Friday, September 16, 2011

Convent of St. Mary, Abbey and Chapel, Peekskill, NY

The 1876 Abbey of the Community of St. Mary, shot by moonlight.

For over a century, the Convent at Mount St. Gabriel, a picturesque plot of land in the highlands of Peekskill, NY, was home to the Community of St. Mary. From its humble beginnings in 1872 in a clapboard farmhouse, the Convent soon grew into a multi-building complex with a full church, a school, and ample housing for both the Sisters and their charges. By 2003, when the convent moved to Greenwich, NY, the school had already been repurposed, but the Abbey proper, as well as the Chapel, remained vacant, as they have to this day.

Based on a Benedictine model, the Community of St. Mary adheres to a simple monastic life centered around prayer, reflection, and service. From tumultuous beginnings, including an uphill battle against the established positions of the Church on monastic orders in general, the CSM eventually flourished after being widely recognized for the selfless acts of its Sisters in service to the community. It is the oldest indigenous Anglican order in the New World, and the first monastic body constituted by the Episcopal Church since the dissolution of monasteries in the 16th century.

While the forms of service practiced by the nuns of the order have varied over the years and regions, at this particular complex, the running of a school and the manufacture of communion wafers were a primary focus. In 1977, as a result of declining enrollment, the Episcopal church closed the school, and the parcel of land containing it was sold off to a private developer; in the early 1980s, the 1911 building was converted to luxury condominiums. The Chaplain's House on the grounds is now the private residence of a local doctor, and has been gut renovated.

But since the CSM moved to a larger property in Greenwich, New York, in 2003, little has been done to the 1876 Abbey and 1896 Chapel buildings. The interiors of each are, for the most part, gutted; work was begun on the buildings, but never completed, due to the subprime mortgage collapse. Some significant interior architectural features have been left intact, but the majority of the structures have been stripped down to their frames. The properties are owned by Ginsburg Development, and their website indicates that they will be developed as "The Abbey at Fort Hill", a 12-unit luxury condo complex. This would be to the benefit of the town of Peekskill, which sorely needs the tax revenue, but also to the benefit of the Community of St. Mary - as part of the proposed development, Ginsburg would relocate the cemetery to the Greenwich location, bringing the founding Sisters to the modern convent.

The majority of the Abbey was gutted in between 2003, when the property was vacated, and the subprime mortgage collapse of 2008.

Untouched so far, the chapel on the second floor of the Abbey is remarkably intact.

During the heyday of the Convent, this chapel was primarily used to provide services for ailing nuns, who were housed on the second floor of the building.

As membership in the Convent and its school declined, the small chapel was used for most services, and the large 1896 Chapel building was only used for special functions.

The ornate hand-painted walls were finished prior to the start of the First World War, and are holding up remarkably well.

Very few interior architectural details remain, but apparently the developers feel that the original wooden staircases will fit with their luxury condo designs.

A view through one of the dormer windows on the third floor, looking towards the Chapel building.

An ornate spiral staircase leads from the first to the third floors.

This mechanism, with an array of gears and dangling weights, led up into what was possibly a bell tower.

View of the grounds at sundown. To the left is the Abbey, and to the right is the Chapel.

A dusk view of the 1896 Chapel, which was constructed of locally quarried stone - during this time period, labor was cheap, and materials expensive.

A font on the outside of the chapel; the inscription translates (roughly) as "Lydia: rest thou well and pray for us".

The bell tower on the Chapel building.

A view to the road leading away from the Convent.

For more images of the Convent, check out Amy Heiden Photography.