Let There Be Peace Within These Walls: The Episcopal Convent of St. Mary’s In Peekskill, NY


Miguel Hernández

Many people are aware that the Roman Catholic Church has numerous religious orders of nuns and monks but relatively few know that the Protestant Episcopal Church has them as well. Overall, there are 18 Episcopal religious orders and 14 “Christian Communities” comprised of men, women or both. This is the story of the Community of St Mary (CSM) and of their remarkable religious buildings at Peekskill, NY from 1872 to 1963. The order was founded by Sister Harriet Starr Cannon, (1823-1926) its Mother Superior, on the Feast of the Purification of Mary, February 2, 1865 in St. Michael’s Church, 86th Street, New York City, about two months before the close of the Civil War. Accordingly, it is the oldest Episcopal/Anglican religious community in the US and it is still in existence but is now headquartered in Greenwich, New York. Sister Harriet 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 have a presence 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 Hall, 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.

However, the story of their Peekskill buildings begins in 1872 when they acquired 30 acres of land in the then Village of Peekskill some 40 miles north of New York City on a hilltop they named Mount St. Gabriel overlooking the Hudson River. It was here that they built their convent, chapel, a school for girls, several other structures and a burial ground for their departed members and other persons associated with their order. The initial convent was a repurposed clapboard farmhouse that was on the property.

However, the first convent they ordered was built in 1876. It was a 3 story wooden building conceived by architect Henry Martyn Congdon (1834–1922) who designed numerous Episcopal churches during his career, mainly in the Gothic Revival style. Over the span of 75 years his firm produced plans for more than 60 Episcopal churches; mostly in the northeastern United States Mr. Congdon was a founder of the New York Ecclesiological Society, a group of Episcopal architects that was founded in 1848 to promote “the study of Gothic Architecture, and of Ecclesiastical Antiques.” He received the original commission to build the convent, a three story wooden structure in 1876, and then he returned in 1896 to build the external main chapel completed in 1902 with a cornerstone that reads: “Magnificat anima mea Dominum”or “My soul magnifies the Lord”. 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. 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 Tracker organ was installed in 1894.

In 1902 work was stated a new convent constructed made of granite found at the Mount Gabriel site. Chiseled into the convent building’s cornerstone is the Latin phrase, “FIAT PAX IN MURIS TUIS” meaning, “Let There be Peace Within These Walls.” However, in the early years the CSM faced strong opposition from within the established Protestant Episcopal Church where they were viewed with suspicion as being “Romish,” i.e., too invested in Roman Catholic theology, liturgical practice, culture, and ethos. And later, there were allegations about their harsh treatment of “wayward” girls living in virtual confinement at The House of Mercy in the Inwood section of Manhattan. In spite of that controversy, the CSM eventually flourished after being widely recognized for the selfless acts of its Sisters in service to the community.

The convent has a private chapel named after Saint Scholastica, the patron saint of nuns. The walls of this chapel contain large calligraphic murals of with the names of the Saints of the Church 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, entitledMater 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 at the of Brattleboro (VT) Museum and Art Center and at several churches throughout the United States. She completed 34 religious works including mural and alter works and 90 secular pieces, mostly portraits and landscapes.

In 1908 a granite three-story house also designed by Condon was built for the convent’s resident chaplains. The first of these occupants was Rev. Father Maurice Cowl It is now the private home of a local doctor. 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, particularly Collegiate Gothic. Among the hundreds of buildings he designed were St. John the Divine Cathedral (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, the Cadet Chapel (in partnership with Bertram Goodhue) at the West Point Military Academy and Sweet Briar College. The main St. Mary’s School building is considered a noteworthy example of the Gothic Revival 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 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 early 1980s financial considerations resulted in the sale of the school and convent properties. The Ginsburg Development Company (GDC) ultimately bought the convent and chapel for a proposed project 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 historic convent and chapel structures, the site includes a cemetery where the remains of former sisters and workers at the former school are interred. The cemetery is not maintained and its gravestone markers are uprooted and stacked in a corner of the cemetery. Only the grave monument of CSM founders, Sister Harriet Starr Cannon, as well as a few dozen unmarked cement crosses remain. Another developer bought the school and converted it into a rental apartment building.

The site sits adjacent to the City’s Fort Hill Park which includes Revolutionary War era artifacts. It is believed also that Revolutionary War era barracks were located in the area of the current cemetery. This site is adjacent to dense residential neighborhoods which lie at lower elevations to the south and east. After the properties were sold an application was begun to put the chapel, convent, school and other buildings on the National Register of Historic places but this work was never completed.

In 2003 the Sisters of St. Mary Community decamped to their new home in Greenwich, NY.