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"Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy "






Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2011


AN unexpected honor comes to me in the form of a request to write a contribution to a proposed historical sketch of the House of Mercy, New York.

It is a pleasure to respond; at the same time, it is associated in the performance with much that is sad and that is trying to my feelings and wishes. What I mean is this: The history of the House of Mercy as I knew it from 1867 to 1879 awakens the memories of twelve of the most eventful years of my life, and brings into view very many, whom I honored and loved, who are gone, and a few, who still survive and bless us with their presence and labors and influence.

The temptations which beset me are to tell my story rather than relate that of the House of Mercy, and to dwell with fond delight upon the recollections of my dear, dear friends with whom I was brought into close relations by the institution which we jointly served; to mention a few, that my difficulty may be appreciated, ere I pass to record some facts which will fill up a brief chapter in the memorial which is to follow:

First and before all others there was Bishop Horatio Potter, the steadfast friend of the House of Mercy, and the Sisters of St. Mary and the Chaplain, and the Rev. Dr. Peters and Dr. Houghton, and Mr. Charles Ely, and General Sandford, and Mr. Cummings, and Sisters Jane, and Agatha, and Sister Louisa (Cooper) and Sister Anna Fisher, and among those [11/12] who survive, the Rev. Dr. Dix, Dr. Gallaudet, Mr. Charles N. Kent, Elbridge T. Gerry, Elihu Chauncey, Sisters Mary and Octavia and Gertrude, Miss Ellen Kemble, Miss Alice Sandford, and the Visiting Ladies, who came to help in my time, among whom conspicuously were Miss Hodges and Miss Torbert. To tell my story in association with these worthies would obscure the history of the House of Mercy, and set it so far in the background that it could with difficulty be discovered behind the crowd of figures in front. The temptation, therefore, must be sternly resisted, and I begin by stating how I became Chaplain of the House of Mercy in 1867.

In 1865 I was elected Professor of Ecclesiastical History in the General Theological Seminary, New York, while I was Rector of St. John's Church, Brooklyn, N. Y. From this Rectorship I was not able to free myself until Epiphany, 1867, when the present Bishop of Quincy succeeded me as Rector of St. John's. During the interval I was enabled to discharge the double duties of Professor in New York and Rector in Brooklyn by the aid in my parochial work of the Rev. H. Warren Fay, the Rev. Clarence Buel, and chiefly and for most of the time by the Rev. Thomas McKee Brown, who has within a few days deceased as the Rector of St. Mary the Virgin, New York.

As soon as I was released from parochial care, I found my Sundays free, as there were no services in our Seminary Chapel on the Lord's Day, excepting the early Communion. As I did not wish to be idle, and as I apprehended, if I had not stated work of my own, I would be, so to speak, the prey of my clerical brethren, who would welcome my services as a temporary supply, and while I would be useful in such duty, still at the end of the year, or of five or ten years, I would have nothing to show for my labors, I determined, if the Bishop of New York had any work for me in any of the numerous institutions of the diocese, to tender my services as a free will offering. This I did. At the time I wrote my letter the House [12/13] of Mercy was supplied with a Chaplain; had that Chaplaincy been vacant I would undoubtedly have made that institution an exception; but as it was I made no reservation. Within six weeks after addressing the Bishop I received a note in a strange hand, signed Riley A. Brick, Secretary, informing me that I had been elected Chaplain of the House of Mercy, New York. I was surprised and distressed, because I felt myself a stranger to such work, and as far as I knew myself, and appreciated the delicate character of the duties required, I felt myself utterly unfitted for the post. My impulse was at once to decline the election, and wait for something more congenial to be offered; but a little reflection compelled me to take a different view. I felt that it would be unseemly, if not cowardly, thus to decline what first came to me in this unexpected way. I had offered my services without reservation, and as soon as my offer was accepted and a definite proposal of work was tendered me I declined, and thus placed myself in the position of one who was picking and choosing what he would take. Such a course, I concluded, was unmanly and unworthy, and accordingly I wrote a letter of acceptance, and became the Chaplain of the House of Mercy. I must yield to the temptation of saying just a little about myself in connection with the institution, and that little is this, that among the many undeserved mercies with which Our Heavenly Father has blessed me in the course of my life, one of the greatest I count my becoming the Chaplain of the House of Mercy. It proved a House of Mercy to me as much, if not more, than to any inmate whom it ever sheltered. It became my spiritual home. Its many Eucharists and services were my meat and drink. The Sisters who abode and served there revealed the loveliest types of human character, developed and enriched by the grace of God. During the years of my incumbency there were fightings without, and the Sisters and myself were not free from assault. But all was peace within the blessed House of Mercy. Sisters driven away from other places found shelter with us, [13/14] and our space was crowded for a time with the refugees, and I myself in hours of bitter trial found comfort and refreshment in the atmosphere of quiet and repose in God's protecting care which animated the hallowed spot. In crises of sharp, terrible, crushing affliction, which overtook me, the House of Mercy sent its sweet ministries of consolation, and I was helped. Let this suffice as my expression, as in a whisper, of my gratitude to God for what the House of Mercy has brought to me in the way of comfort and help, and spiritual development and refreshment, as I look back to those years. The work of a Chaplain in such an institution, as I have said, was new to me, and I needed to be educated for my duties. In this course of training I received immeasurable help from the Sisters; indeed, without their co-operation I could not have met with the success which crowned my labors, and I am of the opinion that I should, after a time, have retired from the post, constrained by the conclusion that my efforts to fit myself to be the shepherd of the flock committed to my care had proved a failure.

As it was, I learned to know my sheep, and they in turn came to know me, and through Divine help my pastoral care became a delight to me. The great world cared not for my flock. It was shut up, and in the nature of things the public could not be admitted to share in our experiences and joys. We were secluded, and must perforce have our anniversaries, and Christmas and Easter festivities all to ourselves. Such a flock, under such conditions, must interest a shepherd if he have any of the spirit of the Good Shepherd. They were mine in a sense in which no ordinary pastor can claim the ownership of a flock. They looked to me for a great deal in the way of spiritual instruction and guidance, and beyond that for personal interest in their welfare. Details in our joint life, had I space to display them, would show this, but I can only illustrate my meaning by reciting one or two facts.

St. Mary Magdalene's Day, July 22, was our festival, and [14/15] we used to have a royal time; the inmates during the day had their games and fun, and at night they gave an entertainment made up of recitations and music. The audience consisted of the Sisters and a few selected and invited friends and the Chaplain. I furnished the refreshments, or rather some one selected article in their bill of fare, and on one occasion I recall the girls by vote appropriated my contribution to the purchase of molasses candy. I was counted upon for a speech, and one thing I always told them, that their entertainment was the only one I attended in the course of the whole year, and my presence at their show was the nearest approach to going to the theatre which I ever made. There was often a great deal of talent displayed on these occasions in elocution, and expression, and musical performance.

The giving was not all on my side by any means. I have many souvenirs, which now meet my eye on my walls and tables, which were the Christmas gifts of the inmates to their Chaplain, purchased with money which they were permitted to earn after their day's work was done. These Christmas presents are of considerable intrinsic value, but their great worth to me is that they tell of self-sacrifice and the surrender of almost all that the donors possessed that they might convey to me an expression of their appreciation and regard.

It must not be supposed that the labor was light and altogether congenial. It was not, and I say this not to bring myself into view, but the Sisters, whose days and nights from the year's beginning to its end were spent in the House of Mercy. My trials and perplexities and disappointments were as nothing compared to theirs. The anxiety and weight of responsibility, which the care and oversight of such an institution involves, are never lifted. There are no vacations, no intervals of relief--by day and by night the burden weighs. Very largely the work becomes that of experts, so that novices cannot successfully take it up, and in those far-off days the Sisters were [15/16] few, and hence there could be little relief afforded those in charge of the House of Mercy by substituting others in their place.

It was heroic duty, and of a kind most uncongenial to a refined, sensitive woman; but the Sisters did it, and persevered in doing it while I was Chaplain, so far as I know without a murmur or the expression of a wish for a change of work. All this told upon me and tells upon me still, when I think of the Sisters who have gone and those who remain.

After the Chapel, the Infirmary was the dearest apartment to me in the House of Mercy, because it was associated with the sweet solemnities of penitence and contrition on many a sick bed, and the departure in peace of many a youthful sufferer who had sinned and was forgiven. One experience on a bright Easter Day I shall never forget, and it must suffice. I was sitting by the bedside of a girl not far away from death, and was speaking to her of the Resurrection, when she interrupted me, and asked: "Can Easter and its joys and glories be for me, such as I am?" "Well," I said, "can you guess to whom of all mankind was the Resurrection as a fact in all its bliss and glory first made known?" She answered quickly: "The Blessed Virgin!" "No," I said; "guess again," and she replied: "The Holy Apostles!" "No, no," I answered; "you are mistaken; you would never guess--it was to you, or one like you, who had been worse than you, for listen to what St. Mark tells us," and I read: "'Now, when Jesus was risen early the first day of the week, He appeared first to Mary Magdalene, out of whom He had cast seven devils!" Her face lighted up, and she said in substance: "It seems too good to be true; how kind it was in you to tell me in this way, and make me guess. I shall never forget it. This is blessed news to poor me." She had little time to forget; ere another Sunday came her body was in the grave.

The Sisters did some outside work, and ministered in sickness to what were known as "squatters," who inhabited huts [16/17] upon the rocks. Among these I recall two venerable people, an old man and his wife, very poor but worthy folks. They were from the old country, and were communicants of our church. They both died during the cold weather, within a few weeks of each other. They were buried from our beautiful Chapel. It so happened that during that year no deaths occurred among our inmates, and accordingly, when I came to make up the statistics for my report there appeared these astounding statements in juxtaposition: Deaths, none; funerals, two. Without the above explanation I am afraid that some future critic will assert that in the barbarous days when we lived the Sisters and I buried people alive!

From our excellent friends on the rocks I pass to mention our faithful and good janitress, who served loyally and acceptably for most of the years of my incumbency--Miss Margaret Young. She wore a cap and white apron; she was not young in years, but she was active and cheerful, and in her way she did worlds of good to the inmates by her words of counsel and her kindly ways and ready sympathy. Margaret Young fell asleep at Eastertide, and we all mourned for her, and well we might, for she was good.

The House of Mercy is not now where it was when I became and ceased to be its Chaplain; The House of Mercy was not when I left it what it was when I came to it, either in itself or its surroundings.

In 1867 I descended to the old Bloomingdale road by wooden steps from Eighty-sixth street going west, and the House of Mercy consisted of a single, but venerable mansion, erected in Colonial times, in splendid style, somewhere about 1760. Our grand and ancient building, with columns and a spacious hall and palatial staircase, enjoyed the reputation of being haunted. A man, said tradition, was murdered beneath its roof during the Revolutionary War; strange noises were heard at night, and from time to time a brownish red liquid exuded from its walls, which some thought was blood.

[18] We added during my time a second building of brick, with a chapel, which enabled us to accommodate about double the number of inmates, and thus our family was enlarged and our duties increased.

The House of Mercy in an air line was probably less than four miles distant from my home in the seminary on West Twentieth street, but by the route I was obliged to take it was over four miles away. My visits were three each week, twice in the early morning for celebration of the Holy Eucharist, Sunday and Tuesday, and on Sunday after early Eucharist, matins and a sermon, and Wednesday afternoon evensong at 3 o'clock with a sermon. When sickness or other cause required I was ready at the call of the Sisters to make intermediate visits. The mode of transit was by surface cars drawn by horses until within two years of my departure, when the elevated road came into operation on Ninth avenue. Often in the horse-car days, when the snow was deep and as yet unbroken by travel in the early morning, I was obliged to make the journey of four miles on foot. It seemed an aggravation that just as I was leaving for the West facilities for access to the House of Mercy were increased and perfected which would enable me to do with ease what had often cost me great labor during my years of service.

The crowning addition, which was made just as I was leaving, was a gate-house of two stories, which contained a prophet's chamber for the Chaplain, to which he had access by a latch key from the street, but which was locked against his admission to the House of Mercy by an inner door, which opened on the grounds, and of which the janitress held the key. During my term of office the conditions of the neighborhood of the House of Mercy underwent great changes. The old Bloomingdale road was elevated and graded into the Boulevard, and the period of transition was a trial to pedestrians when rain prevailed. Cross it they must who would reach the House of Mercy, and the mud was in places knee [18/19] deep, and the perplexity was that one did not know before his foot was buried out of sight where those places were.

Later on, about Easter, which fell early, I recollect seeing a horse stalled in the mud, and the poor creature, I learned afterward, died before he could be released. Once more in the early spring, when I was passing from Eighth avenue through Eighty-sixth street, before seven in the morning, I saw in front of me, where the street was flanked by walls of rock on either side, a harmless snake sunning himself stretched across the sidewalk. He fled at my approach to the covert of the rocks. These things I record of the streets of New York in the early seventies.

Let me close with one recollection more, since it brings around me those whom I love to remember, and it exhibits the House of Mercy in the exercise of its blessed hospitality beyond and above the limits prescribed by its charter, but which nevertheless made it a refuge of mercy to one of the saintliest men of our generation.

The late Bishop Venables, of Nassau, arrived in New York on Sunday, July 2, 1876, and found quarters in the Metropolitan Hotel, on the corner of Prince street and Broadway. The Bishop was seriously ill, and his place of sojourn was in the very midst of the noise and racket of the Centennial Fourth of July, which occurred on the following Tuesday. The Bishop's chaplain informed me of his presence in the city about 5 o'clock in the afternoon and of his extremely enfeebled condition. I at once took counsel with Dr. Houghton and Sister Mary, of the House of Mercy, and we arranged before midnight for the invalid's removal to our quiet home early on the following day, Monday, July 3. On the next day, our great national anniversary, when the United States entered upon the hundredth year of their corporate life, in the early morning, I celebrated the Holy Eucharist in St. Mary Magdalene's Chapel and administered the Blessed Sacrament to an English Bishop.

[20] The dear Bishop remained under the shelter of the House of Mercy for more than a month. He rapidly improved in the quiet seclusion of the spacious rooms within, and under the shade of the trees without, ministered to by loving hands with the tenderest care. He left us for the Catskills, and then he went to Hartford, Conn., where he died in the early autumn. He was a holy man, and we all regarded his presence as a benediction.

I have gone beyond my limits, I am sure, but in a parting word I must express my thankfulness that in the House of Mercy in its new location some of my dreams of the far-off time when I was the Chaplain are a reality.

Provision is made for the separation of classes, "a House of Prevention" has been erected for the reception of the young on the brink of ruin, and arrangements for teaching and the cultivation of useful industries have been perfected, which enlarge the scope of this noble charity and vastly increase its value.

How sweetly the House of Mercy embalms the memory of the Rev. William Richmond and his devoted wife. Its official records preserve the names of many who have followed their example, and have been ready and glad to receive, as it were from the dear Lord's hands, the penitents, as He said: "Go, and sin no more." Among the chief of these, after the founders, is Bishop Horatio Potter. His noble sermon at the consecration of St. Mary Magdalene's Chapel tells much, but not all, of his appreciation of the work and his sympathy for the fallen. Horatio Potter, in his inner life, was very near to our blessed Lord, and this was revealed to me in many ways, but chiefly and most of all by his love for the House of Mercy and its work.


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