An award-winning Washington Post essay from 1889

June 15, 2014
Mary Charlotte Priest taught for years at the National Park Seminary. In 1889, when she was 19, Charlotte was a winner in The Post's inaugural Amateur Authors Association essay contest. (Photo courtesy Save Our Seminary.)
Mary Charlotte Priest taught for years at the National Park Seminary. In 1889, when she was 19, Charlotte was a winner in The Post’s inaugural Amateur Authors Association essay contest. (Photo courtesy Save Our Seminary.)

This essay received a gold medal at the June 15, 1889, celebration of the Washington Post Amateur Authors Association. John Philip Sousa’s “Washington Post March” made its debut at this event. The author was a 19-year-old District high school student.

Saint Helen

By Mary C. Priest, Third Year, Washington High School

The girls of to-day, just taking into our hands the duties of womanhood, are eloquently entreated to give up those idle pleasures which we find in home and in society. We are urged to sacrifice ourselves to some great work or lofty aim which will elevate us and mankind. We are shown noble examples – illustrious women whose names and glorious deeds are written in gold on the tablets of time. The many paths of life now open to us are printed out, and we are told, “Go forth, learn, and act!”

It is indeed a glorious destiny to have a purpose in this world; to work earnestly for it, and, if needful, to immolate our lives upon its altars. But yet may not our mission lie among the simple duties and pleasures of home – in doing nothing great, in suffering nothing, yet in being faithful, and perhaps in even being humble, heroically? I cannot tell. The vision of a girl who judged otherwise comes to me. She is enrolled now among the noble army of martyrs, Saint Helen. Was she a martyr?

I knew Helen for the greater part of her life; we were at school together, and like all her friends I admired her exceedingly. She was an only daughter and a beautiful girl outwardly and inwardly. Her parents gave her a perfect education and at her graduation she was skilled in all the manifold accomplishments possessed by the girls of to-day. Her school life had kept her from home a great deal, but, after its close, she became the belle of her set, her brother’s idol, and her father’s pride. She visibly brightened the household and the traces of her graceful power over the whole family were apparent. She turned their lives from dull routine to simple, honest pleasure and they were better for it. But she was not happy she confessed; she thought that she was not using her talents; she wished for nobler work. It was not long before Helen ceased to be seen accompanying her father and brother. She had taken up trained nursing and it kept her very busy. The lectures and the hospital work were so interesting, she told her friends, and she was so enthusiastic over the study that they would not complain. She thought that she had at last found her mission and she was really very successful – the physicians gave her great encouragement.

We lost sight of Helen as the winter wore away and her duties increased. Summer came on. One morning the papers announced that yellow fever had broken out in the South. Days passed by. As the summer heat grew greater the dread scourge fixed its grasp more firmly on the land. In their anguish the stricken ones called forth for aid – nurses were wanted.

That night I was surprised to receive a note from Helen. She was going to the South. All her friends went to her with prayers and with commands. Nothing could shake her resolve. We told her how much more she was needed at home; how her father wished his daughter’s care; of her brother’s wild career without a sister’s guidance; how foolish it was in her, an unacclimated girl, to go to that fever-breathing region; and that her duty to herself and her friends lay at home. No argument dismayed her. To all she replied that it was her mission and life-work, and that she could sacrifice herself if needful. Having made a few necessary preparations she bade us all a tender farewell and started for the South.

We heard of her and from her occasionally. Dispatches spoke of her work in glowing terms. Her health withstood the ravages of the fever and she was happy in her missionhood. The fever season was nearly over and we were exulting in her escape, when one night we received the telegram announcing her death. She was one of the last victims; but the strain had been too much for her and she easily succumbed.

It was an end that would have satisfied Helen. I think she foresaw it. She was mourned publicly. Memorial services were held in honor of her martyrdom. Many tears were shed for her and many beautiful words said in her praise; a great poet wrote a sonnet to Saint Helen; the world teemed with praise of her sacrifice and her good deeds. An angel of pure marble watches her grave with pitying eyes, and many men whose lives were saved by her ministrations make it their shrine.

But I cannot always think of her as the martyr. I see her desolate home, which she ought now to be brightening; her father’s grey hair and careworn brow; her brother, reckless and gloomy. Did not her true duty lie with them? Would she not there have made the more real sacrifice? She earned the crown of martyrdom, but yet I feel that she might have worn it more worthily had she fulfilled her other mission.

John Kelly writes "John Kelly's Washington," a daily look at Washington's less-famous side. Born in Washington, John started at The Post in 1989 as deputy editor in the Weekend section.
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