Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Once a Monastery

While visiting Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries in Garrison, N.Y., yesterday, the postulants made a tour of what used to be a house of formation for the priests and lay brothers.

Through the late 19th century and early 20th century, many religious orders settled along the Hudson River, outside New York City, where distance from nativist and anti-Catholic resentment made it easier to purchase property. The Capuchins acquired Glenclyffe, the former estate of Hamilton Fish, who was governor of New York and also U.S. Secretary of State under President Ulysses S. Grant. On these grounds were built a minor seminary, which was a high school that prepared boys who were considering priesthood or religious life for the rigors of theological education. Also, a group of Third Order Franciscans -- men and women who promised to live according to the way of St. Francis without formally entering religious life -- built a villa on the grounds. Finally, there was the house of formation itself. It was known as the Monastery of Mary Immaculate, and it was built in 1932 for the purpose of theological instruction. The brothers would study, work, and reside there for four years until they completed their oral examination in theology.

The monastery had the capacity to shelter about 120 persons. At its peak, the monastery housed about 80 friars in formation. As vocations to religious life declined, the province had no alternative but to close the monastery in the 1970s and move its post-novitiate formation into more economical quarters. At present the post novices, who number about 10 to 12 in any given year, live in Boston in the neighborhood of Jamaica Plain, and they attend classes in theology and philosophy at Boston College, Emmanuel College, and St. John's Seminary.

With the upkeep of the property becoming increasingly cost-prohibitive, the province decided finally to sell the monastery building at the beginning of the last decade. Its occupant is now the Garrison Institute, an educational center dedicated to the "non-sectarian exploration of contemplative practice within a social context." You can see a few pictures of the building and grounds, as they look today, right here.

The chaplain at Capuchin Youth & Family Ministries took us through the Gothic-style complex. His memory was excellent, and since the Garrison Institute made significant renovations only to the bathrooms and former chapel, he could point out exactly the purpose of every room and space in the building. It was easy to picture ourselves with him and his fellow confreres at the refectory, taking meals in silence while some sacred text was being read. We could see ourselves working with the lay brothers in the kitchen or laundry room. We could imagine lounging with the priests in their recreation room. We could envision the fairly strict separation between the lay brothers and the priest-brothers, who resided in different quarters, attended separate classes, and even prayed apart at chapel, with the priest-brothers on the ground level and the lay brothers in the loft.

A quick word about the chapel. What happens to a place of worship when its founders leave? Well, in this instance, it still remains a sacred space -- only the rituals have changed. Truthfully, I can think of no better second life for this chapel than to become a meditation hall. Though I must admit, I experienced some cognitive dissonance as the chaplain described where the altar and sanctuary used to be. From the place where a baldachino, or canopy, arched over an altar of Christ, now a great Buddha sits composurely. Gone, too, are many of the choir seats; and the panel scenes for the Stations of the Cross (a traditional chapel devotion popularized by the Franciscans), embedded in recesses of the stone walls, have been cemented over. Vestiges of the chapel's origins are seen in the stained glass windows.

One of the postulants and I were daydreaming about what it would be like to live for several years in a cloistered space like Mary Immaculate, with everything we needed all in one place, and all our activities (work, study, prayer, recreation) in the same environs. We could definitely place ourselves where our elder brothers were 50, 60, and 70 years ago, but we were glad all the same that the friars do things differently today. First and foremost, we would never think of ourselves as monastics, though friars share a common spiritual heritage with monks; and we would never build a house to operate like a monastery. We would never segregate the priest-brothers and lay brothers in a clerical pecking order or take meals in silence. The Capuchins have always had a contemplative bent, but our charism is to outward-looking fraternity. We do not dwell apart from the world in serenity and contentment. It is fitting that Capuchins strive to live contemplatively even in the cities, and that the majority of formation now takes place in an urban context.

Much more could be said about what it means to be a friar and not a monk, and I will say more in posts to come.


  1. June 11, 2012
    Hi ---
    I found your blog while searching for information about the beautiful place in which I attended a meditation retreat this past weekend, the former Mary immaculate monastery/Garrison nstitute.
    First, I have been uncatholic for decades but as a child wanted to be a Poor Clare or Carmelite nun at varying points in my NYC-apt based dhildhood and so actually being in a former monastery was gripping for me. I wondered what the little seats around the perimeter were and I thought the choir loft was a choir loft, but you say it was a segregated spot for the lay ministers. Were the arched areas behind the alter little shrines? I had to bring myself back to the breath as I "heard" (not literally!)Latin chanting and wondered what the place smelled like with incense and candles and scores of woolen robed guys with bare feet!
    The Buddhist world is quite schismatic as you probably know----that big golden Buddha is Tibetan---"my" Buddhists the secularists (see: Buddhism Without Beliefs by Stephen Batchelor, a beautiful & simple book)would have a much (much) less flashier "alter" if any.
    However, there probably would be candles.
    I believe the present Garrison Institute is a very good place in several very important senses, and (sorry) roman catholicism a darker and darker anachronistic force in the world--- but the loss of the monastery to the Franciscans that had to let it go must have hurt.
    Regina Kelly Houghteling
    Access Services Librarian
    City College Libraries
    160 Convent Ave
    New York, NY 10031

  2. Peace be with you, Regina, and thanks for stopping by the blog. Garrison is indeed a very good place -- a beautiful place -- and I am thankful the old monastery is in the hands of respectful custodians. That which is holy and divine needs no shrine or temple -- it's human beings who need to create and protect sacred spaces so they may connect to who they really are. Bless the Garrison Institute for keeping the spiritual flame burning.

    Should you wish to kindle the childhood memory of fantasies of life as a Poor Clare, let me indulge you with this post about a visit to a Poor Clare monastery:

    I can sense your feeling of attraction and aversion to Roman Catholicism. I am of the same mind as Fr. Donald Cozzens, who observes, with hope, that what we are witnessing today is the passing of the Roman Catholic Empire and the coming of the Roman Catholic Church. Whether the keepers of the church-as-institution are aware of this is another question.

  3. I work at the Garrison Institute and the stations of the cross were not cemented over. Drywall was placed over them since they weren't appropriate for the current use of the space. We recognized their beauty and significance and wanted to preserve them. I'm curious about the meaning of the images on the windows in the chapel and those on the outdoor altar to the north of the what was called the Bay Tree Building. Any info anyone cares to share can be sent to me at

  4. Both of my brothers went through the high school and my older brother was ordained after four years in the monastery. My older brother entered Garrison when I was 3 and he was ordained when I was 16. I have such fond memories of Garrison and wish i had gone to visit before it was sold.

  5. Both of my brothers went through the high school and my older brother was ordained after four years in the monastery. My older brother entered Garrison when I was 3 and he was ordained when I was 16. I have such fond memories of Garrison and wish i had gone to visit before it was sold.