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Susan & Anna Warner

Susan and Anna Warner
Susan and Anna Warner

Only two civilian women lie buried in the cemetery at the U.S. Military Academy. Susan and Anna Warner earned this signal honor as Sunday School teachers to generations of West Point cadets.

In 1834, the Warner family brought their two young daughters to Constitution Island. Located in the Hudson River near the academy, the island had a distinguished history; it was the connecting point for the Great Chain that had protected the Hudson from British invasion during the Revolutionary War. In more prosperous times, the family had purchased a summer home there at the urging of the girls' Uncle Thomas, an academy chaplain and professor. Reduced family circumstances forced them to take up year-round residence; the sisters would live out their lives there.

Thrown into genteel poverty, both sisters began to write novels. Susan's first book, "The Wide, Wide World," was, in its day, second in sales and popularity only to "Uncle Tom's Cabin." She soon began turning out a novel a year. Anna's most successful book was "Dollars and Cents," a memoir of the family's straitened times.

But for decades, the sisters' primary creative and social outlets were the Bible classes they held for the West Point students who rowed over to the island on Sunday afternoons. The sisters would prepare lemonade and ginger cookies for their young guests. Hospitality counted, even if the focus was education and spirituality.

Each month, Anna wrote a new hymn for her students. One, at least, became famous: the simple yet enduring "Jesus Loves Me." (Theologian Karl Barth, when asked to sum up his beliefs, replied: "Jesus loves me, this I know, for the Bible tells me so.")

After Susan died in 1885, the Sunday School classes became Anna's "one thought in life." She continued teaching until her death in 1915. That year's graduates, known as the "class the stars fell on," included Gen. Dwight D. Eisenhower -- a pupil of the Warner sisters.

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