by Max Cea
A light shines down on Marydell Faith and Life Center. It’s a frigid Friday evening in mid-January, and a television crew has set up shop at the North Midland entrance of the sprawling Upper Nyack property. The beaming light, projected from a tall orange crane, illuminates the set of The Path, an in-production Hulu series that “examines a family at the center of a controversial faith-based movement.” The show likely chose the site, which has belonged to the Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine since 1924, for its cabins, rickety remnants of a summer camp that the Sisters held from 1925 to 1988, and for its proximity to the woods, which stretch from North Midland up to 9W. The grounds are unchanged but for a few mystical props.
“See the icon of the eye there,” says Sister Vernonica Mendez, the order’s director, pointing to the gate at the North Midland entrance of the property. She chuckles. “That’s from the show. That’s not ours. Ours usually says ‘Marydell Faith and Life Center.’”
Sister Veronica is 73-years-old, affable and effusive, and has been with the order since 1961. Lately she’s grown especially accustomed to taking the walk from the house she shares with several Sisters, at the corner of Hook Mountain Lane, down North Midland, to Marydell – and not for her love of film. No, in recent months, Sister Veronica and the Sisters of Our Lady have been in talks to sell the lion’s share of their 38-acres of Upper Nyack property. And this month, it finally happened: they agreed to a $3.1 million deal with the State of New York, in which the Trust for Public Land will acquire 30 of the Sisters’ 38-acres.
As Sister Veronica walks me to Marydell for a tour, an old turtle-colored Chrysler Town and Country pulls over, and the driver asks her if she knows what’s being filmed on the site. Sister Veronica describes the Hulu show, and the driver asks her if she’s one of the Marydell Sisters. “I am,” she says.
“Oh congratulations,” the man, Frank Voce, a 54-year-old volunteer firefighter, says. “I live in Congers, and when I seen the article in the paper the other day, it made me so happy.”
When Voce was a boy, his father would take him on hikes around Hook Mountain. It was on these hikes that he learned to revere and respect the Church. But his affection for the land transcends the land’s keepers. “The piece of property that’s here against this mountainside, it is so gorgeous. It’s stunning. From whatever angle you want to look at this piece of property, how the nuns have kept it, how they’ve done what they’ve done and cherished this land and so forth, it’s just amazing. And to see it get sold to a developer or something—” He stops to consider. “I have two boys, and I hope one day to have grandchildren, and I just want them to see the beauty of the Hudson River and Hook Mountain. It’s just a gorgeous area.”
“We keep having fewer and fewer of these spaces,” Sister Veronica replies.
“That’s what it is,” Voce says. “And what’s happening is that you get these open spaces, and all of a sudden we have a drainage problem, we have this or that, and they take it away. And in Rockland, we’ll be doing the right thing, but then we sort of take a step back. I think this year is ten steps forward. This blows it out. When I seen that I was so excited. As a resident and taxpayer, if I had to pay a couple extra dollars in taxpayers’ money, I would pay it to save this.”
Voce isn’t alone. Many Rockland residents were happy – or at least relieved – to see that the land was being sold to the Trust for Public Land, a nonprofit conservation group, which, according to the New York Times’s reporting, “will [in turn] convey the land to the State Office of Parks, Recreation and Historic Preservation.” After the Times article came out, Sister Veronica’s inbox has been flooded with emails thanking her for ensuring that the property would be conserved.
The Sisters, who are aging and dwindling in numbers – currently there are 17 Sisters, down from a peak of 72 – have long been interested in selling the big swath of land, which is bordered by Hook Mountain and Nyack Beach, and which overlooks the Hudson River. And in turn, there have long been rumblings of private groups, perhaps the Orthodox, purchasing a large swath of the Sisters’ land and developing it. According to Sister Veronica, though, most of these rumors were never more than that.
“The Orthodox community never approached us. They would’ve gotten a no anyway. Not because of their being Orthodox or anything. But as we’ve aged, and as we see the demise of our community approaching, we’ve had discussions on what we do with this property, what do we think the Lord wants with this property. And what’s come up with the Sisters is that it should be preserved. It’s a beautiful place; people should be able to enjoy it.”
The closest the Sisters came to selling the land was in the ‘90s, when they were presented with plans to turn it into low income housing. “That would fall in with our values and everything, but that didn’t go through. I don’t know what happened to it. I don’t know if people protested,” said Sister Veronica, who at the time was serving a Sisters of Our Lady chapter in Chicago*.
More recently, private groups have approached the congregation, advocating against selling the land to the State. There have been pitches to turn it into an artistic community or a retreat. But none of the pitches included the magic words: “All of these people who came, I didn’t hear them say they would preserve the land,” said Sister Veronica. That was the difference. “Because they are private individuals, there’s no guarantee that they would preserve it. Whereas, if we go with Trust for Public Land, which is a national organization, and already has preserved a lot of parklands, we felt that would achieve what we wanted more effectively.”
What all this means is that New York State will, for the most part, leave the land as it is, as unoccupied parkland. And like Nyack Park and Rockland Lake Park, the two parks that the land abuts, the land will be open for the public to enjoy. Preliminarily at least, there will only be one slight alteration to the land: the construction of a long hiking trail that will extend from Nyack Beach, along the side of the Hook, up to 9W, and will connect to the other parks.
The way Sister Veronica tells the Marydell origin story makes the Sisters’ journey to Nyack, and in Nyack, seem divinely ordained – which, for obvious reasons, makes sense; she is a nun, and she is well versed in the congregation’s history.
Here’s Sister Veronica: “The order was founded by Marion Gurney in 1910, on the Lower East Side of Manhattan… [Gurney] dreamt of taking the people out from the Lower East Side, to breathe fresh air. This is 1924. She’s been there 10, 14 years. Tuberculosis was very high then. The medical services of New York City were not where they are today obviously. So she went looking for a place [outside of the city]. And she looked at a number of places. But when she saw this one, she felt this is where God wants us. And they originally called the property Save a Life Farm.”
In interview after interview, she has described the land as “holy.” What does she mean by that? “You walk on the land, and you don’t have to pray,” she explained. “You’re just praying. You look around and the beauty of it all lifts your spirit.”
The ethereal feeling that the land inspires in Sister Veronica isn’t necessarily unique to that particular plot of land – and no one has reported any visions to her. She admits that she might feel similarly standing atop the Hook. “But the difference maybe is that so many people come to Marydell just for prayer, [so] that the place really has kind of been sanctified by the people who come to pray. So, you know [how] people talk about good karma and vibes and all of that? People come and they stand there and they say, ‘This is a holy place.’” And with a contented laugh she adds, “And I say, ‘Yes, it is.’”
But it’s not just the people who go to Marydell to pray that feel a special connection to that particular plot of land. Laurie Seeman is the director of Strawtown Studios, a local art and garden studio that “seek[s] to develop new ways of seeing, interacting with, and understanding the natural world.” She has been interacting with the Marydell land – she objects to the notion of ‘using’ the land – since 2002; the studio runs a couple classes at Marydell every week, and the land is also host to their summer art program, for children age seven to 12. Though science is a pillar of the studio’s teachings, Seeman was even more vociferous about the land’s sanctity than Sister Veronica.
“People feel it,” she said. “Even people coming to our programs for the first time. They get out of their car and they have this experience where they often come to us and say, ‘Wow.’ And they might stand there and just look around, and say, ‘Wow. There’s such a feeling here.’ And I think it possibly has to do with the history of the peoples’ interaction with the land there. I believe people and the land actually have this relationship, and their regard for the land is deep there. And I also think that the mountain itself is our place. It’s a place of the large-winged birds. They come and they soar there. It’s one of the main bird watching places on the east coast, with Cape May and a few others. And so with the tremendous fishing and breeding area, and it being a nursery fishing ground and wintering ground for aquatic species, and then that the birds come there – it’s just very full of life.”
Seeman, who is in her 50s, speaks softly and smoothly, with a bit of a Binghamton twang; her words flutter – which, in this case, is to say she sounds like an artist. And when a person sounds like an artist, and is passionate about nature, it’s sometimes safe to assume that they speak in equal superlatives about every patch of grass. But for Seeman, this land isn’t just another patch of grass; it’s different because of the feeling she gets, but also because it’s a geologic anomaly as far as the region is concerned.
“It is totally unique. And we’ve traipsed all over Rockland and Harriman, and even Westchester a bit, and worked from the river shores on both sides of the river,” Seeman said. She explained that the land is unique because of its different habitats, and the way the different habitats form a sort of micro-climate there. “From the Marydell land you have mountain, meadow, woods, river. It’s a pretty extraordinary combination of earth features… I think it’s the northernmost range. And it also has the brackish water down at the river, creating different conditions. So the atmosphere is different there.”
Is it possible that the land has been touched by some higher power, be it Jesus Christ or Native American spirits? Ultimately, the answer doesn’t really matter. The sublime feeling that that sui generis property in the shadow of the Hook evokes in people like Laurie Seeman and Sister Veronica is unequivocal. And because of those sorts of feelings, Sister Veronica is confident that the Sisters did the right thing. “We found [what God wants] in both prayer and in conversation,” she said. “We look for the signs. And it seems that this time it’s happening. So after three years of saying a daily prayer for this, the doors finally seem to be open, and we take that as a sign that we may have heard the Lord correctly.”
 Nyack, pre-(original) Tappan Zee Bridge, was a farming town.
 According to Bob Stein, whose home neighbors Marydell, the wooded area between North Midland and 9W (which the Sisters have not sold) is the last known Native American encampment in Rockland.
*This article has been corrected: Sister Veronica served in Chicago, not South Carolina.