New York 100 years - Annie Leary: A Golden-Hearted Countess


Read more About "New York - 100 years"

The following narrative is based on different documents from the Congregational Archives; historical documents pertaining to Countess Annie Leary; newspaper articles, maps, and photographs of New York City in the year 1908; assorted information gathered on-line; and the voluminous Présentation Historique de la Société de Marie Réparatrice (1818-1953), by Henri de Gensac S.J. The imagination of the writer fills in the blank spots.

 ‘You are not going to believe this! I have found the perfect Order of sisters to be the anchor for all the works connected with Pius X Art League!’  Miss Margaret Dewey Brady was so excited that she could barely contain herself. She was sitting on the edge of a chair facing Annie Leary, her friend of many years. They were in the spacious living-room of number 3 Fifth Avenue whose elegant bay window overlooked Washington Square, their reflections playing tricks among the four large gilt-framed mirrors hanging on the walls.

‘Tell me, tell me. I so wish this mission to succeed,’ said Annie leaning out to her friend with her whole body.

‘As you know’, continued Margaret, ‘I visited Florence during my European sojourn. Just by chance, or shall I say by divine providence, not far from the Santissima Annunziata, I came upon a convent. I entered a most beautiful chapel that would have brought tears of joy to your eyes. The Blessed Sacrament was exposed; candles, flowers, and lights surrounded the altar and the monstrance. At the foot of the altar were two sisters kneeling on two prie-Dieu, their backs straight, and their gaze on the Eucharist. I stayed there for the longest time; it was hard to even think of leaving that oasis to go out onto the noisy streets. Two other sisters came in silently; they seemed to walk on air. They wore white habits, blue veils and scapulars, capes and a long veil which was draped over their faces covered their heads and fell all the way to the floor. I saw that the sisters replaced each other every thirty minutes. The two who had been kneeling stood up and all four of them genuflected on both knees at the same time. It was like a sacred dance. The two new ones took their place at the foot of the altar and the other two left through a side door. I tell you Annie, it was beautiful!’

‘Did you find out any thing about that Order?’

‘I certainly did! After my time in the chapel I went to the convent proper and asked to talk to the superior. You won’t believe her name, Mère Marie de Nôtre Dame des Prodiges!  Of course she didn’t speak any English but my French is quite good so we were able to have a good conversation.’


‘I learned that the congregation, Société de Marie Réparatrice, was founded in France in 1857 by a countess like you. They already have 45 convents, including two in Mexico.  Emilie d’Oultremont d’Hooghvorst, the foundress, was the daughter of a Belgian count, not a countess named by the Pope like you.’

‘Did she show any interest in coming to New York?’

‘She did! She told me that the General Superior and several other sisters want a foundation in New York.  They are actually in conversation with the Bishop of Havana since they have been invited to Cuba by the Jesuits. New York is the logical pied à terre. Havana, New York and Mexico make a perfect triangle! The sisters are also aware of the strength of the Catholic Church in the United States; the conditions of the immigrants and of course, of the generosity of the people.’

‘My friend, you know that I dearly love Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament but the mission at Charlton Street is for the betterment of immigrant Italian women and children. What else do the sisters do besides pray?’

‘The sisters are semi-cloistered, so all their works are done within their buildings. The convent I visited opened four years ago in November 1901; nonetheless, they already have established catechetical programs for children and adults; classes for servant girls and young workers; retreats for women and classes for those wanting to convert to the Catholic Church. They also have several groups devoted to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. As a way to earn their living, they make vestments, purificators, corporals, palls, and altar clothes. Some of these they also donate to poor churches and to missionaries.’

‘Are they Italians?’

‘Some are.  Among them there are also French, Spaniards, British and Irish, and some are Belgians like the foundress.’

Annie sat quietly for a while, her piercing eyes gazing at the light playing on the mirror to her left. ‘My dear friend’ she said, ‘all this makes me very happy. I see many of my own interests reflected in their spirituality as you describe it: the concern for the poor, the love of the Eucharist, the outreach to women and children.  It might work, it might just work!’

Now you might wonder who was Annie Leary and why was she interested in bringing the Reparatrixes to the United States of America?
Annie Leary was born in 1832, the second of James and Catherine Leary’s six children. The Leary family was originally from Ireland but had been established in New York for at least two generations. By the time of Annie’s birth her father was a very successful business man who could send his two daughters and four sons to the best private schools.  James Leary was an associate of John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Remarkably, Leary and Astor amassed a fortune buying and selling beaver pelts that were used to make the tall hats worn by gentlemen in Europe and America. The demand for beaver pelts was such that the beaver population in North America almost became extinct. In addition, James Leary had a hat factory in which he employed poor Irish immigrants; there he developed a process that revolutionized the industry by making more affordable hats using less expensive napped nutria pelts. When the European market began to favor silk in the manufacture of hats, he was the first to introduce it in the U.S. market. His shop was the most fashionable in New York’s Chatham Square and later in Hannover Square. He was known as the “arbiter of hat fashion” in the city. At his death he left his entire fortune to his unmarried daughter Annie and not one penny to any of his other five children.

A search through the social pages of the New York Times mentions Annie in every list of fashionable parties and in every charitable board. She loved to entertain in her palatial home in the city and during the summer in Paul Cottage, Newport, Rhode Island, which she shared with her brother Arthur. Annie loved music and was a regular at the opera.  Her musical soirées featured the best chamber music and the likes of Enrico Caruso.
Her homes were furnished lavishly with Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, antique Japanese vases, and huge gilt-framed mirrors, 68 of them. The N Y Times, August 20, 1905 describes her in formal attire: “Miss Leary is a conspicuous figure in her white satin gowns cut high, having elbow length sleeves draped with rare old lace, and wearing a small headdress of white ostrich plumes and white satin ribbon.”

When her brother Arthur, a bachelor, described as a “Beau Brummell,” one of the best know men in business and society, died in 1893, he left her a huge fortune. Her wealth was estimated to be between five and twenty million dollars.

Mentioned many times in the society pages for throwing lavish parties, Annie is many more times noted for her generosity towards the Catholic Church, and for her efforts to alleviate the plight of the poor and ill. Her love of the Eucharist led her to donate altars to poor churches both in the States and abroad. After the death of her brother Arthur she built a chapel in his name on the grounds of Bellevue Hospital in New York, the oldest and poorest in the city.  She created the Arthur Leary Mission to care for destitute patients, to assure them access to the sacraments, and to provide them with books, toiletries, coffee and cigarettes. She was vice-president of Stony Wold, a beautiful sanatorium for destitute tuberculosis patients in the Adirondack Mountains and also vice-president of the Flower Guild, since she was especially interested in the establishment of small gardens for children in the poorer quarters of New York. Annie contributed a considerable sum of money to provide for the establishment of the community of the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament in New York in 1900. Shortly after their arrival from Montreal, Archbishop Corrigan entrusted to them the church of Saint Jean Baptiste which served the French speaking Catholics. They continue their ministry there to this day. For all her good works, Pope Leo XXIII conferred on her the title of Countess on October 11, 1901; Pope Pius X later re-conferred the title.

Annie’s homeland, United States of America, “the land of opportunity”, was a magnet for the poor of the world.  In the years between mid-nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century, New York City was transformed by the influx of immigrants: Catholic rural Irish fleeing the Potato Famine; rural Italians with very little education who were escaping from an overcrowded country, natural disasters, and low wages; Russians fleeing the pogroms against the Jewish community; and Germans fearing the constant political turmoil of their country. By 1925 New York was the most populous city in the world with 6,000,000 inhabitants. Each wave of immigrants strained the infrastructure of the city while adequate housing for the poor was practically non-existent. Olmsted and Vaux, the planners of Central Park, conceived the idea of a democratic park, “a park for all the people” spanning 843 acres (2.6 by 0.5 miles) in the center of Manhattan. The Park became a reality in 1857 providing a green space in which to rest and play accessible to everyone in the crowded city. The New York Subway which opened in 1904 helped bind the city through fast and inexpensive transportation.

The situation of Italian immigrants of the late 1800s was especially grim. In 1850 there were 833 Italians in the city; by 1900 there were almost a quarter of a million. Seventy-eight percent of these immigrants were men coming to America in the hope of earning enough money with just a few years of hard labor in order to go back to their families in Italy. Most of them settled in lower Manhattan living in cramped tenement houses which were poorly lit, had inadequate ventilation, and often lacked indoor plumbing. Tuberculosis, typhus and cholera regularly decimated the population. The following quote of Jacob Riis, an investigative journalist who started a campaign to expose and change the abusive situations which immigrants had to endure, is taken from his book, How the Other Half Lives, written in 1889:

In a room not thirteen feet either way slept twelve men and women, two or three in bunks set in a sort of alcove, the rest on the floor. A kerosene lamp burned dimly in the fearful atmosphere, probably to guide other and later arrivals to their beds, for it was only just past midnight. A baby’s fretful wail came from an adjoining hall-room, where, in the semi-darkness, three recumbent figures could be made out. The apartment was one of three in two adjoining buildings we had found, within half an hour, similarly crowded. Most of the men were lodgers, who slept there for five cents a spot.

Most men worked in heavy construction, digging tunnels, building bridges and laying the city gas lines. Italian women and children did piecework at home or were ragpickers who scavenged through garbage in search of bones, tin cans, or any usable piece of cloth, which they could launder and sell. Unfortunately, often the “padrones” added to their misery by claiming a cut of their meager proceeds.

Annie, fully aware of the horrible life that Italians were enduring in New York, took on as her dearest project the education of immigrant Italian children and the protection of their mothers. In the early 1880s she founded a mission served by Italian priests where sewing classes and catechesis for the children were offered. As the participants increased, she purchased a building at the corner of Bleecker and Downing Streets which later became the parish church of The Madonna of Pompeii. In 1905 she obtained the first of three adjoining houses on Charlton Street to begin Pius X Art League, a dream for which she had big plans.

Since childhood Annie Leary had a “devotion” to Christopher Columbus whom she admired not only for his role in “discovering” America but also for bringing the Catholic faith to the New World. In part, this admiration of Columbus nourished Annie’s action on behalf of his compatriots.  As strange as it might seem to us today, this view of Columbus was typical of the times. A view that led, for example, to the establishment of the Knights of Columbus founded in the United States in 1882, the world’s largest catholic service organization.
The rest of the story will be shared periodically throughout the year.

Concepción González Cánovas, smr.

Annie Leary Annie Leary Annie Leary Annie Leary

Shopping on Mulberry
Street late 19th century

Doing piecework
at home

New York slum late
19th to early 20th century

Ragpicker holding her baby,
New York late 19th century

Annie Leary Annie Leary Annie Leary

5th Avenue mansions, Leary’s house is the
last one on the right

The wealthy
take a ride

Birds-eye-view of
lower Manhattan