Excerpted from the book, The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary, Scranton Pennsylvania. By Sister Michel Keenan, IHM
On January 6, 1959, J. Peter Grace, Jr. of Manhasset, New York offered the Congregation a gift of land and buildings adjacent to his estate. Mr. Grace was head of W. R. Grace and Company, which owned a fleet of thirty-five ships; chemical plants in Canada, Europe and Australia; the Grace National Bank of New York; oil drilling in Libya; and other business ventures. He intended to purchase the fifty-one acre Cornelius F. Kelly estate adjoining his own, and offered to the Congregation the large, French provincial home and six acres of land surrounding it. Additionally, this included a caretaker’s building, stables, and an outdoor pool.
The first floor of the chateau had eight large rooms, including a magnificent library, sun parlor patio, and a ballroom that was subsequently converted to the chapel. The second floor had eight large bedrooms and five bathrooms. The basement boasted an English taproom, game room, and powder room. Six bedrooms, two baths, a dining and a sitting room were once the quarters of servants. A few hundred feet from the main house was a ten-car garage and two five-room apartments, in addition to the guesthouse and pool mentioned above. (51)
Seeing many potential uses for this property as a place for spiritual renovation for professed sisters, as a temporary solution to the space needs of the postulants and junior professed sisters, and a possible future provincial house, if required by Rome, Mother Kathleen, nine days after Mr. Grace’s offer, sent a letter to Bishop Hannan seeking his permission to accept. Five days later, on January 20, 1959, Bishop Hannan’s affirmative reply arrived. (52) On February 1, 1959, approval of the council was recorded. (53) Thus Our Lady of Grace Convent became a reality.
Since the Congregation was not yet a papal institute, in addition to the foregoing actions, there were approvals required from the apostolic delegate and from Bishop P. Kellenberg of the Rockville Centre Diocese in which the property was located. There was also a need to inform Reverend John K. Sharp, St. Mary Parish, Manhasset, and pastor of the nearest local parish.
The council minutes of March 15, 1959 note the approval of Bishop Kellenberg, subsequent to Mother Kathleen’s personal visit to him at St. Agnes Cathedral Rectory in Rockville Centre, New York on February 18, 1959. (54) It was a difficult decision for Bishop Kellenberg, since his policy restricted acquisition of tax-exempt property to religious communities in his diocese. He made it clear that the exception in this case was because of “the long and splendid record of I.H.M.’s in the Rockville Centre Diocese.” He was referring to the fact that the IHM Sisters had served at St. Dominic, Oyster Bay, since 1924; at St. Peter, Port Washington since 1925; and St. Mary, Manhasset since 1926.
Even with Bishop Kellenberg’s approval, there were still several hurdles to overcome. Both the town of North Hempstead and the Village of North Hills had tax exemption policies and zoning laws that applied to use of the property. Since North Hills’ zoning law restricted use to “single family dwelling purposes,” the legal issue became whether the sisters would constitute a “family.” Since no definition was given in the law, Attorney J. Oakey McKnight of Mineola, New York, rendered this opinion that solved the zoning question: . . . if the Ordinance did not restrict by definition the use and occupancy to members of a single family related with degrees of consanguinity or affinity,” then the Sisters could be considered a family. (55)
The right to tax exemption on the property was obtained from the town of North Hempstead, the Village of North Hills and the School District of Nassau County during April 1959. This was a considerable concession since the property’s replacement value had been appraised at $800,000.
In all these matters Mother Kathleen was astute–working with lawyers, businessmen, and bishops. She also had a homey, simple way of endearing herself to those whose help she needed. She became friends with Mrs. Grace (Margaret), the wife of Peter Grace and mother of eight children who attended St. Mary School in Manhasset where the IHM Sisters taught. Mr. Grace was a strong supporter of parochial school education, although he himself attended public schools. His sentiments were expressed in these words: I came to feel that I had missed something . . . a religious education seems to me more important than ever today, in the face of the empty materialism that prevails in so much of the world. So I decided to send my own children to parochial schools. (56)
Sister Paul Joseph McArdle, IHM, principal of St. Mary High School in Manhasset, played a key role in cultivating Mother Kathleen’s interest in the Grace property. She could see opportunities for the Congregation’s presence there, as well as the value of the gift itself. Mrs. Grace became a strong intermediary contact between Mother Kathleen and Peter Grace who was frequently out of the country on business. It was Mrs. Grace who guided the first tour of the Kelly estate for Mother Kathleen and three council members on January 15, 1959, and who opened her home for subsequent meetings with legal representatives regarding the Kelly estate.
By April 20, 1959, the chief attorney for Peter Grace, Mr. John J. Meehan of Forest Hills, New York, submitted a proposal for the conveyance of the property to the IHM Congregation. The council approved these arrangements on May 8, 1959, and Bishop Hannan also approved in a letter dated May 15, 1959. (57)
So it was that within a five month period a host of legal requirements had been met, approvals by Church and civil authorities obtained, and the deed and title delivered by Mr. Grace to Mother Kathleen. Plans began at once for occupying the main house in late June 1959. Sisters from nearby IHM convents gave many hours to the task of readying the house. The summer of 1959 was already scheduled for a Spiritual Renovation Program for two groups of “fourteen to eighteen years professed Sisters,” about thirty-five sisters in each group for July and August.
Sister Maria Angela Orr was appointed first superior of Our Lady of Grace Convent and Sister Clotilde Cullen, mistress of renovation. Sisters Ignatius Brown, Norbert (Marlyn) DeWitt, and Mariam Pfeifer were assigned to assist during the July renovation program. In August, the four replacement helpers were Sisters Roselda (Roberta) Peters, St. Leo (Joanne) Madden, Sharon Brady, and Mary Faber (Mary Helen) Slavinskas. (58)
Mother Kathleen, together with Sister St. Mary and Sister Beata, was present to welcome the renovants. The interest of Mother Kathleen in the renovation of the sisters continued as a priority, and she found great joy in knowing that the Congregation now had an appropriate, spacious center for the physical and spiritual renewal of the sisters.
In order to ease the space problems at the motherhouse, Mother Kathleen obtained Bishop Hannan’s permission for the forty-five postulants who had entered in September 1959 to complete their postulancy at Our Lady of Grace Convent. On December 10, the forty-five, along with their directress, Sister Gertrude Marie Jelley, left from Marywood by Greyhound bus, arriving at their new home in the early afternoon. Sisters Maria Angela Orr, Kotska Sick and Charles Marie Meehan welcomed them. Mother Kathleen had selected four excellent guides for the postulants’ introduction to religious life in the IHM tradition and spirit. (59)
By May 20, 1960, the first group of postulants returned to Marywood. Their departure signaled the restart of the cycle of June and August renovation arrivals, followed by the December 29 arrival of the second group of postulants. This scheduling would continue until the opening of the new novitiate building in May 1962.The Congregation is indebted not only to Mr. and Mrs. Peter Grace for their initial gift of this property and their ongoing interest and support of it, but also to the hundreds of women who were members of the IHM League over the years. These women made possible many equipment replacements and beautified the interior by their gifts of furniture, lamps, pictures, drapes, and other household items. The families of many IHM Sisters were also generous donors to Our Lady of Grace Convent.
51. Mr. J. Peter Grace. Letter to Mother Kathleen, January 6, 1959.
52. Mother Kathleen Hart. Letter to Bishop Jerome D. Hannan, January 15, 1959.
53. General Council Minutes, February 1, 1959.
54. General Council Minutes, March 15, 1959.
55. Attorney Oakey McKnight. Letter to Dr. Robert Boggs, New York City, NY, March 13, 1959.
56. The Sign Magazine, March 1958.
57. General Council Minutes, May 8, 1959.
58. Annals of Our Lady of Grace Convent, 1959.59. Ibid., 1959