New York 100 years - Understandings & Misunderstandings


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The following narrative is based on different documents from the Congregational Archives; historical documents pertaining to Countess Annie Leary; newspaper articles; maps and photographs of New York City in the year 1908; assorted information gathered on-line; and the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

“The harbor remained locked under the heaviest ice pack in years, bringing ship traffic to a halt. Near Sandy Hook, at the entrance of New York’s harbor, hundreds of passengers climbed down from ice-locked ships and walked half a mile across solid ice to the shore of New Jersey.”  With these words, Jim Rasenberger, the author of America, 1908: the Dawn of Flight, the Race to the Pole, the Invention of the Model T, and the Making of a Modern Nation, describes the morning of Sunday, February 9, 1908. On this day, eleven days after sailing from Naples, the SS Cedric arrived in New York. We assume that the Cedric had no difficulty in reaching its pier since our sisters never mentioned in their letters having to walk on ice! The Statue of Liberty, gift from the people of France, erected on Bedloe’s Island in 1886, welcomed the ship as it entered the New York harbor. MM of St Matthew and MM de Ste Véronique Giuliani, wrapped tightly in their capes, leaned against the railings. At first glimpse, New York City showed itself wearing a slight veil of snow in the frigid and clear light. As the lengthy proceedings of mooring and inspections went on Véronique and Matthiew opened their hearts to God making wide spaces to receive this immense city; and the unknown Countess who had invited them; the Archbishop whom they needed to contact immediately; the people whom they would eventually serve; as well as the sounds, smells, relentless activity, and the different twang of the English spoken in the city.

Miss Margaret Dewey Brady, long time friend of Countess Annie Leary, who had visited with the Reparatrixes in Florence, received them with great joy. Their trunks and hand baggage were loaded onto the waiting carriage and off they set bouncing on cobblestones and through unpaved streets rutted by the wheels of carriages, pushcarts, and the innumerable prints left by hoofs and feet in the slush. They went directly to 49 Charlton Street, one of three adjoining houses owned by the Countess. These houses formed the core of the “Christopher Columbus Art and Industrial Institute” whose aim was to provide solid Christian education and formation in the arts and trades to the children of Italian immigrants. After many years of preliminary work, the Institute had been solemnly dedicated by Archbishop Farley on June 22, 1907. On that occasion Pope Pius X sent this special blessing: “To our beloved daughter, Countess Annie Leary, for whom we implore from our Lord the fullness of all happiness for her charity, we impart from our soul the apostolic benediction.” Miss Brady, who was in charge of running the Institute, lived at number 49. Miss Leary had prepared number 53 for the sisters but they could not occupy it until they had authorization from the archbishop.

SMRCharlton Street was a quiet and genteel street in Greenwich Village on the north-west border of Little Italy, a neighborhood in lower Manhattan where most immigrants first settled because of its proximity to the docks.  In the photograph to the right, taken in 1908, Number 49 is the second house from the corner next to the pharmacy.

Weak-legged, weary, cold, and tired, Véronique and Matthiew gratefully ate a light supper and retired to their rooms where they unpacked just the essentials.

On Monday, February 10 in the brisk, cold morning air they found their way to St. Anthony of Padua Parish, four short blocks away, to participate in their first Eucharistic Celebration on North American soil. The rest of the morning was spent writing letters to MM of St Maurice and to their families.  At 4:00 in the afternoon they were expected at Countess Leary’s mansion on 5th Avenue and 84th Street. Maybe the countess sent her carriage for them or on the other hand they may have hired one of the new gas-powered taxicabs. On the way to the countess they stopped at the Archbishop’s office at 51st Street and Madison Avenue to request an appointment which was given for the following morning.

On route to the Archbishop’s office, which adjoined the new St Patrick’s cathedral, they drove around Washington Square turning onto 5th Avenue north, the direction in which the city was rapidly growing. At the southern edge of Central Park stood the new Plaza Hotel reflecting the glistening sun from its more than 800 windows. On and on they continued for 33 more blocks, beautiful Central Park on their left, before reaching the countess’ mansion which had been built only four years earlier.

SMRIn a copy of the letter written by MM de St Véronique to MM de St Maurice on Wednesday, February 12, 1908 Véronique recounts their first visit to the countess; their encounter with their travel companion Patrick Riordan, Archbishop of San Francisco; and the visit to Archbishop Farley. Unfortunately, the second page is missing and perhaps another small section at the end, but Véronique’s own words can help bring us closer to their experience. What follows are excerpts from her very long letter written at the end of a very long day.

My Very Reverend and beloved Mother,

La paix de Jésus!

As I told you in my last letter of Monday last, we were to have had our first visit with Countess Leary on that same day between 4 and 6 pm. I come to give you the details of this first encounter. The good Countess received us with open arms like a true good mother. She is very pleased to see us come and considers our arrival as totally providential. She was very pleased to know that, because you couldn’t come in person, you sent me in your place in order to talk to her and to see the Archbishop; she understands perfectly well that I cannot remain here. She doesn’t look that old … (Missing page)

…She was enchanted by the pretty Jerusalem cross that I gave to her in your name; she was very pleased.

On the 11th, feast of Our Lady of Lourdes, Véronique and Matthew went once again to St Anthony of Padua for early Mass. After breakfast and ardent prayers for wisdom they traveled north once again to the Archbishop’s office. On arrival they learned that he had a clergy meeting and couldn’t receive them. They were given an appointment for the following day at 10:30. Fortunately, the journey was not lost because “…we were able to see our good Archbishop of San Francisco who received us very kindly and told us that he had spoken to the Archbishop on our behalf; he in turn told him about Countess Leary’s projects.”

On Wednesday the 12th they finally meet Archbishop Farley. After this visit they went on to see the countess. Let us once again read MM de St Véronique’s own words though some of the original text is missing:

…That she (MM de St. Sauveur) should have gone to see him. I answered that the Superior of Mexico was in New York on her way to visit our community of Cuba and that we desired that she take advantage of the occasion to meet the countess whom we did not know at all. She also wanted to visit His Excellency but that the countess wanted to be the first to talk to him. She begged that we keep the secret, otherwise we would have written to him from Rome. He found that our procedures were not regular. I did my best to assure him that the purpose of our trip was precisely to talk to him and that we haven’t entered the house that the countess has for us and that we have been advised repeatedly to come in person to negotiate with him. Then we talked about our lifestyle, and one of the first things he said was, “there has been a convent of religious that has split from you.” I said only that those religious have a very different lifestyle from ours; they are missionaries and go out. We didn’t say anything else about that. What really pleased him was to know that we are not Mendicants, that we provide for ourselves and that we won’t be a burden. He told us that an Italian lady brought a Religious Community and then abandoned them, she didn’t do anything more for them. Then he added: Countess Leary won’t do that to you. The conclusion of the visit was very satisfying, because he told me to tell the countess that he desires that she come to see him in our presence so that everything will be clear about what she desires to do for us so that everything is in order. After this he will give us his authorization in writing so that I can send it to you. I thanked him and said to him that that is exactly what you want so that all the conditions are clear. He told us to stay where we are in the meantime and to study our plans carefully. He dismissed us, kindly blessing us, and calling us “dear child.” On leaving we thanked Our Lord and Our Lady of Lourdes for this happy ending. The few painful moments are nothing, well worth it.  We are willing to take more little inconveniences, if necessary.

Everyday we see more clearly how you were well inspired to send us; otherwise we might have never succeeded. The Archbishop had said to the countess a few weeks ago that it would be two years before he would let us come. Yesterday she understood the reason. It seems that there is a great debt over the cathedral and he wants to have all the money needed to pay this debt. He demands great sacrifices from the clergy in order to raise the money. Knowing the generosity of the countess he probably also wanted to have her money and as she herself says, who knows if she will still be in this world two years from now.

After our visit to the Archbishop, the countess wanted to see us in the afternoon. I gave her the message from His Excellency. She had no difficulty about setting up a meeting. She told me that we are totally in her care for everything, whatever we might need. She will pay for our trip and for my return trip. Yesterday morning she sent me a small gift of $50.00 (250 francs). The first thing I did with it was to have a Mass of Thanksgiving said. Talking about the little houses, I had no difficulty in making her understand that one little house would not be sufficient to fix up what we would need for a small community, that we will need the second house. “All right,” she said, “you will have it; I’ll give you all that you need even what I am wearing, if it is necessary. The Religious of Mary Reparatrix won’t ever suffer with me.” She is really charming, a golden heart, she loves us very much and believes that we are hers. I assure you, Mother, that we are very fortunate to have such a person for this foundation. If we gain her heart we will do whatever we want with her. Despite her 84 years (There is a discrepancy here. In 1908 the countess was actually 76.) I find that she has an excellent memory; she doesn’t forget any small detail of our household, and luckily for us she notices what we need. She sees that we are well educated and desires that we will be treated accordingly. Each day we notice that the service is less primitive. She has told us clearly that she wants to build us a convent and a church in the center of the city. Our small houses are only the beginning. She finds that our life is perfect, everything she had hoped for. But she has a great desire to establish in our house and also in Rome the Cross of Christopher Columbus!  I think that we can easily please her by naming the program of religious instruction for the little boys “The Work of the Holy Cross of Christopher Columbus.” This is her weak point, when she begins to talk about it she never ends. Nothing can be done but to let her talk for a long time. She desires that among those who would come there is an Italian, and also someone who could teach lace-making, embroidery, drawing and painting, I tell you this now to help you decide who you’ll want to send. It is clear that she will pay for all the trips. The first day she told MM of St Mathieu that she doesn’t want any French, there are too many of them already in New York, although she also said to me that the nationality of those who would come doesn’t make a difference. It is necessary that we try to please her in all we can; she is worth it.

At the end of their visit they still had to face the long ride home in the dusk of early February.  That ride must have been a tedious one because of all the traffic related to the automobile race from New York to Paris via the North Pole! The weather being much milder than Sunday’s the City was in an excited mood. Thousands gathered around Times Square to send off the six teams on their journey that would last 164 days. Once home, after having passed through all the crowds, the day was not over and this long letter had yet to be written in order to post it the next day; towards its end we perceive the emotion and the longing.

I am very pleased with MM de St Mathieu; we get along very well and her health has improved. They like her very much and I think that she will do very well. Both of us are amazed that we are doing as well as we are. It is through your prayers that we are getting so much help. It is only four days since we arrived and it seems so much longer; we have done so much; we have seen so much in such a short time that our heads are full. Thank God it isn’t cold. Every morning we go to Mass at the church of St. Antoine which is the closest to us, 10 minutes from here; it is served by the Franciscan Priests. I am sorry that it is our parish. The Franciscan Missionaries are in the same Parish, across from the church. Their house doesn’t look as nice as ours and our view is so much nicer.

So here is my very long letter. I hope you’ll be able to read my scribble. I wanted to tell you everything. It feels so long to be without news from you. It is 17 days since we left Rome but it feels so much longer.

Next day, before sealing the letter Véronique had a few more details to share:

(Some text is missing) … that all will go well and that he’ll be pleased to receive us.  Nevertheless I think, Mother, that we still have to thank O.L. for having met the Archbishop of San Francisco, who so loves Religious Communities and so was able to speak in our favor to Archbishop Farley, because I think that he was not so well disposed towards us. The Countess was so excited when she learned that we were coming and that she was going to be able to pursue the project to which she is committed that she went immediately to tell the Archbishop who responded : “Well, they will go back immediately to wherever they came from!” But she calmed him down, saying “But they are coming mainly to ask authorization from Your Excellency.”  Archbishop Riordan assured us that when the Archbishop (Farley) told the Countess that we would have to go back to wherever we had come from she told him: “Certainly not, they will stay here even if I have to sell the clothes on my back!” She stood up to him and deep down he wants to keep her friendship because she has done so much for him.

Finally the closing:

My next letter, I hope, will bring the document with the conditions and the authorization from His Excellency.  Please, bless us, my very Reverend and beloved Mother and receive the expression of my loving and devoted respect.

Your much attached Child,

M de S. Véronique Giuliani, smr

Véronique added two postscripts:

When addressing your letters it is better to write via Cherbourg, not Via Inghilterra because this takes longer.

Could you, Mother, send me a good photograph of one of our Churches to show the Countess in order to give her an idea of our style. I would also want to have a medal of the Adoration. It can be sent as a sample. Gratefully.

The hope for an easily arranged meeting with Archbishop Farley, Miss Leary and the two Reparatrixes gradually gave way to anxiety. The countess listened to the numerous requests and agreed to meet but then stalled over and over again.

On March 6 MM de Ste Véronique Giuliani expressed her distress about all this to MM of St Maurice.

Last week, Thursday 27th, she (the countess) had us come saying that we were to talk business and settle everything before seeing the Archbishop. We were there two hours and she was the same as always, excellent, but she talked about everything except the business at hand. Then, a lady whom I had met in Rome arrived.  She had been invited to have tea with us. I saw that the evening was going to go by without reaching a conclusion. I took advantage of a moment when I found myself alone with her to tell her that we could not come back for tea again and the countess said that we should be patient with her and that we’ll soon continue our conversation. I pressed the point reminding her that the Archbishop is waiting and that he won’t give his authorization until he knows that she has set an account to assure our sustenance.

That same day, in the morning, Monsignor Cerretti surprised us with a good visit. He came to New York on business and had seen Archbishop Farley who told him to tell me to be in peace, that he is happy to have us in his Diocese but that he is firm in having the Countess assure the foundation.

As you can see, Mother, at this time the difficulties are not coming from the Archbishop but from the Countess. It isn’t that she doesn’t want to do all that she can for us, but she wants to do it in her own way. Everybody tells us the same thing that we have nothing to fear from her but she can change from one moment to the next and it is not reasonable to leave things hanging in the air. Only the Archbishop can bring her to do what he wants and I had thought that the best thing for us to do was to talk to him, while at the same time show him our confidence. I had written asking for a private appointment for me and my companion so that he wouldn’t think that the Countess would be with us, and he sent word to me to come this morning.

We went and he received us kindly. I told him that I have reminded Countess Leary several times of his message that he desires to meet with her in our presence in order to learn the conditions so that he can immediately give his authorization in writing, but that the dear Countess always puts it off and doesn’t seem to understand the need, while at the same time she wants to do everything for us. He responded that he sees that we know her well; that this is a physiological defect due to her age; that it is very difficult to keep her attention on one point when one is talking to her; that sometimes he has been with her for two hours without being able to say what he wants; that I’d need to be very insistent to get what I want from her. She has told him that she will take care of us, even if she has to sell the clothes on her back! But it is absolutely necessary that she does everything according to rule. It is necessary we be independent from her later on. He has reason for saying this and thinks that that is precisely what we want, but it is a very difficult point to settle because she wants to remain in command. I must tell her, in his presence, that if she doesn’t want to do what the Archbishop wants, I will return to Rome immediately. I certainly do not want to have to say that.  I do not want to upset her. Either way, we loose. For the time being, there is nothing else to do but to tell her, other than what she already knows, that it is necessary that she decides the conditions in order to tell them to the Archbishop plus continue to pray a great deal. This is a critical moment to go through but I have not lost confidence, it is necessary to expect difficulties in a foundation.

Towards the closing of the letter we are allowed to peek into Véronique’s heart there to see her worry and enduring hope.

I pray all the time to the Good Teacher that he won’t allow me to be mistaken, to make mistakes, and that I won’t be an obstacle to the success of this important business. We rely upon this month of Saint Joseph. We have a very beautiful statue in our little chapel where we burn a candle night and day in front of this dear Saint who must fix everything during his month.

The dear Countess tries to take care of us; not wanting us to know that she has a cold for fear that would worry us. During our last visit she pointed out to us, from her window, where she wants to build a convent for us. The situation would certainly be magnificent for our work of the Blessed Sacrament and retreats. May God allow that she may accomplish all that she desires.

I read recently that since we have been here, she has lost a great amount of money in this financial crisis, which she didn’t expect. It is a momentary loss that she didn’t want us to know about because she thinks she will recuperate it in a few months. That could be the reason why she says that she is not ready at the moment to say what she can do for us because she told me something like that the other day when we were interrupted. What can we say to that?

It seems that Véronique and Matthew had already made friends in the neighborhood as Véronique happily shares with M.M. St. Maurice!

Friends are also very good bringing us beautiful flowers that we put near St Joseph. She (we don’t know who this is) says that she is the first sacristan and asks you, Mother, with me, your maternal blessing.

M de S Véronique Giuliani, smr

Almost two more months will go by before any agreement would be reached between Countess Leary, Archbishop Farley and our sisters. In the meantime, winter gave way to spring and flowers began to bloom in the gardens bringing a sense of new life to their dream of having a vibrant ministry in the United States.

There will be one more episode next month, Concepción González Cánovas, smr