New York 100 years - It’s Beginning to Feel like Home


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It is 5:15 in on the morning of Saturday, May 2, 1908. The little house on Charlton Street is waking up. One by one, the nine occupants respond to the caller’s words, “In nomine Mariae exurgamus!” with their own “Et cum ea Christum adoremus!” excitement ringing in their sleepy voices. Today! Today is the day!

Morning ablutions completed, beds made, rooms tidied, clean habits and freshly ironed guimpes, scapulars and veils in place the Sisters rush to gather in the chapel to pray the Angelus while the bells of the neighboring parish joyously sing in the morning light. Quietly, each one finds her favorite spot for her meditation. Some stay in the chapel. Some go to the tiny garden while others choose the quiet community room. The hour of prayer seems to fly, thanksgivings and distractions alternating in each heart. At 7 a rush of activity vibrates through the house. A good look is given to the chapel to make sure that the vessels and the linens are in place, the flowers fresh and the candles straight. Not a speck of dust is to be seen floating in the light filtering through the new stained-glass windows. In the kitchen the kettle is at the boiling point on the back of the stove. In the refectory dishes and mugs and plates of fresh rolls are set on the table, and butter, a treat to celebrate the occasion, is in a nice cool spot. In the parlor, a spotless table is ready for Monsignor Lavelle, first vicar general of the Archdiocese and rector of St Patrick’s cathedral, and for Father Cherubino from St Anthony’s parish, Countess Annie Leary, Miss Margaret Brady and a few other guests. The clean smell of wax and fresh flowers permeates the house. The sisters take a deep breath, take off their aprons, lower their skirts, bring down their sleeves, put on their short inner sleeves and with big smiles await their guests.

As the clock rings 8, Mgr Lavelle and Fr Cherubino bow before the altar and the Mass of the Feast of Mary Reparatrix begins. A mélange of different accents responds to the Latin prayers because the chapel is crowded with a variety of people. Among them are neighbors, Italian children who attend the Institute, their parents, Miss Brady, Countess Leary and a few of their friends. A French accent touches the responses of M de St Véronique and M de St Sauveur while M of St Matthieu, M of St Dympna, M of St Bibiana and M of St Carthage answer with an Irish lilt and M of the Holy Cross and Paz Torres bring their Spanish inflection. M of St Malachy alone prays with a British accent. Mixed in among the participants is a reporter of the New York Times whose description of the occasion will be published the following day. (Even though his background facts are inaccurate, it is interesting to read the impression made by the event on an observant outsider. The article will be provided as an addendum.)

At the end of Mass the Apostolic Blessing of Pius X read by the priest confirms this new mission of the Society of Mary Reparatrix in the United States. Greetings, congratulations and heart-felt thanks ring in the little parlor. Soon after breakfast the guests depart because at 1 o’clock a big parade will close the Centennial Celebration of the Archdiocese of New York. Between forty and sixty thousand people are expected to march from Washington Square, along Fifth Avenue to 57th Street, passing in front of St Patrick’s Cathedral where a reviewing stand has been set up for members of the clergy and civic dignitaries. Crowds of onlookers lined the streets since early morning.

If there ever was a double first class feast for the community, this day certainly qualified. There was Deo Gratias at dinner during which everyone enjoyed the ice cream sent by countess Leary. The Office was probably chanted for the first time in the chapel. Sisters had extra time to write to their families and friends and to read an interesting book. During recreation they shared stories about the different places they had recently left and revisited the events of the day. Matthieu and Véronique, who during their three months in the city had done quite a bit of traveling and sightseeing, had much to say about this vast city of New York with its many churches and tall buildings, the amazing Brooklyn Bridge and the subway trains that for only 25 cents transported people at high speed. They also talked about their new friends and benefactors as well as the appalling conditions in which the poor lived in neighborhoods just a few blocks from their convent. At the end of the day all gathered again in the chapel for Compline to sing their thanksgiving in unison: “Salve Regina, Mater misericordiae: vita, dulcedo, spes nostra, Salve!”

The joy of the first Mass that marked the official beginning of the community was multiplied by the encounters of sisters, some already known; some met for the first time. Especially sweet was the presence of M de St Sauveur who over the years had made the necessary connections to bring the congregation to the United States. The joy of reunion was short lived, however, since on Tuesday, May 5th M de St Sauveur and Paz Torres were to sail for Cherbourg. Accompanying them was Véronique who had shared so much with Matthieu in the time leading up to May 2, 1908. One can only imagine what was going on within them as together they prepared Véronique’s luggage for departure.

During the three months since their arrival on February 9, St Matthieu and St Véronique had gone from excitement, to hope, to doubt, until the moment when sometime between March 6 and the beginning of April countess Leary committed herself to provide a house for the community and also agreed to provide for the support of six sisters. A few needed renovations were made to the house she provided on Charlton Street. All the walls and wainscoting were painted white in an effort to open up and brighten the spaces. A chapel was created on the first floor with a grill separating the choir from the public space. Stained glass windows were put into the chapel and also replaced the clear glass windows of the second floor facing the street. A guichet was installed in the tiny vestibule. The countess promised to later open a connecting door into an adjoining building where the sisters could minister to the Italian immigrants.

As soon as the Archbishop gave his authorization, Mother Marie de St Maurice chose five sisters for the new foundation. Four of them who sailed from Europe arrived on April 29: M of St Dympna, 31 years-old; M of St Carthage, 35; M of St Bibiana, who went back to Ireland in 1910; and M of St Malachy who returned to London in June 1908. M of the Holy Cross, 41, born in Guatemala arrived from Mexico April 24 accompanied by M of St Sauveur who was en route to Rome to participate in the Sixth General Chapter, and Paz Torres, a Mexican postulant who had been admitted to begin her novitiate in Rome.

Véronique and Matthieu, probably helped by friends, had taken great care in arranging private spaces for their new companions. Not much was needed in the small rooms: a simple bed dressed with cotton sheets, a blanket and a white cotton bedspread, a small wooden stand holding a porcelain jug and basin for washing up, a pail and a chair. On the wall they put a tiny mirror big enough to check whether or not veil, guimpe and sérre tête were straight. Over the bed, framed in the shape of a cross, were four holy cards depicting the Sacred Heart, Mary Reparatrix, St Ignatius Loyola, and MM of Jesus. In the community room bookcases were stocked with a few good spiritual books while a table which hid simple stationary in its drawer was surrounded by a dozen straight-back chairs. One or two refectory tables and benches lined the wall of the dining room, and a cupboard held white, rough crockery and silverware. Set a little apart from the tables was a chair for the reader and a small table holding the Gospels, the Roman Martyrology and the book that was to be read aloud during the meals. The vestry and linen room shared a space in which was provided a sewing machine, an ironing board, and cupboards to store the extra habits and linens as well as a working table in the center of the room. At the front of the house a parlor to receive visitors, and those seeking spiritual guidance, was furnished with somewhat more substantial pieces.

The group of six sisters who lived in this space began their community life with some modifications, as we read in the first Annual Letter of the House of the Patronage of Saint Joseph: “The Blessed Sacrament will be exposed only three times a week, the office will be chanted in choir only occasionally and lay persons will have to lend their assistance for the adorations.” The Catalog of Charges paints the picture of their busy lives:
M of St Matthieu was Vice-superior, in charge of the works of zeal and mistress of health.
M of the Sainte Croix was assistant, councilor and admonitrix of the superior, bursar, mistress of choir and mistress of reading.
M of Ste Dympna, religious of last vows, was the mistress of music, sacristan, portress.
M of St Carthage, religious of first vows, was in charge of the vestry, linen room and storeroom.
M of Ste Bibiana, religious of last vows, first commission sister, cook, in charge of laundry and ironing, helper in the storeroom.
M of St Malachy, second commission sister, refectorian, helper in the portry, the linen room, the vestry, the laundry and the ironing.

This small band established good connections with the neighbors, who often visited their chapel and also helped them in every possible way. Not wanting to be in conflict with the surrounding parishes by offering religious education, they instead created two Associations of Adoration of the Blessed Sacrament for children, one for boys and one for girls. Not only did the children come for their adorations, sometimes more than once a day, they also had a monthly day of recollection during which they received religious instruction. The little girls formed a choir that often sang at benediction and during Mass. A good number of persons wanted to make retreats but given the lack of space they could only have one private retreatant at a time. They managed to offer instructions in the Catholic faith to several protestant ladies.

Our sisters began to be known and appreciated in the city but their house was too small for their dreams and too far away for many friends to visit. They longed for the day when they could have a larger church, a convent open to all, and space for retreats. The countess kept promising to build them a magnificent edifice not far from her own home. In the meantime, she wanted them more involved in the “Christopher Columbus Art and Industrial Institute” but would not open the promised connecting door between the convent and the adjoining house which would have facilitated their work, since they only had one small parlor to receive visitors and to teach the children.

At the beginning of January 1909 M of St Matthieu wrote to M of St Maurice saying that the countess had not given them the agreed upon budget since the month of November. In this same letter she also expressed a dilemma. She wanted to refuse the countess’ continued demand that they teach lace-making to the little girls until she provided them with more space. At the same time she was afraid to cause friction.

The problems peaked that summer. On August 19 a Protestant lady who had been instructed in the Catholic faith by M of St Matthieu made her abjuration and was baptized in the chapel. Countess Leary was offended because she was not informed or invited to the ceremony at which other guests were present. She complained to St Matthieu who explained that she had not been informed because it was a private matter concerning a prominent person and there was need for discretion. Countess Leary wouldn’t accept her words. She wrote a letter to St Matthieu telling her that in the future it would be impossible to give them more room as she had promised and that by winter she would have other persons to take care of the works on Charlton Street. M of St Matthieu then went to Archbishop Farley who advised her to write to the countess telling her very firmly that they intended to leave her patronage. The Archbishop promised to help them find a suitable house.

When the countess received this information she tried to persuade them to stay with threats, supplications and promises. But it was too late. She had broken her commitment to the community. But something of even greater concern was that she sought to control their ministry and their relationships with others.

On August 22 Father Thomas J Ducey, founder and pastor of St Leo’s Church in Manhattan, died. He had been a controversial figure known for his social and public concerns which made him an outspoken supporter of unpopular causes. He also had many influential and wealthy friends. With their support, he built St Leo’s church and the adjoining rectory which was always open to society people as well as to the poor, actors, and the servants of the adjoining hotels. With Fr Ducey’s death, St Leo’s became available but at the same time presented a problem to the Archbishop because many who liked Fr Ducey and attended the church would return to their own parishes and St Leo would be left empty and without resources.

There is a letter written by Thomas H. Kelly to M of St Matthieu on September 11, 1909 that provides some of this background information. Thomas Kelly was a millionaire banker, political activist and the treasurer of the Irish Relief Fund in America. He was a Papal marquis who had great influence in church and state. In 1904 he married Emerence de Sallier du Pin, daughter of exiled French nobility. “The engagement ring which Kelly gave to his fiancée was a pigeon ruby surmounted with a diamond crown, and was presented to him by Pope Leo XIII, with whom he stood in high favor,” (NY Times, 8/24/1904). His wife Emerence, a friend of the Reparatrix community, brought his attention to the plight in which the sisters found themselves. In his letter Mr. Kelly advises St Matthieu: “You can go in safety to present your case to the Archbishop. You ask only for a place which is at his disposal, and are willing to relieve him of all other responsibility, and you will promise not to be a burden to the diocese.” Mr. Kelly also wrote to Archbishop Farley and to Bishop Cusack, auxiliary of New York, pleading the sisters’ case while assuring them that support from many friends would help the community get established.

On Monday, September 13 at 10:00 am M of St Mathieu and M of the Holy Cross had an appointment with the Archbishop. Mr. Kelly sent a coupé to their door to take them to the Archbishop’s house and back to Charlton St. They presented their case with eloquence and no doubt with trepidation. The next two weeks were spent in intense prayer while a decision was made by the archdiocesan council. On October 6, the sisters met with Bishop Cusack who told them that the Archbishop wished to cede to the congregation the church of St Leo. He asked them to go and see it. They loved the church. The rectory, although small, would be able to accommodate all of them plus a few more.

These are the conditions under which St Leo’s church was ceded to the congregation:
The Bishop would remain as pastor for a year. The church would be served by his vicars. The proceeds of the collections and pew rents at the four Sunday Masses would not be given to the sisters. They would receive the weekday collections, the contents of the poor boxes, etc. The bishop reserved for himself the Sunday collection money to pay the interest on a very big debt on the church and to cover the cost of lightning, heating and repairs.

On October 15th the sisters left Charlton Street with heavy hearts. During a year and a half this little house had been home. Their prayers, joys and frustrations were embedded in its walls. The neighborhood had become familiar. They were strangers no more. The children and the families with whom they had worked were desolate because 29th Street was too far away to maintain the love and closeness they had developed.

While a few renovations were made to the house and a grill installed in St Leo’s church, the community was received with great kindness by the Sisters of Charity in the Hospice for Foundlings on 68th St and 3rd Avenue. They were given four bedrooms, a common room, and the use of the chapel. St Matthieu and Holy Cross went daily to St Leo to supervise the work.

On Thursday, December 2nd the community moved to St Leo’s house which had been furnished by their benefactors. The next day, M of St Josephine, M of St James, 34 and M of Guy arrived from England and Ireland. On Saturday, the 11th, M of O L of Mount Carmel, 44 M of the Virgen de Correa, 48 and M of St Ponciano, 21 arrived from Spain completing the community. They only had a few days in which to make themselves at home before the celebration of the first Mass. They were now a bi-lingual community with many stories to tell with great energy. Soon they would be able to understand each other, if not every spoken word, at least their gestures and body language.

On Saturday, December 18th, Feast of the Expectation of Our Lady, Archbishop Farley, assisted by Mons Lewis, his secretary and Fr Tracy, vicar of the parish of St Stephen, celebrated the community Mass at 8:00 am and exposed the Blessed Sacrament for the first time. Fr McEntyre parish priest of St Theresa, confessor of the community and devoted friend was also present. The church was resplendent in the pale winter sun; flowers and candles filled the sanctuary. Friends, benefactors and curious onlookers crowded behind the grill. The Children’s Choir of the Jesuit church of Our Lady of Loreto sang, directed by Fr. Walsh, SJ. A Jesuit priest played the organ, one of the most beautiful in the city.

That evening, the children from Charlton Street came to sing at Benediction accompanied on the organ by M of St Dympna. Their sweet voices soared, filling the church. Their love of the Eucharist and their deep affection for the sisters were evident in their bright eyes, their scrubbed faces and in the care with which they had dressed for the occasion. Mixed emotions filled the hearts of the sisters: longing for the simplicity of Charlton Street; gratitude for the stability provided by the house at 29th Street; regret for the failed relationship with countess Leary; gratitude for new supporters and friends; excitement for the freedom to organize the ministry of retreats; gratitude for the opportunity to participate in beautifully prepared liturgies and again longing for the simplicity of Charlton Street.

The sun was setting early on this day so near the winter solstice which would bring the longest night of the year. Matthieu, Holy Cross, Dympna, Carthage, Bibiana, Ebba, Josephine, St James, St Guy, Mount Carmel, Virgin of Correa, and Ponciano though ready to embrace the darkness were eager to move into the light.

Dear sisters, we thank you.

Addendum: New York Times, May 3, 1908

The first Chapter House of the Nuns of the Reparatrice (Reparation) to be opened in this country was dedicated in a small house at 51 Charlton Street at 8 o’clock yesterday morning by Mgr. Lavelle, rector of St. Patrick’s Cathedral. Mgr. Lavelle celebrated mass in the little chapel, which had been many years ago the rear of the two reception rooms on the first floor. Before the altar knelt six nuns, their pale blue robes showing faintly through white veils enveloping them from head to foot. An iron grating separated the chapel from the front room, where gathered a few women and children to hear the mass. So strict is the seclusion of the nuns of the order that the pious women of the neighborhood who desire to receive communion must stay outside this grating. The sacrament is administered to them through a narrow opening.

Always from sunrise to sunset on the other side of this grating will be seen two veiled women kneeling before the altar in adoration of the sacrament. Until a convent has been established here and the Order of the Reparatrice has become a part of the Church in America on a larger scale, these women will be prisoners in the little house, for when they took their vows they withdrew forever from contact even with the most beloved of their friends and families. They pray constantly for pardon for the sins of the world.

In the little congregation at the dedicatory mass yesterday morning was the papal Countess, Miss Annie Leary, who has devoted her years and her wealth to the Church. With Mgr. Lavelle at the altar was a black cowled monk of St. Anthony, Father Cherubino.

At the end of the mass Mgr. Lavelle read the apostolic blessing sent by Pope Pius X. One of the white veiled nuns to receive this blessing was Mother Mary of St. Veronica, assistant general superintendent of the order, who came here from Rome to aid in founding the chapter. She sails on Tuesday for Cherbourg and will return to Rome. Mother Mary of St. Mathew, from Florence, Italy, will remain as the superior in charge of the Charlton Street chapter. The head of the Nuns of the Reparatrice at this time is an Englishwoman who was the Countess of Raymond before she took the vows.

The news from the Vatican a week or so ago, printed in The Times, telling of the profation of the sacrament by two women who received communion for the Pope, was more shocking to those who have given themselves to the perpetual adoration than to any others in the Church, for it was because such an occurrence that the order was founded. In “Les Miserables,” where he tells of the convent in the Rue Petit Picpus, Victor Hugo relates that the Order of the Perpetual Adoration was started in Paris in 1649. The sacrament had been profaned in two churches in Paris-at St. Sulpice and St. Jean en Grève. To expiate this sacrilege, two noblewomen gave large sums of money for the founding of a convent in which the sacrament would be perpetually adored. Today nearly every large city in the Old World has its chapter. The first in this country started the perpetual adoration in Charlton Street yesterday.

In the little substitute for the American convent of the Nuns of the Reparatrice the same rules will be observed as in the great mother house in the Via du Luchesi, Rome, but the nuns who have shut themselves in the little house in Greenwich have only a little stretch of flagstones behind the building in which to seek air and exercise. They will get a glimpse of the sky and a vista of dangling clothes from cluttered fire escapes, but that is all.

Inside the house the walls and wainscoting have been painted white. The furniture is the simplest. Entering the front door beneath the colonial fan-shaped transom, the visitor faces a tight little vestibule and another door in which is an iron grating covering a wicket of darkened glass. Strangers desiring to hear the masses, which are held at sunrise, may enter the front room, but approach no nearer the altar and the veiled nuns than this grating. The nuns come in contact with strangers only when a call of duty compels them. These visiting strangers will be mostly children seeking instruction.

The nuns are for the most part women of noble or wealthy families of Europe, and are highly educated. One of those at the dedication yesterday, who will go to Rome with Mother Mary of Saint Veronica on Tuesday, is a beautiful young woman of Spanish birth who was a recluse in a chapter in Mexico.