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Miguel Hernandez

The Story of New York’s Little Spain

Almost everyone has heard about Little Italy, Yorktown’s German and East European communities, Polish Greenpoint and, of course, Chinatown. Nonetheless, there is a neighborhood in Manhattan that some of its old timers call “España Chica” – Little Spain. From the late 19th century to the present time it served as the social and cultural nerve center of Spanish immigrants who settled in New York City. Little Spain sits just above the West Village, mostly along West 14th Street but the casual non-Spanish pedestrian walking along it would hardly know that he is in a Spanish ethnic enclave. If this stroller were a vexillologist (or a fan of the Real Madrid Soccer team) she would no doubt know that the flag hanging in front of the nondescript brownstone building at 239 West 14th Street that houses the Spanish Benevolent Society is that of the Kingdom of Spain.

Little Spain

Spanish language signage on restaurants and other businesses along this New York City street are not that exceptional, given that the City is home to hundreds of thousands of Puerto Ricans, Dominicans, Cubans and other Spanish–speakers from the Americas.

However, as far New Yorkers are concerned, European Spaniards are an unheard ethnic group in this town. In comparison to other white ethnics that immigrated here, they are less than a drop in the proverbial bucket; perhaps 30 thousand at most during the peak of late 19th and early 20th century immigration.

In the U.S there is scant knowledge about Spain and much less about its  people who immigrated here. There are only a few sparse histories treat the Spanish exploration and settlement of the United States with the seriousness they deserve. In fact, the majority of U.S. history books are dismissive, uninformed, and even hostile about the Iberian presence in the U. S. Apparently, the fabled Spanish thirst for gold far exceeded that of the Anglo-Americans who poured into California, other Western states, and Alaska in search of this precious metal. The Spaniards are also seen as the worst when it comes to the treatment of the American Indians but, with the exception of historian Jill Lapore who documented the horrific near annihilation of those living in New England by the English, scant attention is given to that virtual holocaust. In most historical accounts, the Spanish are cast as being mostly unattached men who raped the Indian women while the English are depicted as devoutly religious men with wives and children at their sides. However, Spanish ship passenger records, as well marriage and baptismal records in Spanish territories in America, say otherwise. Additionally, the histories of the American Revolution by and large, barely mention Spain’s contribution to the independence of the US but in many ways it was far greater than that of France and the other European nations combined, even though Spain never formally allied herself with the U.S. In those days the gold Spanish peso was the currency of America and considerable amounts of it and war materiel were funneled directly and indirectly to the American cause for independence. Spanish ports in Europe and in the Americas were made available to U.S. Naval ships and Spanish forces under General Bernardo Gálvez defeated the British in several battles along the Gulf Coast and Mississippi Valley and thereby closed off potential British attacks on the Americans from the Western and Southern frontiers. Finally, the 3-year-long Spanish siege of Gibraltar (24 June 1779 – 7 February 1783) though not successful, forced the British to divert troops and other resources there that would otherwise have gone to the war in the U.S. Spain was America’s faithful ally in all but name. It seems that few American historians in the past have availed themselves of the vast Spanish archives and rather have steeped themselves in those of England and France. Recently for instance, a review of names of prisoners held by the British on their infamous prison ships in New York Harbor has uncovered several dozen badly spelt Spanish ones. The Spanish call the English defamation of their country la leyenda negra (the black legend.) This calumny of the ancient hostility between the Spanish and the British was later adopted by the Anglo-Americans when relations between the US and Spain soured after the American Revolution.

It is hard to imagine now but in the 18th century New York City and much of the rest of the thirteen British colonies of America, it was practically illegal to be a Roman Catholic. Widespread anti-Catholicism was a side effect of the Catholic-Protestant wars of 17th century Europe and the geo-political rivalries between the English Crown and the allied Franco Spanish Kingdoms for control of the Americas.

In any event, in 1789 Spain’s ambassador to the United States, Diego de Guardoqi, a wealthy Portuguese merchant named Jose Ruiz Silva and French diplomat, Hector St Jean Crevecoeur teamed up to petition New York City’s Mayor and Common Council for permission to have “a suitable site upon which we can construct a church.” Despite their prominence City officials were not moved and the City’s Catholics sought help from Trinity Church (formerly Anglican and now Episcopalian) which leased property for a Catholic Church at a nominal fee on the corner of what is now Church and Barclay streets, then on the periphery of the city. They then turned to their European co-religionists for funds to build the church. They then appealed directly to King Carlos III of Spain and King Louis XVI of France for financial support. Eventually, Spain’s monarch emerged as the primary sponsor of  the Church of St. Peter  the first Roman Catholic Church in New York City  when he donated 1000 “Pesos Fuertes” for its construction. Eventually, His Most Catholic Majesty Carlos III, King of Spain, emerged as the primary sponsor of St. Peter’s when he donated 1000 “Pesos Fuertes” to build the church.

St.-Peters-c.-1785-222x300 Current-St.-Peters-300x246

The original St.Peter’s Church and  the current one.

An uptick in migration from the Iberian nation, Cuba, and Puerto Rico also occurred following the Spanish-American War of 1898. Bernardo Vega, a Puerto Rican cigar maker who came to New York in 1917 relates in his diary that from the late 19th century through the end of WWI, there were thousands of cigar making shops in New York City and over 500 of these were owned by Spaniards and other Hispanics. Other sources like labor leader Samuel Gompers say that New York City, not Tampa, Florida was ‘the cigar capital of the United States. Most of these went under when machine-made cigarettes supplanted hand-rolled cigars. Another wavelet of immigration followed in the wake of Spain’s 1936-1939 Civil War and the Franco dictatorship. Finally, there was a sharp decline in the 1970s and 1980s when Spain prospered under democracy. Younger Spaniards stayed home and older Spanish immigrants living in the US fulfilled their dream to return to their homeland.

Casa Moneo

Well into the 1960s, Castilian accented Spanish was spoken on W. 14th Street and the annual Dia de La Raza parade on Fifth Avenue that celebrated the melding of Hispanic and Amerindian cultures held sway. Little Spain one Hispanic establishment after another and not only very famous restaurants like El Coruña, La Bilbaina, and Cafe Madrid, but also Spanish bookstores and shops selling Spanish-style textiles, like the famous stores Iberia and Casa Moneo. From 1929 to 1988, Casa Moneo was a leader in Spanish and Latin American gastronomy in New York City. Located at 210 West 14th Street Casa Moneo was opened by Spaniard from the Basque region, Carmen Barañano, widow of Jesús Moneo, as a “tienda de ultramarinos” (the overseas store) where home-sick Spaniards bought packaged foods imported from Spain. Along with food they also sold cookware, dresses, shoes and perfumes. Some movie houses in Chelsea featured “all Spanish programs”, displaying films with Spanish, Mexican, and other Latin American actors. One of the film’s highlights is footage of what for years was the most popular celebration in the community, the Santiago Apostol (St. James Day) festival but it died out in the early 1990s due to the steady exodus of the Hispanic community from that part of the city.

Another center of Spanish immigrant life in New York City has not fared well. This place was known as “Spanish Camp”

Spanish camp 4.

It was a summer bungalow colony in Staten Island founded by the Spanish Naturopath Society in 1929 as a seaside summer retreat for Spanish speaking families from various New York City barrios. Camp life included tan canvas tents on raised wooden platforms with open-air kitchens under canopies in the back; common showers, latrines, and water pumps; plentiful clamming and fishing, seasonal performances by celebrated Flamenco dancers and musicians in the Salon—a lantern-strung hall with barn-like doors in the center of the Camp. In the late 1930s and early 1940s the tents were transformed to became small summer bungalows; later, many were winterized. It had its own streets and services, quite independent of the rest of Staten Island and New York City. Additionally it had small pond and associated wetlands as well as a small beach that aced New York Harbor, with an adjacent picnic area and athletic field.Faced with a dwindling membership and debts the Board of Directors sold the camp’s 18 acres to a developer in 2000.for $1.7 million He demolished its buildings but to date (2015) ) has not been able build a planned luxury condo there.

Today Little Spain is littler than before but it is still the beating heart of Spanish New York. A recent influx of Spaniards fleeing the disastrous economy in their homeland has reinvigorated the Spanish Benevolent Society with over 300 members in the in the last few years.



The Local History Channel

Let There Be Peace Within These Walls:
The Story of St. Mary’s Abbey in Peekskill, NY 
Miguel Hernández

SM Chapel West Side

Many people are aware that the Roman Catholic Church has numerous orders of religious nuns and monks but comparatively few know that the Protestant Episcopal Church has them as well. In any case, there are 18 Episcopal religious orders and 14 “Christian Communities” comprised of men, women or both. This is the story of one of those, the Community of the Sisters of Mary (CSM) and the convent, chapel, school and various other structures they built at Peekskill, NY from 1872 to 1963. The order was founded by Sister Harriet Starr Cannon, (1823-1826) its Abbess, on the Feast of the Purification of Mary, February 2, 1865 in St. Michael’s Church, on West 99th St. in New York City, about two months before the close of the Civil War. As Abbess or Mother Superior, she was the temporal head of the first organized community of Protestant Episcopal nuns in the United States from its founding in 1865, to her death in 1926. Based on a Benedictine model, the CSM adhered to a simple monastic life centered on prayer, reflection, and service. The forms of service practiced by the nuns of the order have varied over the years and places where they chosen to have a presence. At Peekskill for instance, the operation of a high school for girls was its principle mission and the manufacture and sale of “Alter Bread” (aka communion wafers) was one of the CSM’s primary means of self-sustainment.

Sister Harriet
At various times during its golden years of the late 19th to the mid 20th centuries the CSM had four boarding and day schools for young ladies: St. Mary’s school, New York, NY; St. Gabriel’s School, Peekskill, NY; St. Mary’s School, Memphis, TN and Kemper Ball, Kenosha, WS. They also owned and operated several institutions for the care of orphans and/or wayward children and hospitals such as: the House of Mercy, Inwood-on-Hudson, in northern New York City; St. Savior’s Sanitarian, Inwood-on Hudson; St. Mary’s Free Hospital for Children. New York, NY; a Convalescent Summer Home for Children, at South Norwalk, CT; the Noyes Memorial Home, Peekskill ; Trinity Hospital,. New York, NY (a Hospital for adults, both men and women) The Laura Franklin Free Hospital for Children, New York, NY ; Trinity Mission. New York, NY and, in The Summer Seaside Home for Poor Children at Islip, L. I.; St Mary’s-In-the-Field Home for the care of abandoned, delinquent or neglected children in Valhalla, NY; the Church Orphan Home, Memphis, TN. and St. Mary’s Mission, Chicago, IL and St. Mary’s Home for Children, also in Chicago.


The initial convent was a repurposed clapboard farmhouse that was on the property. However the first convent they ordered was built in 1876 was a 3 story wooden building conceived by architect Henry Martyn Congdon (1834–1922).SM Convent 2

He later returned to design a new masonry convent and free standing chapel in the Gothic Revival-style. IMG_1175In 1890 the Chapel of St, Mary’s was completed with a cornerstone that reads: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”or “My soul magnifies the Lord”).SM Cornerstone 2

 SM Chapel 10

Then in 1900, a bell weighing in at just over 1000 lbs and manufactured by the Meneely Bell Company of West Troy, NY was installed in the belfry. MeneelyBellAdC1880A new convent was constructed in 1902 and made of granite found at the Mount St. Gabriel site. This convent contained offices, dining facilities, sleeping quarters and a private chapel named after Saint Scholastica, the patron saint of nuns. In addition, Congdon’s designed other buildings for the Sisters of Mary such as the House of Mercy and Saint Mary’s Free Hospital for Children in Manhattan. Over the span of 75 years his firm produced plans for more than 60 Episcopal churches, mostly in the northeastern United States.. He was the son of a founding member of the New York Ecclesiological Society, (NYES) a group formed in 1848 of Episcopal clergy, architects and laymen who were interested in advancing “the study of Gothic Architecture, and of Ecclesiastical Antiques.” Essentially its mission was to promote an ideal model for American Episcopal churches based on the medieval Gothic churches principally found in England and northern Europe.

The Chapel’s altar was made of various kinds of marble, and seven statutes of saints surrounding it were put in place in 1893. The central statue represented the Virgin Mary and the Holy Child. On the south side in niches were statutes of: St. Michael; the Angel of the Passion, with instruments of the Passion; the Angel of Praise with Censer. On the north side was: St. Gabriel; The Angel of the Passion and the Angel of Praise. The sculptor was Joseph Sibbel, a noted ecclesiastical sculptor (b.1850; d. 1907) A Roosevelt organ was installed in 1894.

SM Chapel Alter

The walls of the smaller private chapel within the adjacent convent have large calligraphic murals inscribed with the names of the Saints of the Church. These were painted by Sister Mary Veronica (1864 – 1965) an outstanding ecclesiastical painter. In December of 1949 several of her works were exhibited at the Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts. Among these was, “Communion of the Saints,” and a portrait of “Ma Garner”, the matriarch of the Cumberland Plateau of the St. Mary’s Community in Tennessee. She also painted portraits of several other religious leaders of the Protestant Episcopal Church. In 1950, the Parish of St. James in Greenville, Tennessee commissioned her to paint an altarpiece. It is 4 feet high by 5 feet, 2 inches wide and entitled, “Mater Purissima.” It emulates the medieval styles of fifteenth century Friars Angelico and Lippi. Most of her work was executed in a technique of the Italian Renaissance, which she developed after extensive study in Florence, Italy. The medium was pigment mixed with wax and mastic, frequently applied to a linen-textured surface. She also designed the Reredos – the screen or decoration behind the altar in a church, depicting religious iconography. Sister Mary Veronica was born Ella Sallie McCullough and lived from 1874 to 1965. Her paintings are on display in several few cathedrals and churches throughout the United States. She completed 34 religious works including mural and alter works and 90 secular pieces, mostly portraits and landscapes.

Photo Credit:Amy Heiden


In 1906 a three-story granite house was built for the convent’s resident chaplains; the first of these occupants was Rev. Father Maurice Ludlum Cowl. This building is now the private residence of a local physician.


In 1909, construction of a new home for the school was begun. It was a  large Gothic quadrangle, designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram considered to be among the principal 20th century American proponents of Gothic Revival architecture. The site he selected for the school is at the crest of Mt. Gabriel and he declared it to be “the most beautiful and varied of the great Hudson River.” He also designed the chapel within the school building. Its unique organ was designed by the Jardine Brothers of New York City. Among the many other buildings Cram designed elsewhere were the Cathedral of St. John the Divine (the completion) and St. Thomas Church in New York City; All Saint’s Chapel at the University of the South in Sewanee, Tennessee; and multiple buildings at Princeton University, the Cadet Chapel (in partnership with Bertram Goodhue) at the West Point Military Academy and Sweet Briar College. The St. Mary’s School For Girls building is considered a noteworthy example of the Collegiate Gothic style. In 1920 a wing was added to the school. It extended outside the quadrangle and contained a gymnasium and space for a swimming pool. This addition was designed by another well-known architect of the time, the skyscraper pioneer, Cass Gilbert who was the architect of the Woolworth Building in New York City, and it was once known as “The tallest building in the world”.

S. Mary's School photo


The building projects begun in the late 19th century were completed in 1963 with the addition of a swimming pool. However in the mid 1970s the Sisters of Mary faced financial problems that brought about the sale of the school to a private developer who converted the space into rental apartments. Later in the mid 1980s they sold the convent and chapel properties to the Ginsburg Development Company (GDC). They originally bought the property for a proposed high end condominium project but have scrapped that in favor of one called, “The Abbey at Fort Hill”. It will transform the former St. Mary’s Convent property into a resort-style tourist destination that would feature a spa, an inn, a restaurant and a smaller rental apartment complex. The GDC plan includes provisions for the preservation and restoration the existing historically and architecturally significant chapel and convent that are now in an abandoned condition.

In addition to the structures discussed above, the site includes a cemetery where the remains of former sisters and workers at the former school were interred from 1872 to 2003 when the CSM decamped to their new home in Greenwich, NY. The cemetery is also not maintained. Its gravestone markers are uprooted and stacked in a corner of the cemetery and only the grave monument of CSM founder, Sister Harriet Starr Cannon, as well as a few dozen unmarked cement crosses remain.

The St. Mary’s complex is adjacent to Peekskill’s Fort Hill Park where Revolutionary War era artifacts were found. It is believed that Revolutionary War barracks were located in the area of the cemetery. After the properties were sold an application was begun in 1983 to put these buildings on the National Register of Historic places but this work was never completed.


Sister Mary Hilary, CSM, “Ten Decades of Praise: The Story of the Community of Saint Mary during Its First Century” Racine, WI: The DeKoven Foundation for Church Work, 1965. 226 pp.

Morgan Dix, Harriet Starr Cannon; “First Mother Superior of the Sisterhood of St. Mary” New York: Longmans, Green, and Co. 1896.

Terence Gleeson, “The Rule of the Community of St. Mary: A Study in Development”

Starr Helms, “The Story of the Community of St. Mary” The Historiographer, a publication of The National Episcopal Historians and Archivists and The Historical Society of the Episcopal Church, Fall 2012 Vol. L No.4,  pp 10-13

“Sisters of St. Mary’s: 100 years Old.” Westchester Today! The Herald Statesman. Yonkers, NY. February 4, 1965. Retrieved Nov.1, 2015.

Patrick Raftery The Cemeteries of Westchester County,. New York, Westchester County Historical Society 2011Vol I pp 170-172

Saint Mary’s School at Mount Saint Gabriel, Peekskill, New York” Philadelphia: Elliott, 1931.

Douglass Shand-Tucci, Ralph Adams Cram: Life and Architecture. Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press. 1995. pp. 68–70.


John Curran, Peekskill Museum

Dr. Eleanor Congdon, Associate Professor Youngstown State University

Kevin Marrinen, Ginsberg Development Companies