“Beautiful Solitude Yet Within Easy Access of the City”
By Father Rob Carbonneau C.P.
At first glance, people are quite amazed by the bucolic and spiritual beauty of the modern Cardinal Spellman Retreat House operated by the Passionists at 5801 Palisade Avenue in the Bronx, New York. Yet almost no one knows that the Passionist Historical Archives shows serious discussions about the Passionist presence in the Archdiocese of New York were taking place as early as 1904.
Kingsbridge to Riverdale
Passionist author Felix Ward writes in The Passionists (1923) that the Passionists in 1905 were invited but unable to take on responsibility to minister at City Island, New York. Ward then explained his hope that the 1920s founding of St. Patrick’s Monastery in Kingsbridge, Bronx “would equal its rival across the Hudson in spiritual influence,” a reference to the Passionist monastery in Union City, New Jersey. Writing in the genre of the era, Ward shied away from footnotes and precise dates but did his utmost to promote and boost the Passionist story and image.
More on the Kingsbridge location can be found in the New York Times. On December 11, 1920, it was reported the Passionists purchased about four acres of land for $100,000. This included the “Eames house on the Claflin estate.” A July 25, 1923, article told how the exempt status of the Passionists and other organizations were being investigated in a city-wide sinking fund project used to insure redemption of debt. On August 7, 1924, a caption read: “Passionist Fathers Acquire Large Estate in Riverdale Area.” Brokered by Albert B. Ashforth and George Howe, like Kingsbridge, it was reported that the Passionists had every hope to build a monastery at Riverdale, which included water rights on the Hudson River.
Turning to the Passionist Historical Archives documentation offers the story behind the headlines. During the last months of 1919 the Passionists considered buying Bronx property on the Barney Estate at 238th Street and Riverdale Avenue and the Messiah Home on West Tremont Street before they selected the Victorian style Claflin estate house at Kingsbridge in April 1920. Kept between December 1, 1920, and November 5, 1924, St. Patrick’s arrival and departure book reveals Kingsbridge was home to at least five Passionists who did regional preaching such as local leader Father Alexis Cunneen and future missionary to China Father Agatho Purtill.
However, on November 16, 1923, Archdiocese of New York officials learned that east coast Passionist Provincial Father Stanislaus Grennan sought another New York City site in the Riverdale area in part because Sedgwick Avenue did not allow the Passionists the space and solitude “to chant the canonical hours by day and night.” Grennan unashamedly voiced his desire that the proposed Riverdale site develop laymen’s retreats, operate a local devotional chapel and “[for] peace-sake…take charge of St. Margaret’s parish.” Admitting that the latter point was directly opposite to the view of the previous Passionist provincial, Father Justin Carey, Grennan made clear that leaving Kingsbridge for Riverdale was prompted by the United States visit from the Passionist Superior General from Rome, Father Silvio DiVezza, who “condemned the present site on Sedgwick Avenue as unsuited for our Monastic purposes.” With aplomb, Grennan thought that DiVezza might “consent” to the parish idea. In January 1924 the Archdiocese agreed with the Passionist plan to sell Kingsbridge, relocate to nearby Riverdale, and purchase the estate of Susan Allien. However, the Archdiocese would not permit the Passionists to initiate a laymen’s retreat or staff St. Margaret’s. On February 16, 1924, Grennan confidently wrote DiVezza of their plans to buy “about eighteen (18) acres of land, in beautiful solitude yet within easy access of the City,” in Riverdale, Bronx.
The remainder of the letter requested permission for the province to go into debt. While he hoped to buy the Allien site for $250,000 and sell Kingsbridge for $125,000 he also knew that a new Passionist monastery in Jamaica, Queens, New York was about to lead to a debt of $200,000. Boldly, he sought permission for another $200,000 debt for a new monastery in West Springfield, Massachusetts. This was the same time that Grennan urged increased financial support for the Passionist China mission begun in 1921 and was gingerly negotiating measured financial support for the Passionist mission to Germany begun in 1922.
In the end, prolonged negotiations led Kingsbridge and 14 lots to finally be sold in April 1926 to the Archdiocese for $100,000. Included in this was Our Lady of Angels Parish which was being led during the negotiations by Pastor Francis A. Kiniry. In April 2007 I personally visited the old Claflin estate and former Passionist monastery, as it still serves as Our Lady of Angels Parish rectory, and was most pleased to obtain a 1999 history of the Kingsbridge site penned by Father Kevin J. O’Reilly.
The Riverdale property was bought in May 1924 for $237,500. A January 6, 1926, blueprint done by G.C. & A.E. Wheeler Civil Engineers & City Surveyors, Fieldston, Riverdale, shows the Passionist land consisted of the former Allien home, a chapel, a frame garage and barn, a frame chicken house, a chicken run, rose garden, lawn and two vegetable gardens.
Passionists in the Riverdale Neighborhood
Four events show the range of Passionist neighborhood involvement during from the 1920s and 1930s. First, on March 5, 1927, local Riverdale superior Father Sebastian Ochsenreiter, C.P. decided to co-operate with a class action defense of riparian rights on their waterfront Hudson property. The following list (see Table 1) and their respective assessment charges based on the lineal feet serve as a reminder that the Riverdale Passionists identified more with their rich and exclusive Hudson River neighbors than with the struggling urban poor of New York. In October 1927 Attorney John Jay McKelvey notified Ochsenreiter that the defense proved successful in defending the water grants held by the group and which the Passionists still retain in 2007.
|Property Owner||Lineal Feet||Charge|
|Elizabeth J. Cox, Walter Winchester Cox, Helena Cox and Ella B. Ellms||502||$144|
|Estate of Isaac O Johnson||281||81|
|Mary M. McKelvey||260||75|
|Northern Realty Company, Inc.||392||113|
|Sisters of Charity (Seton Hall Hospital)||372||117|
|Stadacona Co. c/o Archibald Douglas||564||162|
|Eugene F. Delafield||191||35|
|Edward C. Delafield||287||83|
|John B. Delafield||287||83|
|Julia L. Delafield (Mrs. Longfellow)||250||72|
|Cleveland H. Dodge (Estate)||682||196|
|Percy R. Pyne||506||146|
|Estate of George W. Perkins||1636||470|
|Colored Orphans Asylum||60||17|
|Mt. St. Vincent (Sisters of Charity)||1400||402|
Second, because of the Passionist debt in the 1920s it was tempting to sell the Riverdale property. However, in 1927 the Passionists refused an offer from developers to buy the land “for an exclusive residential colony.” Being members of the Association of Riverdale Property Owners, Grennan was aware that there was a proposal to have Riverside Drive come through the area, and if constructed, he expected the Passionist property “[would] be worth more than a million to us and [would] be a good source of revenue” at some future date. In 1928 a client represented by the M.E. Springer offered $400,000, but Grennan “could not think of selling unless we had another place in the New York Archdiocese and unless we got about a million for our Riverdale site.”
Third, a fascinating blueprint in the Passionist Historical Archives shows that during the 1920s there was a proposal that would extend Riverside Drive from New York City through the Passionist property. However, this did not occur and their tranquil site was preserved.
Fourth, in 1939 the Passionists found themselves embroiled in the local Riverdale re-zoning dispute. On March 3 local Passionist superior Father Cyril Feeley thought it was appropriate to sign a petition in favor of the “G” zoning of Riverdale. Ultimately, Feeley would learn by way of the Riverdale-Spuyten Duyvil Property Owners’ Association that a good many Riverdale landowners were opposed to the “G.” In the process, he also became aware of possible local anti-Catholic prejudice. For example, on March 23 Joseph I. Berry, attorney for the Passionists and the local Visitation Convent, summarized an earlier visit by a Mr. Owen Murphy. According to Attorney Berry, Murphy reported that unless the priests and sisters changed their opinion, “the Jews and many non-Catholics who were interested in maintaining the present zone, would agitate against religious orders being exempt from the payment of land taxes and stir up religious dissension; and further said that they (meaning the opponents of the change) would beat us anyhow. I replied,” Berry coninued, “that his arguments had no effect on me, and refused to advise the withdrawal of the consent.” The point was moot, however. On March 20 the Archdiocese told Feeley that the Passionists were “to remain neutral” on the issue. Dutifully, on March 21 Feeley wrote the City Planning Commission of New York to withdraw his support of the “G” zone. In the end, the Passionists and the Visitation Sisters remained neutral.
From the 1940s on, the Riverdale community usually served as the tranquil home for five Passionists. However, the 1960s ushered in a time of change.