Peekskill’s Historic Community of St Mary

By on

SM Chapel West SideReaders may know that the Roman Catholic Church has numerous religious orders of nuns and monks, but may not 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 the remarkable religious buildings they had constructed at Peekskill, NY from 1872 to 1963. The order was founded by Sister Harriet Starr Cannon, (1823-1896) its Mother Superior, on the Feast of the Purification of Mary on 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 said to be the oldest Episcopal religious community in the US still in existence (now headquartered in Greenwich, Washington County, New York. Sister Harriet was the temporal head of this community of Protestant Episcopal nuns from its founding in 1865, to her death in 1896. 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, they operated a high school for girls and the manufacture and sale of “Alter Bread” (aka communion wafers) was one of the CSM’s primary means of self-sustainment.

Harriet_Starr_CannonAt various times during its golden years of the late-nineteenth to the mid-twentieth 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 other institutions for the care of orphans, wayward children and hospitals in the New York, New Jersey and Connecticut Metropolitan area, 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, NY; 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 Mt. St. Gabriel Buildings by Architect Henry Martyn Congdon

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 to 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 found on the property when they purchased it.

Chapel Cieling 2The first convent was built in 1876. It was a three-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. 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 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 (1850-1907) A Roosevelt organ was installed in 1894. In 1902, work was stated on a new convent made of granite found at the Mount Gabriel site. Chiseled into the convent building’s cornerstone was the Latin phrase, “Fiat Pax In Muris Tuis” meaning “Let There be Peace Within These Walls.” 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 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. 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 their communities.

Resident Artist Sister Mary Veronica

The convent has a private chapel named for 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 (1874 – 1965, born Ella Sallie McCullough) 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, 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’s 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.

The School and its Architect Ralph Adams Cram

IPeekskill convent1n 1909, construction of a new home for a high school for girls was begun. The main St. Mary’s School building is considered a noteworthy example of the Gothic Revival style, with its large gothic quadrangle, designed by architect Ralph Adams Cram. Cram was 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. 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 Beginning of the End

The building projects begun in the late 19th century were completed in 1963 with the addition of a swimming pool. In the early 1980s the school and convent properties were sold. The Ginsburg Development Company (GDC) ultimately bought the convent and chapel for a proposed project called “The Abbey at Fort Hill”. GDC hopes to transform the former St. Mary’s Convent property into a resort-style tourist destination with a spa, inn, restaurant and apartment complex. The GDC plan includes provisions for the preservation and restoration the existing historically and architecturally significant chapel and convent that are now abandoned.

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 and a few dozen unmarked cement crosses remain. Another developer bought the school and converted it into an 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.

Photos, from above: The West Side of the CSM Chapel; Sister Harriet Starr Cannon; The Chapel Ceiling; and the convent building.

26 thoughts on “Peekskill’s Historic Community of St Mary

  1. Barbara Hobens

    This is a cry for strongly worded resolutions to be written to raise at Town Boards so we never again read that “gravestone markers are uprooted and stacked in a corner. “

    1. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez Post author

      Barbara:Thank you for your comment. I also have concerns about the state of this cemetery and I am hoping to put together a public tour of it and of the chapel and convent in June of this year. With regard to the cemetery itself. I have to read up on NYS law regarding abandoned cemeteries. However, it is my understanding that they become the property of the municipality in which they are located and that entity is required to maintain it. But, essentially that means mowing, there is no requirement that they do anything else.

      1. Mother Miriam, CSM

        Dear Barbara,
        Thank you for your concern about the state of the Sisters’ Cemetery in Peekskill. Two points of first-hand knowledge: One, the Sisters in the early 1980s with the assistance of a local stone mason made the grave markers in plain concrete. This was the first time there had ever been markers in the Sisters’ Cemetery as we early on believed strongly that our life, including our death, lay hidden in God. Only in the late 1970s after relatives and friends of past Sisters pleaded with us to mark the graves so that they would know where their loved ones were that we did so. Unfortunately, the donated sand for making the markers had salt in the mix. Within ten years the markers were so badly split and chipped that we removed them and used them as cement blocks around the Convent. GDC did not want them around the Convent proper and respectfully stacked them back in the cemetery.

        Second, GDC contacted the Sisters in Greenwich prior to 2008 for permission to move the entire cemetery to Greenwich so that they could build a road through the ravine in which the original cemetery was located. We were delighted by that prospect; however, the real estate mortgage debacle in 2008 stopped the building plans in Peekskill. I have seen the revised plans on the Internet for “The Abbey at Fort Hill” and have spoken with a representative of GDC who confirms that the plans have been revised so as not to have to move the cemetery. We have no legal grounds upon which to protest their decision. NYS law protects cemeteries so that they can not be used for any other purpose, but it is unclear how the perpetual maintenance is to be done or funded. The Sisters are in no position to fund or manage the translation of the 133 remains and the statuary to Greenwich.

        It is an unfortunate situation.

    2. rita

      I see this building everyday when we go for our walk. I would love to know how to get up to St. Mary’s. This building has fascinated me and also the building next to it. Can someone tell me what streets leads up to this beautiful building?

  2. Sallie Sypher

    Just a quibble: St. Mary’s School in Tenn. was not in Memphis, but in Sewanee (east Tenn.), just like the University of the South..

    1. Mother Miriam, CSM

      St. Mary’s School in Tennessee began in Memphis in 1873. The Sisters moved to Sewanee in 1879 after the yellow fever epidemics in which four of our Sisters died nursing fever patients.

  3. Domenic Politi

    Mr. Hernandez, great article. I was a 45 year resident of Peekskill, and have always considered the (3) convent properties as among the best available in New York State. It was unfortunate that the reallocations were predominantly the issue over a narrow timeline, to the possible exclusion of education, PUBLIC or PRIVATE.
    Over time I have become adverse to the continuing usage of valuable lands for extending and continuing cemeteries, whose obviously EMINENT consideration should be that the existent groundwater supply is adulterated, especially from steep slopes. After parents and grandparents pass, cemetery graveyards are merely just that, a far better lasing, publically non-detrimental memory could easily be fabricated. The bones serve no positive purpose, nor the debris that should label such areas as old fashioned “dumpsites”.

    1. martha berry

      I was a sister at St. Mary’s for 4 years in the 1970’s and 80’s. At the time, we were cremating the sisters who died during that time and placing the ashes in small boxes in the cemetery.

      1. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez Post author

        Martha, by any chance were you on the tour? A couple of former students did attend and spoke briefly about their experience.

  4. Linda Schade Schramm

    Please be so kind as to inform me of the date and time of the tour to be held in June. I am a 1962 graduate of St. Mary’s School and would love to attend!

    1. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez Post author

      Will post date, time and other details on NY History Blog pending final approval from the current owner of St. Mary’s Convent & Chapel


    My best friends mother 80 year’s old now was there when she was a young girl her stories are of torture and mistreatment she spoke of a escape attempt of several girls rappelling down from a window tying sheets together some fell to their deaths she has no reason to lie where are the stories of those poor young ladies who were left there by their families to be cared for yet were tortured forced to fill the pool with stones before she dies she is deserving of an apology

    1. Janet Grainger Kepner

      Ms. Martinez…. It certainly wasn’t like that when I was a student there from 1950-1954!!! It was a lovely place to be. Many of our dorm rooms looked right out over the Hudson river! There were a very few girls who rappelled from windows on occasion – but not to get away ..just to “sneak out to meet boyfriends” or to have cigarette – (a real no- no !!! ) We had to go to chapel every morning & then, on Sunday morning we all walked down the road to the gorgeous Church for service. The sisters of St. Mary used to (& may still) make all of the Communion wafers that were shipped to Episcopal Churches all over the country. Were the nuns strict? YES! But, there, definitely, were no beatings! They definitely raised their voices at us!! We learned to “follow orders” & those traits have stuck with us ever since!! I have very happy memories of that beautiful place. BTW: St. Peter’s Episcopal Boys High School was not far away from St. Mary’s !! We SMS girls were “cheerleaders for the SPS football games – dressed in our blue jumpers with white blouses & saddle shoes!!! Very fond memories of my 4 years there!

  6. Diane Giles

    I’m sure it’s just a typo, but if you could correct it, it would be most appreciated. It’ was Kemper Hall Seminary for Girls in Kenosha, WI, not Kemper Ball. The 100+ year-old complex still stands today and the grounds and building are part of the Kenosha County Park system.

    It appears the Girl’s School and communion wafer production was duplicated in Peekskill. Sen. Charles Durkee and his wife Carolyn gave their new home here in Kenosha to the order and the first addition for the school was tacked onto the mansion in 1865 , the year the school opened..

    1. Miguel HernandezMiguel Hernandez Post author

      Go to the intersection of Main/Route 6 and Hadden and proceed north one block to John St. Make a left there on John until it becomes Chateau Rive follow that and just past the first house on left (the former house of the resident priest, now privately owned) you will see the chapel and the convent On your left.

  7. Susan Tobias

    Is there a way to find out if a certain person graduated from St. Mary’s? A dear friend of mine just died and I am writing an obituary for her. She told me several times about attending a private school in either Peekskill or Poughkeepsie. Her family has not been able to find a graduation certificate to confirm for obit information. Her name was Suellen Botsford. She would have graduated from school about 1963 or 1964. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    1. Joan Farmer

      Hi, Susan.
      Yes, Suellen Botsford was in my class, at SMS, and I believe, when I boarded, was in the room diagonally across from mine. I can picture her now, after all these years!! We graduated in 1963. I am so sorry to read about her death. Please accept my condolences. May she rest in peace, and may light perpetual shine upon her.

      I am also sorry this info is late for you, but I just opened this blog after receiving the sad news about what is to happen to the convent on the property. The school was made into condos, and sadly, now the convent will also be turned into condos. My maiden name was Joan Michael Good. My uncle, Fr. Richard Isaac, was chaplain at the time. I boarded for my senior year.
      Joan M. Good Farmer

  8. Margaret Deanesly Ziegler

    The nun in this lovely blog piece is Mother Mary Ambrose. She was the Mother of the community at Kenosha and ‘religious principal’ of the school there in the 50″s. I was a pupil. They were wonderful teachers and moral models for us.

    1. Barbara Booth Curt

      the years at St. Mary´s school , 1950 -53 were some of the happiest of my life. It was a beautiful location which I appreciated at the time. The discipline was appropriate and kind. I spent many hours polishing silver on Saturday mornings to make up for misgivings – demerits and even enjoyed that in company with other “naughty” students . After being asked to leave after some puffs on a cigarette , I was forgiven and came back for the 2 last years. My closest friends are from this wonderful school. All of the Sisters and teachers were wonderful, supporting people whom I appreciate until today.
      The gardens were so beautiful – the view of the Hudson and mountains spectacular. I was lucky to have been there and hope the buildings and grounds can be preserved.
      Thank you Janet grainger for your positive report.

  9. Mary Stewart Kyritsis

    It is so sad to hear how this wonderful place went the way of all good things. I attended SMS from 8th grade, the first year they accepted students that young, and it was a haven for the next five years, from 1947 to 1952. Being besotted with things medieval just then, I loved living in the building, which was built like a medieval castle. The sisters were strict, of course, but I certainly never heard of such stories as escaping and dying in the attempt! The first year we were shepherded by Sister Mercedes, who was a YA celebrated author, and she’d read bits from her books about John Sevier and other historical figures. My father was in the Army and moved frequently, so SMS was my anchor, and being there probably shaped the whole rest of my life.

  10. Lyn Washington

    I was in the class of 1965 at SMS, and loved every one of my 4 years there. I followed in my mother’s foot steps as she also attended St Mary’s (the late Joan Macneil Washington) graduating in 1939.
    I have many fond memories of the girls and all the nuns there


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *