully in those early years despite the incredible hardships that both they and their very few followers endured.

Well Established

From that first brutal winter that she spent as custodian of the Chapel of St. John’s in the Wilderness in 1900, to their corporate entrance into the Catholic Church in 1909, to Father Paul’s own ordination as a Catholic priest in 1910, Graymoor grew slowly but steadily. They had many triumphs and many heartaches, a few steps backward to be sure, but many more steps forward. With the help of Our Lady and the local Catholic authorities, they persevered and succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

As vocations increased, God — and the many needs of the Church in America — saw fit to allow Mother Lurana to “branch out” to fill some of those needs. Because of The Lamp, the worldwide publication of Graymoor, priests working in the foreign missions knew well the work of the Friars and Sisters of the Atonement. Requests began to arrive for financial assistance and for personnel to help fill needs in both foreign lands and mission areas of our own country. There were letters from India, England, British West Indies, and the Philippines, as well as several areas of the United States. At that time the United States had only recently been declassified as mission territory under the auspices of the Propaganda Fidei in Rome.

Deep in the Heart of Texas

Although the Sisters were very busy at Graymoor, Mother in her intense charity for Catholics in need, especially children, began her work from New York far afield to Hereford, Texas, a very isolated outpost in the panhandle of the Lone Star State. A lonely old priest, Father Campbell, served a scattered population in a decidedly un-Catholic part of the Southwest. The Sisters would have to do something here that they had never done — teach school. Mother Lurana agreed to send four of her religious daughters to Texas to act as missionaries to the scattered few Catholics, teach their children, and evangelize the non-Catholics of the parish. The agreement was to staff the school until the parish was financially able to bring in other teaching sisters. Amazingly, the work in Texas was begun in 1917 and lasted until 1938. The Sisters outlived Father Campbell, and they were able to continue the publication of a small newsletter he had launched in response to the anti-Catholic screeds distributed by the bigots of the area. The Antidote, as it was called, was eventually taken over by the Graymoor staff.

In our earlier article on Father Paul, mention was made of Miss Mary Buxton, whom Mother Lurana converted on a sea voyage from England to the United States. In gratitude for her return to Christianity (Anglicanism), her sister and brother-in-law donated the money needed to purchase the property that was to become known as the Mount of the Atonement. Eventually, Miss Buxton accepted Roman Catholicism and decided to join the Sisters of the Atonement as a daughter of Mother Lurana. One Miss Florence Locke was appointed by Mother Lurana to meet her at the dock in New York City. Miss Locke arrived some time after the ship did and had a bit of a problem locating her charge. After looking for some time, she finally came upon the scene of a very tiny and proper English lady surrounded by many pieces of luggage, all marked “S. A.” A very fervent and insistent group of missionaries from the Salvation Army was trying to spirit Miss Buxton off with them, assured that she belonged to them. Miss Buxton kept protesting all the while, “But I shan’t go with you; indeed, I shan’t.” She was so in love with the Society of the Atonement that she had painted its initials on everything she owned! Such was the love that Mother Lurana and Father Paul inspired in their followers.

The years of the Great War and the worldwide influenza epidemic were very difficult ones for the Society, as they were for much of the rest of the world. The flu hit the Sisters hard and several died. Mother Lurana herself fell ill. Her health had begun to decline during these years; she began to suffer from chronic bronchitis. She only increased her work load, however, relying on her strong faith in Jesus to carry her through. Although she certainly led an active life, her prayer life was deep enough that she has been called a mystic. It seems that God spoke to her still, as He had when she was a little girl skipping to school that long ago summer day.

Other Missionary Fields

Although the far-away Texas mission was their first venture, many others followed. Closer to home, the Sisters ministered to poor children in New York City, especially in the Italian community. Mother’s fear was that these little children of Christ would be lost to the Church; so she took it upon herself to continue Saint Frances Cabrini’s work of the past century. The Sisters brought the children food and candies at Christmas time and made sure that they were taught their Catholic Faith. They also worked in Philadelphia with Italian and Negro children, assisting the nuns of Saint Katharine Drexel’s order, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, in that city. Once, when a poor woman came to the convent door in Philadelphia begging for food, the sisters there had but one loaf of bread in the kitchen. Sister Monica, the superior, instructed the young sister to give the loaf to the hungry mother, saying “Give it to her in God’s name, and you can be sure if we cast our bread upon the waters it will come back to us a hundredfold.” Within half an hour, the young sister was astonished that the Bond bread man had brought to them a hundred loaves of bread for which he had no sale!

Mother Lurana’s health continued to decline; she was becoming deaf and heard terrible noises in her head. She bore all her infirmities patiently and continued working. It was her ill health and the doctor’s suggestion that she get some “sea air” that caused her to purchase a house on the beach in Long Island in 1923. It became a place of rest and relaxation for herself and the other Sisters when they needed to have a change of scene and renew their energies. One of her honored guests there was the Apostolic Delegate who visited to urge Mother to secure from Rome approval for her Rule.

Always Active, But Contemplative!

fr_portrait_lurana-bioDespite Mother Lurana’s declining health, her activities did not cease. She built a novitiate for the new vocations coming into Graymoor; a retreat house was begun at The Vinyard, the Society’s property adjacent to Catholic University in Washington, D. C.; the Sisters of the Atonement took over the publication of The Candle, a much smaller and less expensive publication than The Lamp, which the Friars continued to publish. She was intensely interested in fostering Catholic music within the Community and received permission from the Bishop to chant the Office in Latin. She herself had a rich contralto voice, and it was only her Franciscan spirituality that kept her from singing “all the time.”

The two most important spiritual goals for the dear Mother Foundress were always unity and poverty. In the spirit that she developed with Father Paul, her prayer for Unity of Anglicans and other Protestants — indeed for all non Catholics with the See of Peter — was constant, and she never ceased to work to that end. Her love of Lady Poverty matched that of her beloved Saint Francis. One of the most joyous occasions of her life as a Catholic religious was the day that her own mother, always the proper upper crust Anglican New Yorker, came into the Church — just before her death. This was a lady who refused to visit her daughter at Graymoor because she hated anything that smacked of Catholicism. So, at the eleventh hour, the Good Lord of the vineyard, arranged for her to enter the Church at Graymoor itself in 1932 after a long arduous journey cross country from California with her daughter Annie. Before death, she received the Last Sacraments from the hands of Father Paul and is buried on the Graymoor property. What joy this brought to Mother Lurana!

Expansion of her mission to bring Catholics back into the fold and to spread the Faith to non-believers brought her in her later years to the Canadian West. She founded houses to minister to the Japanese in Vancouver, British Columbia, and to Ukranian Catholics in northern Alberta. One old Ukranian woman was so grateful to have a Catholic chapel to pray in once more that Mother found her prostrate on the chapel floor crying with gratitude. She had not been inside a church in forty years!

A Death in Holy Week

The breadth and scope of the work of Mother Lurana Mary White was enough to wear out the most robust woman. The fragility of her health during the last twelve or thirteen years of her life were evident, but, as we have seen, it did not stop this indomitable woman from accomplishing the tasks that God had set out for her. She died on April 15, 1935, at her beloved Graymoor, at age sixty-five, surrounded by the community of daughters that she loved so much. Although she was a bit younger than Father Paul, she predeceased him by five years. She leaves a legacy of which Il Poverello himself would surely approve — one of love of unity for the salvation of souls and of holy poverty.