The Beginnings Of Maryknoll And U.S. Catholic Mission

Maryknoll Seminary Building

The 210,000-square-foot Maryknoll Seminary Building

At the 21st Eucharistic Conference in Montreal during 1910, Father James Anthony Walsh of Boston shared his vision of U.S. Catholic mission with Father Thomas Frederick Price of North Carolina. Realizing they shared a common call to mission for a mature U.S. Catholic Church eager to fulfill exciting and joyful missionary responsibilities around the world, the urbane Father Walsh and the more rural Father Price collaborated on plans to create a U.S. mission society.

The bishops of the United States formally sanctioned the pursuit of the vision to recruit, send and support U.S. missioners around the world. With this approval, Father Walsh and Father Price traveled to Rome and received the blessing of Pope Pius X on June 29, 1911 (the feast of Saints Peter and Paul). This day has since been celebrated as the founding day of the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of America that, over the years, has become more well-known as the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers.

Father Walsh was a model priest and a natural leader. He was the first superior general of Maryknoll, and he was its treasurer, editor of its publication (now known as Maryknoll magazine, rector of the seminary, and the spiritual director of the Maryknoll sisters formed during 1912. He also was the master organizer, fundraiser and publicist that led to the advancement of Maryknoll. It is difficult to find any aspect of the foundation of Maryknoll that did not benefit from the direction and oversight of Father Walsh, who became a bishop on June 29, 1933.

Maryknoll Mission

Father James Anthony Walsh, a co-founder of Maryknoll, was from Massachusetts. Maryknoll Mission Archives. Used with permission.

Finding A Permanent Home

The first home for the Maryknoll Fathers and Brothers was established during 1912 in an old house located in Hawthorne, New York, about 15 miles north of Manhattan in the then semi-rural area of Westchester County. A class of six men had been accepted to enter the new seminary during September 1912, but even before they arrived the house was deemed too small to accommodate them. Father Walsh and Father Price decided to find another home in Westchester County for their missionary students.

Maryknoll soon signed a contract with a landowner (only known as Mr. Oussani) to purchase a 53-acre property adjoining an estate owned by John D. Rockefeller in Pocantico Hills. However, Rockefeller did not want this new Catholic organization as a neighbor. He sent an agent to raise the offer by $15,000, and Mr. Oussani decided to sell the land to the new bidder.

In hindsight, this setback proved to be a blessing. Maryknoll sued and eventually received an $8,000 out-of-court settlement. The lessons learned helped Father Walsh and Father Price better manage the next attempt to find a permanent home.

Maryknoll quickly located a 93-acre property in Ossining owned by a Mr. Law that included three houses and a barn. In an attempt to sidestep anti-Catholic bias, Father Walsh sent Miss Molly Rogers (later Mother Mary Joseph Rogers, founder of the Maryknoll Sisters) to oversee the purchase. Presented as a “Lady from Boston” and accompanied by a lawyer, Rogers negotiated the sale. Father Walsh, dressed as her chauffeur, waited for two hours with the car.

The successful ruse resulted in the purchase of Sunset Hill for $44,500, a lower price than the offering for the Oussani property. From the topography of the new home and from Father Price’s devotion to the Blessed Mother, the Catholic Foreign Mission Society of American quickly became known by the name of Maryknoll.

Maryknoll occupied the property for less than a decade when it realized that its membership and seminarians had outgrown all the original buildings. A larger facility was required and the Boston architectural firm of Maginnis and Walsh (Timothy Walsh was the brother of Father Walsh) was commissioned to design the Seminary Building that today dominates the grounds.

The Seminary Building

Maryknoll’s vision for a 210,000 square-foot H-shaped building included a dining hall, kitchen, archives, crypt, chapel, museum, offices, classrooms and conference rooms, library and accommodations for 300 that included faculty, students, brothers and guests. The first stone in the concrete footing was laid a few weeks after the June 29, 1920 groundbreaking. All the stones, including boulders retrieved during excavation, came from the property and were laid by local Italian stone masons. These stones were said to “symbolize ruggedness, strength and durability – qualities which must mark the right kind of missioner.”

This immense and expensive project took almost three decades to complete, sometimes forging ahead but often stopping during the depression, World War II and the Korean War. Throughout the years, Maryknoll balanced financing for its overseas missioners and its building projects throughout the U.S. as it managed the ebb and flow of donations. The Maryknoll slogan became: “Go slowly on building, economize until it hurts, reduce the debt, and pray hard for more benefactors.”

The news about the slow rise of the Seminary Building in Ossining was reported in a Maryknoll publication during 1926: “Crowning the…estate now is the new Seminary, a sturdy building of native field stone roofed with green tiles. A tower rising in the center carries the Roman lines of the building to which has been added a touch of the Orient.”

The building was designed with a curved oriental roof to suggest the distant fields of Maryknoll’s ministry, which began in China, and it was “topped by a radiant cross of copper.”

Not until February 16, 1953 did general contractors begin construction of the chapel. Finally, on May 8, 1956, Our Lady Queen of Apostles Chapel was blessed by New York’s Francis Cardinal Spellman. In the crypt below the chapel were placed the tombs of Father Walsh and Father Price, Maryknoll’s mission visionaries.

Adornments To The Building

Between the early period of construction and the completion of Our Lady Queen of Apostles Chapel, many unique internal and external adornments were incorporated into the building.

Exterior decorations focus eyes on the main entrance. The stone mounted above the entrance archway was provided by the Catholic Women’s Benevolent League. It reads Euntes docete omnes gentes (“Go Teach All Nations”), a phrase suggested by Reverend John Buckley of Delavan, Wisconsin, in a letter he sent to Maryknoll.

German-American sculptor Frank Leirich was invited to create the seated Christ the King statue along with decorations on the façade of the tower, including the keys of St. Peter, the sword and book of St. Paul, and the dove representing the Holy Spirit.

Two Chinese-fretted red doors oversee the entrance. The rotunda just inside appears today much as it did upon the completion of its construction. The flagstone floor within comes from the old streets of New York City’s East Side. At the center is a circle flanked by the Latin words Pax Intrantibus, Salus Exeuntibus – “Peace to those entering; health to those going forth.”

The building’s main wing corridor is known as the Hall of Martyrs. Portraits of Maryknoll priests killed while serving in mission are included in this place of honor. Among them is Father Vincent R. Capodanno, a chaplain who was killed while administering to wounded U.S. Marines in Vietnam. Father Capodanno was posthumously awarded the Medal of Honor.

The opposite wall of the corridor portrays each class of Maryknoll priests and brothers from the first class of 1911 to today. The photos are spaced among the large windows that overlook a panorama with the Hudson River in the background.

The alcove midway along the main wing of the building is dedicated to Father Walsh and Father Price. Photographs, letters and mementos tell the story of Maryknoll’s early years while the Chinese-inspired stained-glass window depicts St. Peter and St. Paul with the Madonna and Child. The accompanying Chinese inscription reads “Mary, pray for me.”

Maryknoll Mission

Father Thomas Frederick Price, a co-founder of Maryknoll, was from North Carolina. Maryknoll Mission Archives. Used with permission.

Departure Bell and Statue

Outside and beyond the lower cloister located below the main floor reside Maryknoll’s departure bell and the Our Lady of Maryknoll statue. The 17th century departure bell was a gift to Father Walsh from a missioner in Japan. The bell, which hung in a Buddhist temple destroyed by fire, arrived at Maryknoll during 1918. It was rung as the first missioners departed for China.

The statue of Our Lady of Maryknoll was a gift from a Maryknoll benefactor during the early years. Father Walsh considered many designs for the statue before deciding upon the one submitted by an artist through the building’s architects. The statue was carved by Giacomo Mussner of Ortisei, Italy. It resides in a kiosk designed by the architects and built by Maryknoll’s brothers and seminarians.

Maryknoll Mission

The first departure of Maryknoll missionaries (September 7, 1918) from the steps of the original farm house that was located on the Ossining property. Maryknoll Mission Archives. Used with permission.

Maryknoll Chapels and Museum

The final additions to the Maryknoll Seminary Building were Our Lady Queen of Apostles Chapel, the Lady Chapel and the Maryknoll Museum of Living Mission.

Dedicated to Mary under her missionary title, Our Lady Queen of Apostles Chapel is Romanesque in design. The walls are of Mankato limestone from Minnesota, while the sanctuary wall is of forest green marble with the floor green and purple Vermont slate. The Altar of Reserve is made of Botticino marble and contains holy relics of St. Clarus and St. Aurea.

The inscription Comus Mea Domus Orationis Vocabitur Omnibus Gentibus (“My House Shall Be Called a House of Prayer for All Nations”) adorns the east wall of the chapel. The adjoining Lady Chapel is dedicated to the Queen of Martyrs. It contains three altars dedicated to the Stabat Mater (13th century hymn to Mary), the Sacred Heart and to St. Joseph.

The Maryknoll Museum of Living Mission, at the end of the main wing and in the rear of the building, includes interactive exhibits from the lands in the world where Maryknoll serves in mission. It provides opportunities for prayer, dialogue and action to serve people around the world.

Maryknoll is located at 55 Ryder Road in Ossining. Visitors are welcome any day of the week, with the exception of days designated for private events. Visitors are welcomed to tour the property and the main building. Group tours can be arranged by calling 914-941-7590.

The Maryknoll Museum of Living Mission is open Monday-Saturday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m. The Maryknoll Gift Shop is open Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m. and Saturday, 10 a.m. – 3 p.m.


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