Since 1939, a stately white farmhouse on a quiet Walden street has served as a spiritual retreat for nuns who worked hard in the inner cities to bring families together. The house – and the brick residence building next door – is changing hands, but its spirit of service will continue.
The Little Sisters of the Assumption (LSA) work in East Harlem; Worcester, Mass.; and Dorchester, Mass., providing health and social services to the poorest families. According to LSA literature, the order began in the United States in 1891 with the arrival of six Little Sisters from Paris. With the help of several prominent families in New York, they settled on the Lower East Side and got right to work. Donations from “Lady Servants,” two lay women who supported the sisters, allowed the purchase of part of a farm in Walden.
The 6.9-acre property on Gladstone Avenue, named Our Lady Queen of Peace, offered a respite in the country. Originally it was open only during the summer, according to Sr. Jean McCormack, U.S. territory treasurer of LSA.
“The sisters would take the Hudson River Day Line, transfer to a bus and arrive at the bottom of the hill [on Route 208], carrying everything they would need for their retreat,” McCormack said.
Despite the steep ascent, Our Lady Queen of Peace was a haven for just that: peace and quiet. Fifteen bedrooms in the 6,000-square-foot, circa-1800s farmhouse and 42 bedrooms in the attached 20,000-square-foot brick building offered plenty of space for the hard-working nuns to rest and rejuvenate. As time went on, and the nuns aged, the building became a rest home for older sisters. Not that all the sisters wanted to rest: McCormack recalls the story of Sister Helen, who “had a lot of life, but her body was not going along with that” – she was infirm enough to need a wheelchair. One day, there was a knock at the door and a man was on the doorstep with a bicycle. “I’m here to see Sister Helen,” the man explained. Apparently, Sister Helen thought she’d try a new set of wheels, McCormack said, laughing.
The buildings are empty now, except for a couple of bedrooms for LSA members. But it’s not hard to imagine the beauty of life there: As one enters the farmhouse’s hall, bright beams beckon from the sunlit chapel that was added in 1941. Original wood floors gleam throughout, and pristine white crown molding curves around corners and decorates the ceilings. The farmhouse’s covered back porch overlooks a fenced-in meditation garden, where a donated swimming pool used to be (every vacation house needs a swimming pool!). The side yard is beautifully landscaped – including a weeping cherry tree planted in memory of the cyclist-to-be Sister Helen – and is highlighted by a large Grotto of Lourdes, as well as a Peace Pole installed by the sisters in 1991.
The Little Sisters always had an open-door policy, and welcomed local neighbors as well as visiting nuns. The chapel in the farmhouse (and, later, the larger chapel in the brick building that was built in 1962) hosted Christmas Eve Mass each year.
“We have a family spirit here,” McCormack said. “This house is a place of welcome. I think people knew that they were welcomed. That says we’ve accomplished our mission.”
The sisters didn’t just take it easy here, however, McCormack remarked. “We did nursing, home visits, some of the sisters delivered Meals on Wheels while they were here,” she said. “During World War II, the sisters were a part of the Red Cross. We’ve hosted craft groups from the community, a quilting group; we’ve held a lot of maternal health programs…. We were linked to the city programs even though we were in the country.”
Neighbor Maryalice Spencer started working as a part-time cook for the Little Sisters 21 years ago, when her youngest son was three years old.
“He used to come to work with me,” recalled Spencer, who is now employed as the LSA archivist and member of the International Laity Commission. “He became best friends with a sister who had Alzheimer’s; they would always play together. When he was four years old, he broke his arm, and all the Little Sisters signed his cast. He had, like, a zillion grandmothers!”
Spencer said she’s loved every minute that she’s worked with the Little Sisters.
“I was drawn to that family spirit,” she said. “The spirituality, and the ability to change the world, to change things starting right where we are.”
How do she and her family feel about having to let go of the property? “No one wants to talk about it,” Spencer said with a sad smile. “It was like going to your grandparents for the weekend. It always felt like home.”
The property is in contract with Chapel Field Christian School; McCormack is happy that the spiritual legacy of 100 Gladstone Ave. will apparently continue.
“It is never easy to leave a place where deep friendships have been forged and where there are so many wonderful memories,” she said. “All along this journey we have been gifted with so many dear friends and neighbors in the village of Walden. You will always be a part of our Little Sister Family. Words cannot express our gratitude for your generosity, care, support and love. As we prepare to turn over the keys, our thoughts turn to you and the memories this property holds for us all. Know you are forever in our hearts and prayers.
“This year marks the 125th anniversary of our arrival in the United States from France. It is a moment to gather together, old and new friends, sisters, coworkers, and the many families we have served over the years to give thanks for the gifts received over these 125 years. During the months leading up to our celebration on Oct. 1, we will be posting stories on our Little Sisters of the Assumption Family in Mission website and Facebook page about our history, our mission sites and the events that our sisters have responded to over the years. If you would like to share a story about the sisters in Walden, you can email it to firstname.lastname@example.org, or mail it to Norma Benitez, 475 East 115th St., 1st Floor, New York, NY 10029.”
Although they will no longer call Walden home, the Little Sisters won’t stop their mission of helping families in crisis, McCormack stressed. “We’re very small in number as a religious community, but we have a huge network of people we work with to provide services,” she explained. Those services – which include advocacy, housing issues, food pantries, early intervention, nursing care, parenting groups and GED studies – circle around the idea of working with families who need reunification.
“We’re all about bringing people back together from their brokenness to wholeness,” McCormack concluded.
By Jane Anderson