Harriet Starr Cannon was born in Charleston, South Carolina, on May 7, 1823. Both of Harriet’s parents died of yellow fever when she was 17 months old; she was left with her elder sister and closest friend Catherine Ann, then three years old. An aunt welcomed the two orphaned sisters into her home in Bridgeport, Connecticut — making for seven children in one house in this then-bustling mercantile center on Long Island Sound. As a young girl Harriet lost her sight in one eye in an accident, but all accounts point to a happy childhood despite many significant early setbacks. One relative described her as fond of dancing, “a great society girl and not at all religious.”
The decision to consecrate her life completely to God came in the wake of a personal tragedy. Catherine Ann Cannon married in 1851 and moved to California, intending for Harriet to join her when she had established a home on the West Coast with her husband. A telegram brought the news in 1855, just as Harriet was preparing to leave for the West, that Catherine had died. The event changed the direction of her life completely; later, she wrote: “You know, she was my all — neither father, mother, or brother. We were two, but were one — but if God had left her with me, I should not have been here.”
In New York City in 1856, the 32-year-old Harriet was received into the Sisterhood of the Holy Communion, a parochial association of “evangelical sisters” who worked under the direction of William Augustus Muhlenberg (1796-1877) as nurses at his newly built St. Luke’s Hospital. Harriet thrived in her earliest medical and religious work among the poor. By 1863, however, conflicts with Muhlenberg’s collaborator and friend Anne Ayres, who was in immediate charge of the sisterhood’s activities, led to the withdrawal of four sisters and the essential dissolution of the order. (The last Sister of the Holy Communion died in 1940.)
Harriet was one of the four who left.