Category: Archive

Living landmark

February 17, 2011

By Staff Reporter

He added about the building at the most southerly tip of Manhattan Island, “Here indeed is an edifice the like of which [the passerby] has not seen before, a building with enclosed stoop, veranda and Ionic columns.”
That edifice, which was landmarked in the 1960s, is now the responsibility of the Rev. Peter K. Meehan, the parish priest of Our Lady of the Rosary. “I can’t go to Home Depot when a pane of glass gets broken,” he said.
Even if the pane were not 215 years old, which some are, it would involve an intricate, expensive repair job, and plenty of paperwork, too.
The priest isn’t complaining, though he needs another $600,000 to begin the preservation mandated by law. He has in place a matching grant of almost $400,000 from the state, and has raised another $200,000 in contributions.
For him, it’s a monument to the more than 120,000 Irish-born women who had contact with the building, to immigrants generally, including today’s millions, and to all those who have helped them.
In his small study that looks onto the Staten Island Ferry terminal, Meehan has four volumes that are testament to the extraordinary work of the Mission of Our Lady of the Rosary for the Protection of Irish Immigrant Girls, which was located there from the mid-1880s alongside the parish church. A fifth is on display in another room.
The five books record the names of 60,000 women, who were aided by priests and staff members like McDonough. Each entry records a name, age, ship and in almost all cases, county of origin and destination address. The last two pieces of information, which are generally not in official records, will likely be of huge interest to genealogists and other family historians. The volumes date from the years of Ellis Island’s operation as an immigration processing center –1892 through 1924.
Each name has a story, many of them inevitably lost forever. Some, though, are awaiting discovery by descendants.
There’s more to 7 State St., however, than the women who were met and counseled when they arrived at the port of New York. For those who can easily summon ghosts in their imagination, there are plenty to choose from. Indeed, one could reasonably narrate the history of the United States up to Sept. 11, 2001 from the perspectives of those who passed through the building.
It was built by wealthy merchant and sometime member of Congress James B. Watson just five years after George Washington was inaugurated president on Wall Street, a short distance away. In 1805, Watson sold it to an even more prominent businessman, Moses Rogers, who had made his name at sea. During this period Mother Seton, the first native-born U.S. citizen to be canonized, lived at 8 State St. Our Lady of the Rosary church is now on part of that site.
McDonough suggested that during Rogers’s time the house was the “scene of brilliant social functions.” As the seafaring merchant was also an abolitionist, legend has it that 7 State St. was a station in the Underground Railway.
The building was taken over by the government for military purposes during the Civil War. It renewed its association with boats and shipping after the war when the Pilot Commissioners organized its headquarters there. Even the greatest of all nautical disasters was felt at 7 State St. The Mission housed Irish immigrants who survived the Titanic calamity.
In the post-World War II era, the Catholic Church saved 7 State St. again. Cardinal Francis Spellman decided that it should be used as a parish for commuters who worked in Downtown Manhattan. The period also coincided with the growth of interest in Elizabeth Ann Bayley Seton, who gave birth to her youngest child in No. 8. (She was beatified by Pope John XXIII in 1963). As it was known that Mother Seton loved to dance, Catholic architect Joseph Shanley designed the new church in the shape of a ballroom. And he entirely rebuilt the interior of No. 7.
Only the front then, badly awaiting preservation, remains intact. The 1960s-built rooms recreate an ambiance and a lost grandeur, nonetheless, particularly the living room with its evocative mirrors and chandeliers.
Because it has continuity, and because it is still lived in and used, 7 State St. is according to Meehan a “living landmark.”
Mass is said three times every day except Saturday. And people come to pray in the church, which is open from 7 a.m. through 5 p.m.
Yet, a woman who never visited the site and who was not a Catholic (though she was later to convert) is a big part of the story.
Charlotte Grace O’Brien, daughter 1848 revolutionary William Smith O’Brien, got involved in the issue of the conditions of emigrants during the years of the Land League’s activism. Writing 30 years later, shortly before her death in 1909, she recalled: “I got into the fight; tumbled into it, I might say.”
She said she was able to do the work because of the confidence the Irish people had in her father’s name.
After inspecting the conditions with a medical officer on ships and rooming houses at Queenstown (now Cobh), Co. Cork, she raised the issue with officials in Ireland and Britain. O’Brien opened her own lodging house at the famous port, but understood that something would have to be done in the United States. She traveled here and won the support from the American hierarchy for a mission to cater to Irish women landing at the port of New York.
The Rev. John J. Riordan, from the New York Archdiocese, was the pastor assigned to the work when the Mission opened in January 1884. He acquired 7 State St, which was conveniently located close to Castle Garden, in 1886, and died suddenly the following year at age 37.
Obituaries in the New York Times and other newspapers referred to his extraordinary energy. The New York Sun reported that he was one of a small group of leaders that raised a staggering $150,000 in the U.S. for the Irish Parliamentary Party at Westminster.
“The health of the first directors offers some insight into the strenuous work of the Mission,” Irish-American historian Maureen Murphy has written. Riordan’s replacement, the Rev. Hugh Kelly, gave up after a year for health reasons, while the third director, the Rev. Michael Callaghan, died after few years in the job.
Kelly wrote to a colleague about the problems faced by rural women in the big city. “That which is a commendable trait in their character at home sometimes leads to their ruin here — an open and affectionate heart,” he said.
The pastors began to see it wasn’t just strangers who posed a threat to na

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