Let There Be Peace Within These Walls:
The Story of St. Mary’s Abbey in Peekskill, NY
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.
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).
He later returned to design a new masonry convent and free standing chapel in the Gothic Revival-style. In 1890 the Chapel of St, Mary’s was completed with a cornerstone that reads: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”or “My soul magnifies the Lord”).
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. A 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.
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 http://amyheiden.com/education-religion/
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”.
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” anglicanhistory.org
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. http://anglicanhistory.org/usa/csm/school1931/
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