As the last of the city’s boroughs to become urbanized, Staten Island still has plenty of sizable properties that belong to private institutions, such as the Roman Catholic Church. One example of this is Priory Pond in the Todt Hill section of the island.
It is one of those places where one truly feels away from the city. overlooking the pond is a former Roman Catholic retreat center that gave the pond its name.
Where it is
The pond is located on the southern slope of Todt Hill, the highest natural point in New York City. At 500 Todt Hill Road is a driveway leading to the pond and further up towards the friary.
In winter, it is easier to see the friary as there is less foliage obscuring the view. Although this waterway has the appearance of a kettle pond, it is artificial. In 1928, the friars commissioned to have an earthen dam constructed at the head of a valley on the property. Water impounded by the dam formed a bowl-shaped pond. Excess water flowing out of the pond descended down the ravine towards Richmond County Country Club and the Moravian Cemetery, eventually reaching New Creek and the ocean.
When the Saint Francis Friary was built, Staten Island was largely rural and isolated. Not a single bridge at the time to connect it with the world. Following the completion of the Verrazano Narrows Bridge in 1964, suburban development marched across the island. One by one, the sizable institutional properties were either reduced in size or entirely subdivided. Saint Francis Friary and Center for Spirituality held out as neighbors feared for its future. In 1997, the state Department of Environmental Conservation purchased most of the property, covering the pond and the surrounding woodland.
The DEC installed helpful maps and signs indicating the extent of the property, its flora and fauna, and trails connecting this pond to other parks within the Staten Island Greenbelt. Among the items listed on the signs is a lone fire hydrant in the forest on a gravel path. It is a small piece of the unbuilt infrastructure for Richmond Parkway.
A rare defeat for Robert Moses, this highway would have sliced through the Greenbelt, running from the Staten Island Expressway at Todt Hill towards the Outerbridge Crossing at Tottenville. By 1972, only the section west of Richmond Avenue had been completed. The rest of it was defeated by a highway revolt that resulted in the preservation of nearly 3000 acres of forest, wetland, and ponds.
The Friary Today
Up close, the 1925 structure is reminiscent of the long-gone Finley Hall of CCNY. Both have grand entrances and were built by the Catholic church. I am sure that it can make plenty of extra income as a film location.
After decades of declining membership among the friars, the Catholic Church put the property up for sale in 2014. Sensitive to neighborhood concerns, it did not sell to a developer but to a sister faith, the Coptic Orthodox Church.
One of the oldest Christian faiths, the Copts trace their history to Saint Mark, who preached the gospel in Egypt shortly after the death of Jesus. Descendants of ancient Egyptians, the Copts are a minority in their homeland, where Islam gradually became the dominant faith. Those who immigrated to New York have the freedom to build their churches as tall as they wish and to teach their traditions without fear.
In the course of parkland acquisition on Staten Island, the city often encountered developed properties in the middle of forests, pioneers of an urbanization that never materialized. Helena Road is one such example. As it twists is way deeper into the forest, it becomes Whitlock Avenue and then Cliffwood Avenue, which makes a dead end. Why three names for one street? Because each turn was envisioned as a separate street running further into the woods, but instead of branching off, these three incomplete streets connect only to each other with no other outlet. Here, the brook is a seasonal stream, flowing in a ditch along the road with three names.
Further downhill from Helena Road, the forest opens up to the lawns of Richmond County Country Club, where the brook flows freely through the golf course. From the golf course, it continues through Moravian Cemetery. After the cemetery, Moravian Brook goes underground before reemerging in the Midland Beach neighborhood, where it flows into New Creek on its way to the ocean.
In the News:
Brooklyn Daily reports on a new greenway in the works for Gerritsen Beach in Brooklyn.
Daily News Journal of Murfreesboro, Tennessee reports on a proposal to daylight Town Creek in The Bottoms district of that city.
Edmonton Sun reports on plans to make Mill Creek in that city more easily navigable for fish.
New York Times reports that installation artist Christo is cancelling his highly anticipated drapes on the Arkansas River in Colorado in protest over Donald Trump.