St. Francis ChapelFr. Paul’s “Miracle in the Woods” Celebrates 100 Years 1912 – 2012
Our Founder, Fr. Paul Wattson• On October 30, 1909 the Society of the Atonement was received into the Roman Catholic Church after having been established as an Anglican order years earlier by Fr. Paul Wattson and Mother Lurana White.• It was Fr. Paul’s vision that the first stone building at Graymoor, would be its first Catholic church, St. Francis Chapel.• Fr. Paul wrote in his diary, “a stone chapel … where the Holy Sacrifice of Mass and the Divine Office should daily be said or sung to the glory of God.”• Fr. Paul was already dreaming of a time “… when the missionary Friars of the Atonement, clothed and professed within its walls, will be sent forth to preach the Gospel in many lands.”
“Only Father can see how…”• The cost to build St. Francis Chapel was expected to be $8,000.• There was only $200 in the Friar’s treasury when construction began on St. Patrick’s Day, March 17, 1911.• That evening, Mother Lurana jotted in her diary, “The cornerstone of the new chapel was laid today. Only Father can see how it is ever to be finished!”
Graymoor – “The Howling Wilderness”• It was not only financial concerns that threatened the construction of St. Francis Chapel.• Though Graymoor is only 50 miles north of New York City, in 1911, the area of Putnam County around Graymoor was sparsely populated, and the only major highway, the Albany Post Road, was a narrow dirt road. Graymoor was a half mile from the Post Road through dense forests and hills, and St. Francis Chapel was to be built at the summit of the steep mount.• Mother Lurana wrote in her diary, “the poor archbishop must think Graymoor a howling wilderness where no one living… could exist.”
The Architects of St. Francis Chapel• Needing an architect for the building, Fr. Paul obtained the services of Monsignor John Cyril Hawes, a former Anglican cleryman, whom Fr. Paul had received into the Catholic Church. In appreciation for Fr. Paul’s kindness to him, Hawes offered to design the chapel. – Hawes had built six stone churches in the Bahamas, where he had labored for many years as an Anglican priest. Shortly after construction started, Hawes was called to England. – Later ordained as a Catholic priest, Hawes returned to the Bahamas and eventually became known as the “Hermit of Cat Island”. Monsignor Hawes always considered St. Francis Chapel, his gift to Fr. Paul, to be one of his finest architectural creations.
A Bell Tower Connected to Assisi• A second architect, Carlton Strong, a prominent architect from Pittsburgh and former president of the Anglo-Roman Union, was called upon to oversee completion of the Chapel. It was Strong who designed the interior roof of the Chapel and the rood beam effect inside.• At Fr. Paul’s request, Strong also modified Hawes’ designs of the bell tower so that it was similar to the bell tower of the Basilica of St. Francis in Assisi as a reminder of the connectedness of St. Francis Chapel of Graymoor with Assisi, the land of St. Francis.
Offerings From Around the World• As architectural designs progresses, Fr. Paul wrote to potential donors: “St. Francis Chapel on the Mount of the Atonement is to be built with the faith that it will be used for divine worship for the ages to come, and therefore, gifts of the faithful placed in such a chapel must call down in a special way the blessings of God and of Heaven upon their donors. Such memorials are for centuries, not for days.”• The fist offering was a $1 contribution from a non-Catholic neighbor. Then more donations came.• Fr. Paul wrote of the donors: “a poor missionary priest in India, a poor negress, a recently baptized Chinaman, a number of Protestants, several Anglican clerymen, a converted Jew and one who is still unconverted.”
Brothers Chrisopher Provided Labor• For many years, in exchange for a few days of shelter and hot meals, travelers of the road (called Brothers Christopher) would help the friars and sisters with projects around Graymoor.• Unable to afford to pay masons and stone layers, Fr. Paul recruited the “Brothers Christopher” to provide volunteer labor.
No Water• A few months after construction began, in the summer of 1911, the only cistern near the chapel went dry.• To supply the water for mortar, Brothers Christopher had to carry pails of water up the mountain from a spring a mile away.
• During the months of construction, Fr. Paul wrote about this on several occasions. He lauded their character, work, l ife and compared them to Lazarus on Judgement Day.• Throughout 1911, hundreds of Brothers Christopher worked thousands of hours quarrying the stone and building St. Francis Chapel.
Notes from Fr. Paul’s Diary• In July 1911, Fr. Paul noted in his diary that the Brothers Christopher “have dug the sand, quarried the stone, mixed the mortar and laid the walls two feet thick in solid masonry”.
A Monument to the Brothers Christopher• The following year, Fr. Paul would summarize: “The summit of the Mount of the Atonement is now crowned with St. Francis Chapel and from the lowest stone in the foundation to the highest brick in the Assisian tower, the building stands a monument to the skill and industry of the Brothers Christopher.”
Mother Lurana Selected Stained Glass• There are twenty-four windows in St. Francis Chapel, its sacristy and tower. Some have figures, others simply designs.• On September 14, 1911, Mother Lurana traveled to New York City to choose glass for the windows. “It is a greenish-amber, leaded venetian glass,” she wrote in her diary that night. Most of the windows in St. Francis Chapel have “greenish-amber” borders.• In later years, the glass in the two windows of the sanctuary were replaced with stained-glass images commemorating the two apparitions of Mary appearing as “Our Lady of the Atonement” that occurred at Graymoor.
St. Christopher Bell• The Bell for St. Francis Chapel was blessed on October 4, 1911• It had been placed in the tower a few days earlier and named the “St. Christopher Bell” as tribute to the many Brothers Christopher whose labor was making Fr. Paul’s dream of a stone chapel a reality.• The bell was made of steel alloy and was six feet in height, four feet in diameter and weighted twenty- two hundred pounds. Fr. Paul wrote of the bell, “The voice of St. Christopher is rich and deep, sonorous and sweet, and when it rings out to the full over the Graymoor hills it can be heard in Garrison and Peekskill three and four miles distant.”• The bell was donated by John Reid of Waterbury, Connecticut. Known as the “miser of Waterbury,” Reid was very frugal and occasionally stopped at Graymoor as a Brother Christopher when he traveled in the Hudson Valley.• Over the next few years, as he came to know Fr. Paul and Mother Lurana better, Reid was touched by Fr. Paul’s selfless compassion and dedication and offered his assistance. Fr. Paul expected little from Reid and was quite surprised when Reid provided funds not only for the St. Christopher bell, but later gave over $5,000 toward educating young men studying for priesthood.
January 11, 1912• The day before “dedication day”, Fr. Paul and Brother Anthony were installing a large statue of St. Anthony when a telegram arrived asking the priest to pray for a gravely ill infant.• They placed the telegram under the statue and petitioned St. Anthony for his assistance.• A few days later, notice arrived that the baby had recoverd.
Perpetual Novena to St. Anthony • From then on Fr. Paul would kneel every night at St. Anthony statue and read the many petitions sent to him. • This was the beginning of what would become the Perpetual Novena to St. Anthony — and Fr. Paul’s dream for a great shrine or church to be built at Graymoor to honor St. Anthony.
Dedication Day – January 18, 1912• In less than one year, on January 18, 1912, St. Francis Chapel was dedicated. The evening before the event, Mother Lurana noted many details of the new chapel in her diary: “a statue of St. Francis in a niche above the high altar and statues of St. Anthony on the gospel side and St. Clare on the epistle side of the east wall look as though they would speak. St. Peter, the door keeper, is very properly standing by the west door to let the people in.”• The dedication ceremony was followed by a Solemn High Mass at which Fr. Paul was the celebrant. A special “Book of Rememberances” containing over 5,000 names “of all those who contributed and a list of the living and the departed in whose memory the offerings were made” was placed upon the altar and later sealed in the high altar. Several deacons, priests and Monsignors attended the dedication services. Fr. Paul later wrote of this most special occasion, “The visiting clergy expressed their surprise at finding such a noble building. It greatly exceeded their expectations and several called the building of the chapel “the miracle of Graymoor”.• Because of the notable architects, many newspapers around the country reported on the dedication of Graymoor’s St. Francis Chapel -- a stone chapel built atop a steep New York mountain top with volunteers and charitable offerings, calling it the “miracle in the woods.”
Stigmata Altar• In May 1930, a benefactress gave Graymoor a very special gift for St. Francis Chapel – an altar that formerly stood in the Chapel of the Stigmata on Mount Alverna, Italy.• The altar of white marble had been made in Florence in 1892 and had stood for nearly 40 years on the very spot where St. Francis received the nail wounds of the Crucified in this hands and feet and the spear wound in his side.• The Altar arrived at Graymoor in 16 crates and was valued at $8,000 – the same cost of building St. Francis Chapel.
• On several occasions Fr. Paul compared the Mount of Atonement with Mount Alverna. Fr. Paul wrote of the gift in his diary, “There is a dedicated physical resemblance between the Mount of the Atonement and Mount Alverna and the altar, which has stood for nearly forty years on the very spot where St. Francis received the wounds of Christ Crucified and now stands in the sanctuary of St. Francis Chapel … will serve as a connecting link between the two holy mountains.” “• Many who have visited the Holy Mountain in Italy … say the the Mount of the Atonement strikingly resembles it.” He called the stigmata altar “a treasured possession of the Society of the Atonement.”
St. Francis Chapel• Several years later, Fr. Paul wrote in his diary, “One of the works we do at Graymoor is to give a place of refuge and retreat for a time to those who wish ….” Through the years, St. Francis Chapel and Graymoor became a pilgrimage site as thousand came to experience Graymoor’s special spirit.• In 1955, Rome granted a Plenary Indulgence once a day to those who visited St. Francis Chapel.
Celebrating 100 Years• Today, St. Francis Chapel still stands as one more testimony to Fr. Paul and the thousands of persons whose lives were touched because of his vision.