Before The Passionists (BP): Using The Lives Of Frederick & Susan Allien To Learn About Local Riverdale, Bronx History
by Rob Carbonneau, C.P., Ph.D.
In 1924 members of the Passionist Congregation bought the estate of Frederick and Susan Allien on Palisade Avenue in Riverdale, NY. Known for years as the St. Vincent Strambi Retreat, it is now the home of the Riverdale Research Center under the direction of Fr. Tom Berry, C.P. Adjacent to the Passionist Spiritual Center, it commands an impressive view of the Hudson River.
Who were Frederick and Susan Allien? What was the lifestyle of these individuals who sold land to the Passionists? Answering that question, in turn, led me to probe the social structure of the Riverdale section of the Bronx during the World War I era. Frequently, historians of religious history miss an opportunity to contribute to the larger social history of an area if they fail to examine the life and culture of original landholders. Information in religious history can be used as a vehicle of greater historical understanding.
City Directories are a good place to start . Frederick Allien, states the 1922/23 New York City Directory, [A-R; R. 67A at the New York Public Library] is an inves[tment] sec[retary] with a h[ome] on Palisade Ave and Sigma Place. He was affiliated with H.G. Campbell and Company, located in Riverdale.
To find out more I went to the Lehman College Archives in the Bronx to examine the Riverdale News from 1915-1924. The newspaper pre-dates the present day Riverdale Press. In the early part of the twentieth century, it was not uncommon for local newspapers, secular and Catholic, to describe the pulse of daily life with surprising detail. My intuition told me that newspapers were a place to learn about the Alliens. I was not disappointed.
The Alliens were involved in numerous activities. Mrs. Allien was a member of the book committee of the Riverdale Library. (Vol 1, January 1915 [Riverdale News. Hereafter all references will be numerical-Vol, month, year; so the aforementioned reference is 1/1/15]. On January 20, 1915, the Board of Managers of the Library held a meeting at an Allien Residence on 268 Madison Ave. (1/2/15). In addition Susan Allien was on the Board of Managers of the Library and Frederick Allien donated some books. (1/11/15). Mr. Allien was an executive member of the Riverdale Neighborhood Association and member of the Riverdale Health League Committee while Mrs. Allien was a member of the Tree Committee of the League. Both were contributing members of the Riverdale Neighborhood Association. (1/11/15). Litter was a problem around the Allien residence on Palisade Ave. Because the property was isolated, on occasion, people dumped rubbish in the vicinity. (2/2/16). Mrs. Allien, according to the 1916 Annual Report, was an active member of the Van Cortland Chapter of the American Red Cross Society, the Riverdale Committee, as well as an executive committee member for the Armenian Relief. (2/11/16). At the same time Mr Allien contributed to an ambulance fundraiser. He was a member of the North Riverdale group committee on Belgium relief. Susan Allien “offered to pay for half of the material needed for Box 5 (hospital supplies such as sheets, towels, etc.).” Each box cost about $150. (3/5/17). Her patriotism was praised (3/6/1917); on May 31, 1917, at the home of Mrs. Carse, she introduced Miss Van Alsten of the Household Arts Department of Teachers College, Columbia University. The latter gave an address on “Thrift” to women of Riverdale. “Mrs. Frederick Allien, in her delightful introduction of Miss Van Alston [sic]” noted the News, “said that while it is well known that American women are such thrifty housekeepers, it is indisputable that American women are [sic] patriots, and since they find they can serve their country by eliminating waste in their household they will make every effort to do that.” That same issue of the News stated Mrs. Allien helped organize the First Baby Parade in Riverdale on May 26, 1917. Later in (3/7[?]/17) it was reported that Mrs. Allien entertained the members of the Women’s Fortnightly Club of Riverdale at the afternoon tea in her rose garden on June 29. Her topic was food conservation along with a demonstration of canning vegetables by Mrs. Osgood of the Mayors Food Commission.
Susan Allien gets more attention in the Riverdale News than Frederick Allien. She was listed as chair in the Annual Report of Committees of the Van Cortland Chapter of American Red Cross. (3/9/17). In addition, (3/11/17) reported that Mrs. Allien participated in the Hoover Campaign food canvas of October 29 – November 4, 1917, as captain of 33 or the Riverdale section for the Food Committee of the Van Cortland Chapter of the American Red Cross Society. Later, (3/12/17) reported how she spoke on Food Conservation at the First “Everybody Doin It” at the Kingsbridge Branch of the Home Defense Corps of the Seventy Fourth Precinct held as a Red Cross Fundraiser at St. John’s Hall. The same issue also mentioned that she won awards at the Second Annual Flower Show of the Riverdale Horticultural Society to benefit the Red Cross. It was held at Horace Mann School October 31 and November 1. She won second prize for class of white, yellow, and bronze chrysanthemums. In pink she won first prize. In addition she won prizes for roses and carnations and collection of vegetables – 12 varieties. In (4/11/18) she was nominated and elected to the executive election committee of the Van Cortland Chapter of the Red Cross at the October 23 meeting. Frederick Allien’s nephew, William Clarkson Potter, reported the (4/12/18) issue, won the Distinguished Service Cross; Mr. Allien was also an executive member of the Riverdale Health League, on the Board of Managers on Affiliated Organizations and Committee of the Riverdale Neighborhood Association. Both Frederick and Susan were listed as subscribers.
On February 23, 1919, Mrs. Allien was at the Riverdale Tennis Club as a member of the Committee of Arrangement in the Van Cortland District to help plan a welcome home for troops. (5/3/19). She continued to serve on the Library Board, (5/12/19) and in early December the Alliens were at the meeting to discuss the future plans of the Riverdale Neighborhood Association and went on to state that “the many benefits resulting from the local Horticultural Society were dwelt upon and it was decided that Mrs. Allien be asked to consider ways and means of reviewing the very interesting and profitable flower and vegetable exhibits of a few years ago. A tree committee was formed consisting of Mr. William Freeman, Mrs Frederick Allien and Mr. Edward C. Delafield,” and the spring campaign was planned “for the care and protection of fine trees of Riverdale.” (6/1/20). (7/12/21) lists them as members of the Riverdale Neighborhood Association Subscribers to the Riverdale News, October, 1920-1921.
The Alliens were people of means. (4/10/18) told how the couple returned from their summer home in Stockbrige, MA. In 1919 the Alliens entertained several Riverdale friends at their summer home in North Swansea, MA; they reportedly (5/10/19) had returned to Riverdale by October 1919. During the summer of 1920, (6/7/20) reported that the Alliens had decided not to go to Swansea, MA. They had hoped to go abroad, but (6/8/20) stated that they had gone to Belfast, ME for the rest of the summer season. (7/1/21) reported that Mr. Allien had made a “splendid recovery from his recent illness.” During the summers of 1921 and 1922, they once again summered at Swansea, MA. (7/10/21; 8/10/22).
This study shows that the Alliens were not poor. They were caught up in the political and social movements of the era. What is narrative is why the Alliens wanted to sell the land. Did Frederick Allien fully recover from the 1921 illness? In any case it is clear from this material that the Passionists moved into a section of the Bronx that had money and leisure.