The Motherhouse Complex of the Sisters of the Order of St. Dominic is located on the east side of Albany Avenue, just north of the Village of Amityville, Long Island, in the Town of Babylon. It sits on an approximately 19 acre site that includes the original Motherhouse, Rosary Hall built in 1876-1878, the Potato house, the Boiler House, the grotto, St. Dominic’s Chapel and the Sisters’ cemetery. The site also contains the original novitiate, a house that was on the site when the Sisters took ownership in 1876 and the connection to the non-contributing St. Albert’s building, built as a new novitiate in 1964. A former garden/orchard space was located within the grounds.
Rosary Hall is a brick rectangular structure in the Gothic Revival style, completely enclosing a central courtyard. The lateral side of the rectangle faces Albany Avenue with the original novitiate house just to the north of Rosary Hall and the Potato House near the southwest corner of the building and the Boiler House is directly behind (east of) Rosary Hall. St. Dominic’s Chapel is to the east (rear) of the Motherhouse and was moved from a site across Albany Avenue in 1905. Behind St. Dominic chapel, at the rear of the property approaching New Highway is the Sisters’ Cemetery that has been the burial site for members of the Order since 1878. St. Albert’s building sits directly south, set back from the Motherhouse and connected to it by a brick hyphen. Near the northwest corner of Rosary Hall, facing Albany Avenue, is the original novitiate that was on the site when the Sisters came to Amityville in 1876. (See attached site map)
Rosary Hall: the Exterior
Rosary Hall was based on the Holy Cross Convent in Regensberg Germany, origin of the original Sisters who began the current order in America in 1853. The local architect for the 1876-1878 construction of Rosary Hall was William Schiekel and the contractors were the Rauth Brothers and Joseph Berlenback. Rosary Hall was built in two phases: the Motherhouse and novitiate in 1876 and the church (chapel) and rectory in 1878. The four wings of the rectangle around the courtyard are connected by an enclosed cloister that opens on all sides of the court. The cloister also opens into the chapel and rectory on the first floor and into various parts of the Motherhouse/novitiate on the first and second floors. The cloister serves as the principal circulation space for these areas.
The entire structure is sheathed in red brick laid in running bond over a stone foundation. Above the foundation, the walls measure up to 19 inches in thickness and appear to be of brick masonry construction with tube like spaces between the brick layers. The outermost layer of brick is running bond. A cut stone water table surrounds the building above the foundation. A steep end-gabled roof tops the building and is currently covered with composite shingles. The north, west and south wings are two stories high with a dormered third floor and attic above within the steep roof while the east wing is one story in height topped by a dormered second floor.
The chapel occupies the northeast corner of the rectangle and is detailed with brick buttresses topped by stone caps. The buttresses are placed on the north wall between the stained glass widows and at the corners of the front (west) façade of the chapel. The buttresses are not repeated on the east wall of the chapel facing the courtyard. The Gothic arched window openings containing the stained glass windows are topped by brick arches with stone keys at the pinnacle and bottom ends of each arch. The entrance façade of the chapel is the most highly articulated surface on the building with a projecting first floor topped by a shed roof and containing Gothic arched windows in two groups of three, flanking the entry doors that are set in a projecting pavilion with massive stone pilasters topped by carved foliated Corinthian capitols. Set within a triangular pediment is a Gothic arch in stone and brick into which is set a carved stone statue of Mary, Queen of the Rosary flanked by carvings of serpents intertwined in leaves. A large, ornate stained glass window is above the entry, made up of four lancet windows separated by mullions above which are two quatrefoil windows and at the very top a rose window. The entry doors are massive wooden double doors in board-and-batten style with ornate metal strapping and hardware. Two pieces of statuary sit on separate stone shelves on either side of the entry façade window and are topped with stone hoods. The face of the peak approaching the roof is detailed with an elaborate brick cornice made of repeated arches. At the southwest corner of the chapel façade is a cornerstone with the date “1878”.
The chapel is balanced on the west façade by a projecting end-gabled wing with a steep gable enclosing third floor and attic spaces and articulated with gothic arched bargeboards forming a trefoil pattern. The projecting wings are connected by a finely detailed iron balcony featuring repeated Gothic arches with inset quatrefoils. This ironwork is not original and was added in June of 1886. The original entry door (board and batten double wooden doors with ornate iron strapping and brass hardware) is centered in this façade, beneath the balcony floor and is flanked by six double hung windows on each side. A cornerstone incised with “A.D. 1876” (Archives, the Sisters of St. Dominic, Amityville)is at the right of the entrance doors. On the second floor, at the balcony level, single and paired windows and French doors occur with brick sills and surrounds culminating at the top in brick gothic arches with stone keys. A belt course of soldier laid bricks connects the windows at the base of the arches. At the third floor and attic levels are gable ended wooden dormers with decorative bargeboards containing quatrefoil cutouts. The central dormer at the third level is brick faced with a cut stone triangular pediment and paired double hung windows separated by a thick cut stone mullion and topped by a brick and stone Gothic arch within the face of the dormer. Centered in the arch is a piece of cut stone with the date “1876” indicating the construction date of the Motherhouse.
The south façade of Rosary Hall contains paired and single double hung windows at the first floor level with brick sills and surrounds and topped with shallow gothic arches of brick detailed in stone. An original wooden double entry door is topped by a shed roof overhang and iron fire escape/balconies (added in 1913) cover the central third of this façade. A brick and wood hyphen near the southeast corner of this façade connects Rosary Hall to St. Albert’s built in 1964. The second, third and attic floors are finished similarly to the main or west façade with the addition of a brick elevator tower protruding through the roof at the third floor level near the entry door. The belt course continues from the west façade at the level of the second floor windows.
The chapel makes up the first two-thirds of the north façade. The remaining third of the north façade continues under a dropped gable roof, slightly lower than that of the chapel, and is finished in a manner similar to that of the south façade.
The north and south wings are connected by the east wing that is made up of the cloister off of which opens a single depth of rooms. This configuration is repeated on the second floor, although it is somewhat altered from the original layout. The first floor contains double hung windows with stone sills and triangular arched lintels of soldier laid brick. Additionally there is a double service door into a hall leading to the cloister and an entry door topped by a shed roof covering. At the second level, dormers light the interior hallway. They are hip roofed with double hung windows flanked by heavy wooden brackets and cornices and topped with a wooden trefoil design.
Rosary Hall: the Interior
The interior of Rosary Hall is to a considerable degree in its original layout, especially on the first floor. The cloister remains the principal circulation space and it completely encircles the interior garden court. This provided the Sisters an enclosed walkway for year-round use. The floor is polished stone and the walls are brick (paint was removed from the brick in 1965)(Archives, the Sisters of St. Dominic, Amityville). The ceiling has been lowered with a suspended board and batten wood ceiling system; however, the original brick arches, brick cornice and flat board ceiling are present above the newer ceiling. The windows facing onto the courtyard are the original wood-framed stained and leaded glass windows and a set of French doors centered on each of the east, west, and south wings of the cloister give access to the garden. Centered on the north wing is a bay window. An original oil painting of St. Dominic on his Deathbed by Sr. Athanasia is on the wall of the south wing. This painting originally hung in the Brooklyn Motherhouse. The north wing of the cloister has doors leading to both the chapel and the rectory. The chapel doors are double Gothic arched painted wooden doors with metal strapping. The door to the rectory contains a small screened opening to allow for confessions from the Sisters in the cloister to the priest in the rectory. Opposite the door to the chapel is a bay window in the cloister containing stained glass windows and a statue of St. Dominic.
The most highly articulated interior space is the chapel, built in the Gothic style with plaster Gothic arches forming quadripartite rib vaults reaching from plaster columns with gilded capitals. A Rood screen in carved oak separates the choir of the nave from the public pews. The choir contains110 individual seating spaces in groups of five, 55 on each side of the central aisle. This arrangement is consistent with the Dominican tradition of praying to one another. The sanctuary is set up for what was originally a main altar with two side altars. The original Gothic wooden altars were removed in the 1940’s and the current arrangement has a freestanding altar centered in the nave with an area behind it containing the baldacchino with the brass tabernacle underneath it. The central portion of the sanctuary contains a large mural of Mary and Jesus surrounded by the saints, the most prominent of which are St. Dominic and St. Catherine of Sienna. The mural was painted by the artist Lamprecht in the 1870’s and is based on an original in the Ratisbon Convent Church in Regensburg, Germany (Sister M. Anselma, O.P. "A Pen Picture of Queen of the Rosary Chapel", 1930). The side altar murals are not original and were added after the side altars were removed. The floor of the chapel is synthetic tile and the walls are wainscoted with beadboard to approximately three feet, above which the plastered walls are painted in multicolor with Latin phrases in a band at the top of the painted area. The area above this contains the stained glass windows, six on each side (north and south) each flanked by murals of the saints. The windows are made up of a pair of lancet windows separated by mullions above which is a quatrefoil window. The windows contain leaded colored stained glass with circular and triangular motifs set in Gothic arched wood frames The windows on the north side are full length reaching from the dado area into the Gothic arches. Those on the south side are shorter, beginning at a higher point to accommodate the roof of the cloister. In addition to these windows, there are smaller stained glass windows on each side of the sanctuary at what would be the second floor level and on the north side of the organ loft. The loft is a large wooden structure above the entry (west) side of the chapel. A pipe organ is at this level along with chairs for contemplative use by the Sisters. The loft is reached from a stairway off the cloister. Behind the pipes is the large stained glass window that is above the entrance door to the chapel. Although the chapel originally was lit by candlelight, then oil lamps and then gaslights, it is now lit by modern electrical chandeliers and wall sconces of multiple lights.
Directly behind (east of) the chapel is the original rectory, built at the same time as the chapel in 1878. The rectory, originally the residence of the chaplain, now houses a group of the Sisters. The rectory has a much higher level of finish than the remainder of the living space in the building with decorative plaster and tin ceilings and walls (added in 1903) and more ornate moldings and frames. The rectory can be entered from the cloister or from the exterior on the north wall. Either entry leads to an entrance hall with a stairway leading to all three floors of this essentially self-contained structure that does not communicate to the corresponding floors of the Motherhouse. The stairway has a decorative wood rail and panels and a newel post with a large wooden globe. The rectory originally ran along the north wing the full-length east from the chapel’s sanctuary wall. This allowed for a large double parlor that ran east-west with a dining room perpendicular to it running south. The eastern most portion of the parlor was later blocked off from the rectory and now is part of a new apartment for the current chaplain. The dining room has four built in storage areas with paneled doors and windows facing into the cloister. The remainder of the first floor of the rectory includes a small kitchen (formerly a pantry) and service rooms. Some of the second floor rooms have been subdivided although it retains the original central double-loaded hallway and, unlike the first floor, all of the original space remains. As built there were six rooms arranged in suites of two each and two bathrooms. The first suite has been subdivided into three rooms one containing the original fireplace and an entry to a small balcony room that overlooks the sanctuary of the chapel through stained glass casement windows that open into the room. All of the rooms have decorative tin ceilings (covered with a suspended ceiling in the northeast corner room) and one room, identified as the Chaplain’s Living Room in early plans, has highly decorative wall and ceiling coverings in painted tin. One of the bathrooms has been remodeled into a laundry and the remaining bathroom, with fixtures and tiles dating to the 1930’s, has an intricate multi-fixture shower from that time period. The third floor of the rectory contains Aquin Hall, the original auditorium for the Motherhouse. This space can be reached from the rectory staircase or from the exterior fire escape. It does not open into the third floor of the Motherhouse. Aquin Hall occupies the east end of the gabled roof of the north wing and has pitched walls with dormers, seven on each side (facing north and south) with double hung windows. The roof is supported by Gothic arched trusses with trefoil tracery. The original stage is three steps up from the floor located at the east end of the room and storage has been built in to the west side of the space. Aquin Hall is currently used as artists studios by the Sisters.
The main entry into the Motherhouse was on the west wall and it is these rooms that were the principal public spaces of the residence. To the north of the entry were two parlors for the Sisters to receive visitors. They remain laid out as they were originally with paneled doors and wood trim. The ceilings have been lowered but the original ceilings and moldings remain above. To the south of the entry a small parlor led to a conference or meeting room. These spaces remain as built, with similar changes to the ceilings and an accordion folding door dividing the nearly 42 foot long space.
The south wing of the Rosary Hall originally contained the Sisters’ refectory, a children’s dining room and the library. These spaces are essentially intact, although the wall separating the two dining spaces has been removed and replaced with an accordion folding door. Wall and ceiling surfaces have been altered although the original ceilings remain above the suspended ceiling system currently in place. Double hung windows are on the outside walls. The inner walls contain windows and doors opening into the cloister, all of which have been replaced with modern doors and jalousie style windows.
As built, the south wing of the first floor contained service rooms for the Motherhouse: kitchens, pantries, laundry and sewing rooms. A kitchen remains in this space while the remaining rooms have been divided to accommodate new uses. There is no direct connection to the cloister from this space; a parallel hallway gives access to these rooms.
The second floor of the Motherhouse has rooms on all but the north wing that houses the chapel and the rectory. The circulation for these rooms corresponds to the cloister arrangement on the first floor, although as originally built the south wing did not have a hallway. It was, instead, a grouping of large dormitory rooms, ranging from 24 to 38 feet in length. These rooms have been divided into individual “cell” rooms with a hallway along the courtyard wall. The south wing of the second floor originally contained classroom and meeting spaces for the Novitiate with a hallway above the first floor cloister. The hall remains although the larger rooms have been divided into smaller bedrooms as in the south wing. The west wing, as built, contained offices and small bedrooms. The offices have been divided while the bedrooms remain as built. All of the original doors and frames in this wing remain and are used to enter the current spaces. Four stairways service this floor. They are approximately at the four corners of the rectangle and all were originally wooden stairways that were replaced in 1965 with steel fire stairs. All of the ceilings have been lowered and windows replaced as in other parts of the building. At the northern most end of the west wing a small corridor containing original wood cabinetry leads to the organ loft of the chapel.
The third floor contains rooms only in the west and south wings. As built the south wing had large dormitory and infirmary spaces that have been divided into individual sleeping rooms as on the second floor. Some of these rooms originally occupied the full width of the wing. The hall remains corresponding to the cloister walkway, although it has been extended to run the full length of this wing. As built the west wing contained a double loaded hallway serving 25 cell-like bedrooms. A 2000 remodeling combined some of these spaces to form larger bedrooms and opened the four rooms at the center of the hall to create a wall-to-wall living room with a skylight (remodeled from an original fixture). All of the windows on this floor are in dormers and are replacement double hung windows.
Above the third floor rooms on the west and south wings are attic spaces with small dormer windows. They are currently used as trunk storage rooms although some archival material indicates that they may have at one time been dormitory style sleeping spaces for the orphans under the care of the Sisters. This is not substantiated.
A full basement with whitewashed stone walls and concrete flooring occurs under all four wings of the Motherhouse. Wood logs form the beams supporting the structure. The ceiling heights vary, the lowest being less than six feet beneath the chapel.
The overall condition of Rosary Hall is very good with much of the original layout remaining, reflecting the spaces as they were in the original novitiate and Motherhouse.
The Outbuildings: the Potato House
As originally built in the Fall of 1888, the Potato House was an Ice House and later was converted to a root cellar, its current use. The brick building is octagonal in shape with a pyramidal composite shingled roof. A single window faces west and an entry projects from the north wall of the octagon. The gable roof of this entry is chamfered at the end and the double wooden entry doors are topped by a transom window flanked by decorative fan-like facings. The brick is laid in English bond with five stretcher rows per header row. Records indicate that a cupola originally existed at the peak of the roof.
The Outbuildings: the Boiler House
The Boiler House is behind Rosary Hall to the southwest. The low brick walls of the square building reach approximately four feet topped by a hip roof. The brick is laid in Flemish Bond with five rows of stretchers for each row of Flemish headers/stretchers, and the windows, two on each side with the second being an entry pavilion on the north side, contain stone sills and lintels formed by two rows of soldier laid bricks in shallow arches. The roof is topped by a rectangular hipped roofed ventilator.
The Outbuildings: the Cottage
What is currently called Seraphina Cottage is the original building that was on the site when the Sisters’ took control of the property in 1876. It was a small summer home. It is essentially a vernacular version of a gable fronted 1-½ story Greek Revival farmhouse with a 1-story side wing. At some point a Gothic styled entry door with a leaded glass window was added at the main entry. The exterior was originally wood clapboard and was stuccoed during the early part of the 20th Century. The interior has been much altered with the first floor containing four small bedrooms and a bathroom around a narrow stair hall. An open stair leads to the second floor that contains a large sitting room running east-west with a slanted wall on the south side and a full bathroom. A small attic over the side wing is accessed from this floor. All of the interior doors in the cottage are wood paneled doors with original Victorian era hardware. All windows are replacement double hung vinyl windows in early wooden frames.
The Outbuildings: The Grotto, St. Dominic’s Chapel and the Gardens
Just northeast of the Motherhouse is a small rustic stone Grotto with a statue of Our Lady of the Lourdes. The Grotto was erected circa 1920 and is surrounded by mature trees. Leading east from the Grotto is the original orchard gardens that, well into the middle of the 20th Century, contained fruit trees. Beyond this garden on a man-made knoll is St. Dominic’s Chapel. This small chapel originally was inthe fields opposite the Motherhouse west of Albany Avenue. In 1905 this structure was moved to its current site and placed on a small hill created from trucked-in sand. The single room Gothic chapel is clad
with wooden clapboards and shingles. The most highly articulated façade contains the entry porch and faces west toward the gardens and Motherhouse. The gable front has detailed scrollwork forming the bargeboards in the form of Gothic arches with wooden Gothic detailing applied to the face of the building. The extended roofline joins the wall face with carved wood brackets and a gabled entry porch extends from the center of this façade. Beneath the porch roof a board and batten door with metal strapping is topped by a quatrefoil window. The roof extends down deeply along the north and south sides and meets the corners of the building with decorative brackets. Three Gothic arched stained glass windows are on each side of the nave portion of the building. A wooden stringcourse encircles the building at the lower level of the window arches and the area above this division is covered in wood shingles. Similar shingles appear in the gable ends of the east and west side. The east façade is formed by an extension that houses sanctuary. This extension contains larger stained glass windows on the north and south walls, with double panels topped by a quatrefoil window. The east wall is blank. A small open bell tower tops the west (main) façade and is covered with shingles and detailed with scrolled finials.
The interior of St. Dominic’s Chapel is a single open space divided into nave and sanctuary. There are ten pews in the nave area and the walls are painted plaster with a chair rail at the level of the window. Below the chair rail the walls are marbleized and there are six single Gothic arched stained glass windows, three on each side of the nave. A step leads up to the sanctuary that contains a wooden altar and wood statue of St. Dominic and windows at either end formed by paired Gothic arched panes topped by a quatrefoil window. The floor of the chapel is carpeted and the ceiling is of natural wood strips with highly decorated painted Gothic trusses. The color scheme of the interior is shades of blue and gray with gilded highlights. The chapel was restored in 1988.
The cemetery is on the eastern most border of the Motherhouse property. Since 1878 it has been the burial place for the Sisters of St. Dominic at Amityville. Each of the more than 1400 graves is marked by a simple marble stone approximately 2 feet high by 1-½ feet wide with a gentle curving top. Each stone has a cross at the top within the arch below which is inscribed “Here Rests In God” followed by the name of the Sister and the date of her death. The earliest stone is dated 1878 and there are some graves for Sisters who had died before that time and whose remains were moved to the site. In the center of the cemetery are two crypts for the burial of the Mother Prioresses. Prioress Frances Maureen Carlin who died in 1997 is buried outside the crypt according to her request. The cemetery contains a double row of brick piers on which are placed the Stations of the Cross and a small grotto-like memorial to the Sisters’ Puerto Rican mission. Just west of the crypt for the Prioresses are the burial sites of the Motherhouse chaplains. These markers are larger than those of the Sisters and are of individual design.
There are three non-contributing structures on the Motherhouse Complex site. One is the apartments built in 1991 as model units for the adjacent Dominican Village residences. The three apartments are in a single one-story brick building with gabled roof just north of the Motherhouse and east of the Cottage. Exterior walls are of common laid red brick with brick quoins at the four corners of the building. Single and paired double hung windows and patio doors have brick lintels and stone sills. The apartments currently house some of the resident Sisters.
An in-ground pool with a brick terrace and concrete deck is placed in a stockade-fenced area between the Grotto and the gardens. It was built in 1977.
St. Albert’s is a large four-story addition to the Motherhouse. It is connected to Rosary Hall with a hyphen on the south wall of the 1876 building. St. Albert’s was built in 1962-1964 and is currently used as a residence for retired Sisters and also for a variety of functions including some of the Sisters’ ministries, offices and the chapel.
The Queen of the Rosary Motherhouse Complex was built in 1876-1878 in the Gothic Revival style just outside of the Village of Amityville, Long Island in the Town of Babylon. The Motherhouse Complex has architectural significance as an intact example of a 19th Century motherhouse and novitiate along with its ancillary buildings and grounds built for the Sisters of the Order of St. Dominic who had established themselves in Brooklyn in 1853. It has additional significance for its association with the Dominican Sisters and their work since its establishment in 1876.
The Amityville Area
The Village of Amityville was not incorporated until 1894. Prior to that it had been known as part of Huntington, specifically “Huntington West Neck South”. The area where the Motherhouse is located is actually in the unincorporated hamlet of North Amityville, just north of the village line. In the early 16th Century this area was occupied by a branch of the Shinnecock Native American tribe who had migrated from New England to South Hampton, L.I. A group of the tribe’s members preferred the fertile farmland in the Amityville area and moved there where they established a settlement made up of the members of four families: the Hunters, Brewsters, Devines and Fowlers. These families and their descendents farmed the land and traded with the village residents.
The entire area surrounding Amityville was farmland in a rural setting. When the Sisters of St. Dominic came to the area there were German immigrant families farming the nearby land. By the 1890’s there was an immigrant community in the neighboring hamlet of Copiague, as well, where Italian immigrants settled. The village south of the Sisters’ property became known as Amityville by the 1850’s and its population reached 1000 in 1860, becoming incorporated in 1894. With the arrival of the South Side Rail Road in 1867 and its transfer to the Long Island Railroad in 1874, the village area in the south became a popular summer resort. The calm waters of Long Island’s Great South Bay made it a prime location for resort hotels like the Narragansett Inn, the Hotel New Point and the Hathaway Inn. Even the Sisters of St. Dominic took advantage of this popular beach where they maintained the “Nuns’ Bathhouse” for their visits to swim in the bay. The North Amityville area continued to be rural in the beginning of the 20th Century and the arrival of the Sunrise Highway in the late 1920’s increased both the resort business and the settling of the area. As the automobile made travel east on the Island easier, the Amityville area lost popularity as a resort and its population increase was due to the new wave of suburbanization, especially following World War II.
The Sisters of St. Dominic in Amityville
The Dominican Order traces its founding to the followers of St. Dominic, the “Order of Preachers”. St. Dominic was born in the 1170’s to parents from two wealthy and important families in Castile. Dominic was canonized in 1234. Early on his family chose for him a life of religious education and he began to dedicate himself to the needs of the poor. At a time when it was thought that those seeking a serious Christian life belonged in monasteries (St. Dominic, Simon Tugwell, p.9), Dominic, as a cleric, with his mentor Bishop Diego de Acebes, took on the mission of preaching to the pagans of Western Europe adopting an “apostolic life”. They started a preaching mission with the Albigensians, striving to put their actions and words in harmony. It is said that Diego and Dominic got down from their horses and walked among the people as models of this apostolic life.
This year is the 800th anniversary of the founding of the first monastery for apostolic preaching religious women in Prouille, France. In 1206 Bishop Diego and Dominic found an abandoned church in Prouille for their first mission. A home was needed for a small group of women from nearby Fanjeaux who had separated from the Albigensians. These women converts in Prouille were the beginning of a monastic community, and when Diego returned to Spain in 1207, Dominic was put in charge of the monastery created there. As turmoil reigned within the Church, Dominic continued his life of preaching, avoiding connection to any of the warring factions. In 1215, his dedication to preaching was recognized and he was appointed by the papal legate as head of the preaching mission. Thus began the Order of Preachers. Both religious men and women were attracted to this mission of preaching and by 1217, it began to spread throughout Europe and by 1218 the Pope recognized them officially as the “Order of Preachers”. Dominic died in 1220 and in 1233 a Dominican Monastery, the Monastery of Holy Cross, was established in Regensburg, Bavaria. It is to this congregation that the Amityville Dominicans trace their roots.
At the beginning of the 19th Century, the area just north of Brooklyn was known as the City of Williamsburg and a large population of German immigrants moved to Williamsburg to escape the slums of Manhattan’s East Side. By 1855 Williamsburg had been absorbed into Brooklyn. In 1853 four sisters traveled from the Holy Cross Convent in Regensburg, Germany, to the United States with the intention of working at a Benedictine parish in Pennsylvania. The four sisters were literally left at the dock in New York City when the Abbot from Pennsylvania did not arrive to meet them. They were taken to the Most Holy Trinity Parish in Williamsburg, Brooklyn where they began their ministry working with immigrant children from Germany. Led by Mother Josepha Witzelhofer (see Appendix A) they immediately began teaching in the parish. The sisters established convents throughout the Diocese of Brooklyn, which at that time reached into Western Long Island, and spread their teaching ministry, a ministry that continues today (see Appendix B).
Rosary Hall and the Motherhouse Complex
In1875 the 83-acre Schlegel farm in Amityville was donated for the purpose of caring for orphans and the elderly. In December of that year a 19-acre parcel paralleling the Schlegel farm to the south was purchased for $1800 in order to build a church and novitiate.
In 1876 the first novitiate was established with three Sisters and two postulants in a small house on the original Schlegel property and in April of that year, the cornerstone was laid for the Motherhouse on the newly purchased land. The plan is a large rectangle surrounding an inner courtyard. The significance of the plan is noteworthy since until the end of the 19th Century, the Sisters were Second Order Dominicans, commonly referred to as “cloistered”. This gave them limited contact with those outside of the Order, other than the children whom they taught and cared for. Contact with the public took place between screened openings found on the cloister doors.
The Gothic Revival style was a common choice for Nineteenth Century Christian religious buildings in the United States. However, the appearance of Rosary Hall, as the Motherhouse is known, came about for another reason. The building is modeled after the Holy Cross Monastery in Regensburg, Germany from which the Sisters came in 1853. The Regensburg convent is also a Gothic style building with a rectangular plan around a central courtyard.
It was built in the 13th Century when the Monastery was founded. The courtyard in both buildings is surrounded by an enclosed cloister that serves as the primary circulation space on the first and second floors of the Motherhouse. For the first twenty years of its existence, when the Sisters of St. Dominic were Second order, this space in Rosary Hall provided an enclosed walkway for the sisters who walked the encircling hall chanting prayers together.Gothic arched windows and French doors open onto the courtyard that was recreation and “outdoors” space for the fully cloistered nuns.
When the Sisters’ arrived in Amityville in April of 1876 the only building on the Schlegel property was a small summerhouse that they used as a novitiate for three Sisters and two postulants. The small one and one- half story L-shaped building was originally clapboarded and later covered with stucco. It has been used for various residential needs since the building of the Motherhouse in 1876 and is currently serving as a guest residence named Seraphina Cottage after early prioress Mother Seraphina Staimer.
The Gothic detailing on the brick building is applied both in brick and cut stone. The church, or Queen of the Rosary Chapel, is in the northwest corner of the rectangular structure and was completed two years after the remainder of the Motherhouse. It shows the greatest amount of Gothic detailing with brick buttresses, cornice brackets, bargeboards and spires. Gothic arches are detailed in cut stone and stone statuary is both inset into the wall surfaces and set on projecting stone brackets with matching hoods. The Gothic detailing continues on the tracery of the iron balcony that reaches across the western, or main façade. Although the chapel was intended primarily for the use of the Sisters and those housed within Rosary Hall, pews for the public were eventually added to the western or back portion of the chapel.
At the time of the chapel’s construction a self-contained three-story rectory was built into the structure. On the north wing of the rectangle, it communicates with the chapel and can be entered from both the outside and through the cloister. The floors do not open onto the floors of the remainder of the Motherhouse. Reflecting the hierarchy within the Church at this time, this space has a higher level of detailing, including an open three-story staircase and decorative plaster and tin ceilings. Fireplaces are on both the first and second floor and a second floor balcony window can be opened into the sanctuary of the chapel. There was a chaplain in residence beginning in 1878. Although the chaplains had varying degrees of involvement with the Sisters they all provided spiritual consultation and served as religious educators as well as saying mass for the residents of Rosary Hall. The third floor of the rectory contains the original auditorium for the Motherhouse. It is a large well-lit space with a stage area and storage. Sister Mary William Posthauer, OP, who was a novice in the early 1930’s, recalls the novices being required to reach this third floor space via the fire escape at the request of the chaplain who did not want them to use the rectory stairway. She reflected on struggling to bring props for plays up the exterior iron stairway. The space is currently called Aquin Hall and is the site of the Arts Ministries of the Sisters.
As originally built, the Motherhouse contained large spaces that accommodated the postulants and novices who would spend their first two years at Rosary Hall before being sent out to do the ministry of the Order. These spaces included a large dining room where the Rule of St. Augustine and the lives of the saints were read during meals and dormitory spaces for the not-yet-professed sisters. Additional living and classroom spaces were on the first floor. Within the building, the Sisters taught area immigrant children in addition to the postulants and novices. A small group of orphans came with the Sisters in 1876 and when the Motherhouse opened there were approximately 60 orphans in the care of the Sisters at the site. This number eventually reached nearly 160. In the early part of the 20th Century, orphans were housed in Rosary Hall in a second floor dormitory space above the current laundry. This was called the “Angels Dormitory” (Sister Sophia H., p.1) . The Sisters went on to build additional orphanages off site and ran the facilities up until the 1940’s when group homes became the prevailing way of caring for orphans (See Appendix C-1). Throughout their history in the United States the Sisters of St. Dominic at Amityville taught in parish schools on Long Island and ran educational institutions of their own (See Appendix C-2).
From their arrival in the United States until nearly 25 years after the building of Rosary Hall the Dominican Sisters at Amityville were Second Order Sisters, meaning that they lived a cloistered life of prayer and contemplation when not teaching or caring for the elderly. The experience in America was one that showed a need for growth of the Catholic Faith in the vast new land and for this purpose it was decided that the Sisters would become Third Order, or “active” religious. This occurred for the Amityville Dominicans in 1896 and allowed the Sisters to become more involved in the community and the lives of the immigrant families.
Rosary Hall served as the Motherhouse and novitiate for the Amityville Dominicans until 1964 when an adjacent new building, St. Albert’s, was opened for the preparation of the Sisters entering the Order. A four-story multi-winged brick building, St. Albert’s is attached to Rosary Hall with a hyphen at the southeast corner of the original Motherhouse. With the drastic drop in the number of entering postulants in the 1960’s, St. Albert’s ceased functioning as the novitiate within five years after it opened. Since that time both Rosary Hall and St. Albert’s have been used as residences for the Sisters and for the various ministries of the Order as well as the administrative offices for the more than 500 Amityville Dominicans. Approximately 100 Sisters remain in residence in the two buildings on the site.
The Original Novitiate
St. Dominic Chapel
A small chapel dedicated to St. Dominic exists on the site east of Rosary Hall. The chapel was built in 1888 and was originally located in the fields opposite Rosary Hall on the west side of Albany Avenue. The purpose of the chapel was for the convenience of the elderly who were not able to go far from their farms for worship. In 1905 the chapel was moved to its current site on a man-made knoll east of Rosary Hall, near the cemetery. The hill was constructed at the time from sand brought in from the Farmingdale area. (Sr. Sophia H., p. 11) In 1980, Sister Sophia Heimbuecher recalled as a child watching the moving of the chapel. It was placed on telephone poles and dragged across the fields and Albany Avenue to its current site by “six or eight horses”. (Sr. Sophia H. p.9).
The Gardens and Orchard
East of the Motherhouse, before St. Dominic’s Chapel, is the original orchard and garden. This served the immediate needs of the Motherhouse and was not a part of the large farm on the Schlegel acreage. In 1996 Sophia Garden, a community supported garden was opened in the orchard. It is currently being relocated on the property. There is a current plan to replant the orchard in this area.
Since their arrival in Amityville in 1876, the Sisters have used the eastern most portion of the Motherhouse site as a cemetery for the members of the order. On Jan. 18, 1878, the cemetery was blessed
by Father Michael May, pastor of Most Holy Trinity Church in Brooklyn (Archives, Rosary Hall). In 1896 the remains of the first Sisters who began the American order were transferred to the cemetery. Currently over 1400 Sisters are buried in the cemetery including some from the Sisters’ mission in Puerto Rico. The graves are marked with identical stone markers and follow a somewhat chronological plan, although there have been current burials between some of the 19th century graves. In the center of the cemetery, a below ground crypt holds the remains of the Mother Prioresses, with the exception of Prioress Frances Maureen Carlin who chose to be buried next to the crypt in a grave marked similarly to those of the other Sisters. In addition to the Sisters’ burial sites there are marked graves for the chaplains who resided in the rectory at Rosary Hall. The markers for these graves are considerably larger and more ornate than those for the Sisters.
When the Sisters first moved to Amityville, they established a working farm on the 83-acre land parcel donated to them. In 1882 a stable was erected followed by a carriage barn and chicken houses in October and November of 1886. In the Fall of 1934 farming ceased and the following Spring the barn was stuccoed and remodeled into the Queen of the Rosary Academy which then moved out of Rosary Hall into the former barn. The Academy closed in 1986 and the buildings were remodeled into to the current senior residences of Dominican Village.
The Motherhouse Complex of the Sisters of St. Dominic at Amityville stands as a nearly original example of the building type. It has been well maintained and continues to function as a Motherhouse for the Order. As the Sisters of St. Dominic continue to adapt to changes in their lives and in society, the Motherhouse Complex itself is being adapted to meet the needs of this active community of religious women.