Lourdes Grotto, Riverdale

At which point does the Hudson Valley region end and New York City begins? Easily, the answer would be the county line separating the Bronx and Westchester but when one looks at the landscape of the Riverdale neighborhood, with its hills, mansions and curving streets, the answer is no longer as clear cut. A few feet from the county line is the city’s northernmost pond, a Catholic shrine on the park-like campus of Mount St. Vincent.

Lourdes Grotto (May 2002), College of Mount Saint Vincent

It’s an ideal location for a grotto on the smallest artificial isle in a pond in the city, if you still consider this place to be in the city.

The property’s appearance goes back to 1847, when actor Edwin Forrest purchased it in a foreclosure sale and began building a countryside castle on it. He named it Fonthill, perhaps in honor of the Fonthill Abbey in England, though another version links the castle’s design with Lismore Castle in Ireland. The dwelling was completed in 1852, but Forrest never lived in it. Suspecting his wife Catherine Sinclair of infidelity, he divorced her and looked to sell Fonthill. Even in those days, celebrity actors had marital problems.

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The Sisters Arrive

In 1856, the Sisters of Charity of St. Vincent De Paul arrived to inspect Fonthill. At the time, the nuns operated the Convent and Academy of Mount St. Vincent on West 105th Street, between the Fifth and Sixth Avenues in Manhattan. If the address sounds unusual it’s because it was condemned to make way for Central Park and the convent had to relocate further uptown. The order from the city was issued in 1855, just eight years after the convent was established. Their most visible structure on campus is the Administration Building, a Romanesque Revival structure completed in 1859 and expanded in 1865, 1883, 1906-1908, and in 1951. In 1910, the academy was chartered as a women’s college and open to men in 1974. As its campus map shows, it’s a countryside setting.

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Prior to becoming a college, the Academy of Mount St. Vincent sheltered boys from underprivileged backgrounds. Among them was playwright Eugene O’Neill, who reminisced about the pond and its shrine in his 1956 work “Long Day’s Journey Into Night.”

The shrine dates to 1874, the oldest of its kind in the United States. The pond dates back to Forrest’s ownership of the property, used as a habitat for goldfish.

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I could not determine whether the pond predates Forrest, or was constructed by him. Much of the surrounding terrain was shaped by glaciers in the most recent ice age. None of the old property and topographic maps show this pond.

It’s not the only pond located on the campus of a Catholic institution. Visitation Academy in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn also has one.

As for the Hudson Valley, remember that further downstream, Inwood and Washington Heights also had hilltop mansions and institutions overlooking the river, what we know today respectively as Inwood Hill Park and Fort Tryon Park.

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