By Sr. Michaela Connolly, OP
November 5th marked the 145th anniversary of the arrival of the first sisters and children at St. Joseph’s Convent on Western Highway in what was then called Blauveltville, some 30 miles north of the lower east side of New York City. Our history tells us it was a cloudy and cool day, which would have helped make the long trip a comfortable one.
One can only imagine the excitement that morning as seven sisters and nine little girls prepared to say goodbye to their friends in Holy Rosary Convent on Second Street on the Lower East side of the city. It had taken some time and much effort on the part of our foundress, Mother Mary Ann Sammon, and the sisters of Holy Rosary for this new home for orphaned girls to become a reality.
She had dreamed of this day ever since she joined the cloistered convent in 1873 and began advocating for the sisters to shelter homeless children she had met on the city streets. Many of those children had become orphaned, as she had, as a result of the great famine that afflicted Ireland and its poor in the 19th century.
Mary Ann had emigrated with her uncle’s family to New York at age 7 and, when she was older, was employed by a German Catholic family living in St. Nicholas parish. She met the Dominican sisters when she brought the young girls of the family to the parish school where they taught.
The sisters accepted Mary Ann’s request on behalf of the street children and several children came to live at the convent. As the numbers increased, some were sent to live at other convents where the sisters were teaching.
In 1875, the Second Street Convent formed a corporation for the care and education of orphans and other children. In May 1877, the ministry legally began when ten children were sent to the convent by the recently formed Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Children.
As the number of children increased, the Cardinal asked the sisters to find a place in the country large enough to accommodate all the children in their care.
Initially, Sr. Mary Ann and her superior, Sr. Hyacinth, hoped to build an orphanage on land the convent owned in St. Catharine’s parish in Blauveltville. It had been purchased in 1870 in the hope of building a parish school. However, a nationwide financial panic in 1873-74 caused a great burden on the parishioners, and the plan was abandoned.
The two sisters visited the site but realized the cost of building an orphanage would be too expensive for the convent. As they were returning back to the city, they saw a For Sale sign on a property on Western Highway and decided to inquire about it.
When they entered the house, they were amazed to see a large oil painting depicting one of the miracles attributed to St. Dominic, that of raising a dead child to life, which took place at the church of St. Sixtus in Rome. Our history tells us that on seeing the painting, Mary Ann exclaimed, “Here we shall be” and so they were. The Second Street Convent purchased the house and its 16 acres and named it St. Joseph’s Convent. The property owners, Mr. and Mrs. Joseph Eustace, gave them the painting, which now hangs in the foyer of our motherhouse.