Our Lady of Mercy
A History of our Lady of Mercy Parish
Bronx, New York
(Note: The area that is now called the Bronx belonged to Westchester County in 1790. The section between the Hudson and Harlem rivers and the Bronx River, where Our Lady of Mercy is situated, was often called the North Side; after 1874, when it was added to New York City, it became known as the annexed Section. It was only late in the 1890’s that the name Bronx was attached to the land that we know by that name. However, the name Bronx is used throughout this account as a convenience to designate the same area as the present borough.)
The intersection of Fordham road and Webster Avenue is today a busy, if somewhat bewildering, crossroads. The unusual mix of homes and offices, schools and stores, trains and traffic assure the constant hum of human activity. It is interesting to contrast the contemporary scene with images of the site in 1840 – a rural juncture, dotted with a few small businesses, surrounded by country lanes, scattered cottages, estates, small farms and open space. It was in that year that the Roman Catholic Diocese of New York moved its seminary to an old manor house and a new building under construction on the present Fordham University grounds, and, according to an early parish history, invited the Catholics of the surrounding area to its religious services. The official year of the foundation of our Lady of Mercy parish is 1852, but even before that a pioneer community of Catholics had rejoiced to find, right at their threshold, a chance to celebrate the Sunday liturgy without the long trip into new York City. A quick look at Bronx history will help clarify this mid-nineteenth century event, and briefly sketch how our Lady of Mercy itself played a role in the evolution at the crossroads.
Until the 1600’s, Native Americans alone inhabited the land now called the Bronx. In the decades following the colonization of New Amsterdam, (the tip of Manhattan) as a fur trading outpost in 1624, groups of settlers established both large rural manors or estates and small farming villages in various areas of the Bronx whose names are familiar to us today: West Chester, East Chester, Pell's Land, Kingsbridge, Fordham, West Farms.. Even at the end of the Revolutionary War, a century and a half later, the first united States census in 1790 counted only a mere 1781 residents within the whole area we call the Bronx today, while Manhattan listed some 33,100, Brooklyn 4500, Queens, 6200 and Staten Island, 3800. Very few of these citizens were Catholics, since, unde4r English rule, the penalties for the practice of Roman Catholicism had been severe, and, in New York State, some penalties still remained on the books immediately after the war. During the next fifty years, while the New York City population grew tenfold, the Bronx grew only threefold – to 5300. Now, however, some of the new settlers were Roman Catholics, and some of them lived in the widely scattered rural communities listed above. By 1840, Manhattan had ten Catholic parishes, and the Bronx, none.
Bishop John Dubois, third bishop of New York, and his coadjutor/administrator/successor, Bishop John Hughes, saw the grave need for a diocesan seminary to provide priests for the rapidly growing New York City Population of Catholics, as well as for the rest of New York State and northern New Jersey which their diocese included. After several hapless attempts far north of the city, Bishop John Hughes purchased part of the old Fordham manor of Jan Archer for both a seminary and a diocesan college for young men. The location looked ideal – a country environment to be served by a newly planned railroad link. The seminary reopened there in 1840, and, with it, for the first time in the Bronx, the Catholic community had, not just a visiting priest but a place to worship together. Meanwhile the following year, the seminary rector, Father Felix villains, was directed to begin erecting a church over in a new parish in the Westchester (Square) area, thus establishing St. Raymond’s as the first Bronx parish. Despite a grave shortage of faculty and funds, Bishop Hughes managed to start St. John’s College (now Fordham University) in 1841, the same year the New York and Harlem Railroad arrived along its current route. By 1846, he had raised initial funding for the two new educational enterprises, and obtained a university charter in Albany for the collegiate institution. In that year, he also transferred the administration of St John’s College to Jesuits from Kentucky and reclaimed for his needy diocese the priest faculty he had lent to the enterprise. William Rodrigue, the brother-in-law of Bishop Hughes served both as an instructor in the college and as architect for two new buildings. With reddish stone quarried from the manor grounds, he directed the construction of the seminary and simultaneously, next to it, Our lady of Mercy Church. That church still stands as the nave of the present Fordham University chapel, with its original six stained glass windows. The windows had been given by King Louis Philippe of France to the old downtown cathedral, but when found unsuitable for that edifice, were donated to the new church in Fordham. The bells in the spire could be heard throughout the countryside, up the slope to the cottage where Edgar Allen Poe briefly lived with his dying wife and over east to the frozen pond tolling out a six o’clock angelus that ended the ice skating for the young folk. Historians of the region point out that railroads often drove the development patterns, and indeed, at Fordham, the new route brought a population increase. Thus, in 1852, John Hughes, now Archbishop of New York, formally founded the parish of our Lady of mercy with the seminary chapel designated as the parish church—probably the only one that Archbishop Hughes himself directly erected among the many parishes founded during his episcopate.
In the summer of 1855, archbishop John Hughes gave control of the diocesan seminary back to the secular clergy and chose, as the first pastor of Our Lady of Mercy the seminary procurator, Reverent Arthur J. Donnelly. The new pastor was born in Athy, county Kildare in 1820 and immigrated to New York as a child in 1827 with his parents. He attended St Mary’s School downtown until he was 14 years of age and then entered a commercial apprenticeship. After working for a dry goods establishment and, then for Lord & Taylors, he went into partnership with his cousin opening the firm, Campion & Donnelly. In 1846, however, with the realization that there was now a diocesan Catholic seminary nearby, the young businessman chose to begin preparation for the priesthood. He spent several years at St. Joseph’s Seminary in Fordham, was ordained in 1852, and then worked three years in Manhattanville helping to organize annunciation parish. On October 14, 1855, Father Donnelly returned to Fordham and, as the new pastor recorded the first of the parish christenings, -- that of little James, son of Matthew and Catherine—in the official baptismal registry. We get an idea of the size of the congregation that first year in noting that there were about five Baptisms each month. In 1857, Father Donnelly was reassigned again as a new pastor – this time to St. Michael’s Parish in Manhattan where he stayed for decades; William P. Morrogh, the seminary was named pastor of our Lady of Mercy.
The seminarians moved to Troy, New York in 1860. The parish then came under the care of the Jesuit priests and the ownership of the original Our Lady of Mercy church was renegotiated. It has remained part of St. john’s college (Fordham University) ever since, even as it continued to serve as OLM’s parish church for thirty-two more years. The first two Jesuit pastors were Father Isidore Daubresse and Father Paul Mignard. Many others succeeded them in the next several decades and many confreres assisted them. The handwritten announcements made at each Sunday Mass for all those years are still legible, reflecting the active involvement of the parishioners in the sacramental life of the Church, in devotions, in religious instruction, in works of charity, and in parish activities. They are reminders of the continuity of the expression of faith within the church. Parochial school news first appears in the 1880’s. Three masses were celebrated each Sunday morning and Vespers with Benediction was mentioned for the afternoon. Old pictures and maps of the era depict a very rural community, but there is little reference to that in the Sunday announcements. However, we get a sense of daily life for some of the parishioners from the writings of Robert Barry coffin, not himself a parishioner, but a friend of some parishioners. In several books not published unit the 1880’s, but composed some fifteen years earlier, he details family life on union Avenue (now Fordham road – Third Avenue to the Bronx River). He tells of competing milkmaids vying for his business, of having to choose between a vendor selling ice from the Bronx River or the Harlem River, of a daily commute on the railroad to Manhattan laden on the homeward trip with a basket of hens or whatever else his wife or neighbors asked him to purchase in town. The family keeps a goat so that the baby will have fresh milk and the writer jokes about the creature landing in the village pound. He exults in parties shared with neighbors, evenings spent with the college professors, and the celebration of July fourth and of Christmas in this friendly little settlement. The upper West Bronx was also home to estates and horse farms, so it must be presumed that some of the early OLM members may have worked in these environs.
One Sunday morning in June of 1892, the churchgoers learned that the parish had been transferred to the care of the diocesan clergy and that it would soon move off the St. John’s College campus. The parishioners would spend the next three decades raising money for needed parish building at a time when the price of uptown land had already risen. Father James Rigney, a diocesan priest, was designated pastor, and bought a former club house of the Tammany society on Webster Avenue for a church, apparently on the site of the present Sears building. The rectory was a rented house. In April, 1896, the parish building fund received an unexpected boost: Tom Halley, a famed New York trainer, donated for the parish a two- year old race horse with a long pedigree to be raffled at the Leo Catholic club Ball at Ebling's on St Ann’s avenue and 156th St.; the tickets were wildly popular. By 1900, the Suburban rapid Transit company (locally called the Third Avenue El) had arrived at the Botanical Garden above Fordham road, horse drawn trolley cars traversed the roads, and the Bronx population had reached 200,000. Still the little country parish of Our Lady of Mercy had scarcely begun to see the changes that would envelop it in the next two and a half decades. Father Rigney became ill and died on the former feast of Our Lady of Mercy, September 25, 1898, but not before purchasing the “fine property of Mr. P. J. Keary,” the present location of the church on Marion avenue. In requesting archdiocesan permission to purchase the land, Father Rigney told of only a $10,700 mortgage on the Webster Avenue property even after having been forced to spend $11,700 in the upgrading of Webster Avenue and subsequent renovations. He was succeeded by Father Michael J. McEvoy as pastor. Fund raising activities and a changing environment marked the first decade of the new century. The priests had moved into a large old mansion on their new Marion Avenue property. Even before the church was built, Father McEvoy requested permission to buy more Marion Avenue lots, move the mansion and open a school in it. He clearly explained why the Webster Avenue location was no longer suitable for any use by the parish: it was next door to the firehouse; smoke and noise from the Harlem branch train interrupted church services; and Webster Avenue was fast becoming a business route. Some of the money from the sale of the Webster Avenue property could be used to buy even more property and to remodel the mansion as a school. The Chancery granted the pastor most of what he wanted, but would not allow him to buy a lot on Valentine Avenue for a church. Father McEvoy died on May 13, 1907. Within the same year, Father Patrick Brisling became the pastor and immediately asked permission to build a church on Marion. He invited the Ursuline Sisters who had taught in an Academy on Tiebout Avenue and in a parish school starting in 1884 to formally open a parochial school in the old mansion.
The new church of Our Lady of Mercy was opened on Marion Avenue in 1910. Sister Joan Marie Clarke, who attended the closing celebration for the 150th anniversary of the parish, was one of the babies baptized that first year in the new church. Permission was requested in 1913 to build an extension on the rectory because it was already too small, and the school had 400 students with 100 more asking to come. Father Breslin wanted guest rooms for priests and planned to use the first two floors for classroom space. Soon the mansion could be torn down and work could begin on the new school itself. Sister Joan Marie was one of the children who entered the first grade when the building was ready in 1916, but she remembers the older children previously attending school in classrooms scattered about the area: in our Savior’s and in various buildings on Webster Avenue and Marion Ave. She herself lived down on Ryer Avenue on 180th Street. Asked if there were still farms nearby as she was growing up, she said, “Yes, a huge chicken farm between Ryer and Anthony Ave., but only empty fields on my way up to school. My mother wouldn’t let me cut through the fields by myself’ my brothers did, I had to follow the streets that had been cut through.” Between 1920 and 1930, the population of the Bronx increased by half a million, and this population surge engulfed the area around our lady of Mercy Church. Two centuries of cleared farm land waited for instant development. Father Breslin, later Msgr. Breslin, became an almost legendary pastor in a parish tat mushroomed in numbers. He asked the Ursulines to provide the school with a teacher for every room; when they replied that they could not do this, he invited the Dominican sisters of Sinsinawa to come in 1917 to take charge of the boys department so that every room would have a Sister teaching – Ursulines for the girls, Dominicans for the boys. With his huge dog Arnold, the Monsignor visited each classroom weekly, and the homes of those students whose report cards had an ‘unsatisfactory’ grade. In the mid 1920’s, a school annex was built to provide , at parish expense, the first two years of high school for boys and girls. Because of the church’s proximity to the highly developed Fordham shopping area, attendance at services and sacraments grew. In March, 1933, Our Lady of Mercy began the Nocturnal Adoration Society and by 1934 the Society had 1000 active members. Six curates were assigned to the parish. Vocation to the religious life flourished. Msgr. Breslin died on June 28, 1938, and was succeeded by Father Patrick O’Leary, later named a Monsignor. He was largely responsible for renovating the upper church, replacing the stained glass windows, and erecting the new Stations of the Cross.
In 1922, following World War I, Msgr. Breslin, with Father Aloysius Karl, spearheaded a campaign for erecting church bells. The parishioners were exceedingly successful in the fund-raising and purchased the new chimes from Meneles in Watervleit, NY, calling the “Victory Bells”. Sister Joan Marie commented that her family gathered on Christmas Eve on the porch the first night the bells were rung to hear the organist play carols from afar. Twenty-one years later, capitalizing on the name of the bells and their history, the parish began a wartime newspaper, “OLM Chimes” to be sent to the service men and women during World War II, containing both news of the parish, news of other parishioners and lists of those from the parish serving in the Armed Forces. Also recorded are the names of one captain and five lieutenants, one a POW, all chaplains at the time from OLM.
In the mid-1950’s, a Jesuit priest, Father Joseph B. Schuyler, working in cooperation with the clergy and parishioners, especially the Legion of Mary, did a sociological study of Our Lady of Mercy entitled ‘Northern parish’. Published in 1960, the book details a multitude of observations and statistics that enrich a history of the parish. There were 8350 persons registered in the parish census with some 80% attending church regularly and 400 Baptisms a year. About 2000 Catholics who lived east of Third Avenue did not attend the parish but went instead to Our Lady of Mt. Carmel. The parish ran a Credit Union and employment agency in addition to the many religious societies. The two year high school had closed more than a decade before, but over 1000 students attended the boys’ and girls’ schools staffed by the Dominicans, the Ursulines, and a small lay staff. The Church often served as a center of Catholic regional activities.
A parish is often responsible for all that lies within its boundaries. During the course of 100 years, the priests, and involved laity and religious helped provide spiritual support to the patients in the former Fordham Hospital (diagonally across from the Bronx Zoo) and to Union Hospital on 188th Street – both within the parish boundaries. A group of alcoholics’ anonymous and related groups have long made OLM their base. Various clubs have also used the OLM umbrella through the 150 years – from the Leo Club of the early 1900’s to the youth cadets of today. The parish bought an apartment house as far back as 1916 for a woman’s club. In 1954, Our Lady's Institute, another enterprise in a parish building, staffed by the sisters of Divine Compassion, was closed at the request of the order.
Numbers from the United States census again provide insight into the more recent decades of Our Lady of Mercy history. The population of the borough peaked in 1970 after the opening of co-op city, but that did not mean the rest of the borough was prospering. The following decade saw a drop of more than 300,000 with the eyes of the national and international community focused on a Bronx that was burning. In 1974, utilizing the organizational skills of a group from Fordham University, a grass-roots activist organization was founded called the northwest Bronx community and Clergy coalition. Anne Devenney, a Parishioner from St. Brendan’s, coined one of the slogans that characterized the movement aim: Don’t move, Improve. Obviously major population shifts did occur, but the stabilizing influence of the organization helped maintain a steady pressure on the political powerhouses to provide city services, surveillance of landlord’s activities, and an eye on financial institutions and practices. The organization continues to prevent some of the devastation that had occurred farther south, to encourage renewal and growth, and to unite residents to work together. Under the last three pastors, Father Thomas McNulty, Father Thomas Thompson and Father Lawrence Quinn, large numbers of Hispanic parishioners have come to OLM – first those of Puerto Rican heritage, than those from the Dominican Republic and , most recently, those of Mexican origin. The liturgy has been offered in English and Spanish for those of Mexican origin. The liturgy has been offered in English and Spanish for decades, and parish associations representing the groups have been started. Following the Second Vatican Council, priests of the parish have been assisted by members of the permanent diaconate. Filipino parishioners also have a monthly Liturgy with their own choir. When, in 1981, the federal government first began resettling many displaced residents from Southeast Asia in the north Bronx religion, OLM served as a central meeting place for the agencies offering assistance, and thus a link to the Vietnamese and Cambodian community was forged. African-Americans, too, have long lived within the boundaries of the Our Lady of Mercy parish, and participate actively in parish and school life, including residents who have come more directly from Caribbean or Africa.
In 1973, the two schools, one for boys and one for girls, were merged following a process of discernment and planning on the part of the two faculties – the lay staff, the Sinsinawa Dominicans and the Ursuline nuns. As in most American communities in recent decades, parish funds alone could no longer support the school and tuition was introduced. This, in turn, limited the number of students able to attend the parochial school and the numbers enrolled have decreased over the years. Mrs. Margaret Knoesel became the first lay principal of the school in 1997. More and more, part of the administrator’s role has been to seek out alternative means of support so that the families of the parish who wish to avail themselves of the religious education offered will be able to afford it, and so that the programs offered will be challenging and enriching. The children who do not attend the parish school come for religious instruction on Sundays and they participate in the life of the parish.
Father Lawrence Quinn initiated the year of jubilee that began in December, 2001 rejoicing in the 150th anniversary of the founding of the parish. Bishop Josu Iriondo came for the opening Mass and reception so enthusiastically organized by the parishioners. The joy of the congregation in their gratitude for this milestone and the wholehearted participation of so many testified to the presence of the spirit within the community in the nearly twenty years that Father served in Our lady of Mercy. During the jubilee year, Father Quinn became ill, and Father Ambiorix Rodriguez was appointed administrator of the parish. A year later, on December 8, 2002, Bishop Iriondo returned and parishioners again praised the lord together for the gift of the parish in their lives. Happily, on June 15, 2003, Edward Cardinal Egan was able to come to celebrate the Anniversary with the parish in a solemn Mass of Thanksgiving and a reception afterward. Our lady of Mercy parish, under the leadership of Father Rodriguez continues to express its faith within its vibrant liturgies, its’ many expressions of devotion, its parochial school and school of religion and its societies centered in the life of prayer and social action.
Sister Therese McMahon