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Nyack People & Places

Nyack People & Places: Virtual Marydell Tree Lighting a 2020 Beacon of Hope

by Mike Hays

Tree of Peace and Light.

For the last 15 years, Marydell Faith and Life Center, located at 640 N. Midland Ave. just beneath Hook Mountain, has held a special holiday lighting of the Tree of Peace and Light to celebrate world peace and to commemorate the lives of those who have been lost. Friends of Marydell gather for a special program of remembrance and peace, celebrating and sharing together in song, music, reflections, and peace prayers from all religions. The celebration would end after sunset with the lighting of a live tree. A candlelit walk leads to the tree. However, as with many events this year, it is not possible to safely gather together even at a time when our need for hope is greatest.  The loss of fellowship and needed donations was so heartrending that a decision was made to offer the program virtually starting at sunset on December 5.

Sister Veronica.

“This year has certainly been one for the books” declares Sister Veronica of Marydell about 2020. She notes the ravaging fires in Australia and California, threats of war, racial tensions, the unnecessary death of George Floyd, and the death of leaders like John Lewis and Ruth Bader Ginsberg, to say nothing of the strong winds that felled Marydell’s beautiful willow trees.  “During our lighting of the tree, we will be praying for all those affected by these events as well for the multitude of people suffering from the consequences of Covid-19. The celebration this year will be different, but it will happen.”

Marydell Faith & Life Center

Camp Marydell in the 1930s with a flag of 48 states on the Marydell front lawn. The house in the background is an 1800s farmhouse.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine formed in 1910 in NYC. In 1924, the sisters received a gift of 79 acres of farmland including a riverfront estate house once called Larchdell. The property stretched from the Hudson River to Rt. 9W and abutted Hook Mountain to the north. The sisters raised food for the poor on what was known as Save-A-Life Farm and they also began hosting summer camps for inner city children. Summer overnight and day camps continued for many years for all kinds of children, especially for those who had no experience of nature. Outdoor activities like hiking and walking, hayrides, craft making, and campfires were shared by thousands of children. The overnight summer camps are mostly a memory now, although other educational groups such as Strawtown Studio and One to One Learning use Marydell facilities today throughout the year.

The riverfront property was sold in the 1960s and in 2017, 30+ acres were transferred to the Palisades Interstate Park Commission, becoming a part of Hook Mountain State Park and Rockland Lake State Park. Among other things, a new trail connecting Nyack Beach State Park and the Long Path to Hook Mountain will pass through the sister’s former land. Throughout their tenure continuing to this day the sister’s commitment to a green future is in itself a beacon of hope.

Today on 10+ acres, Marydell Faith and Life Center carries on the early tradition of the sisters by offering educational and recreational programs, spiritual retreats, and environmental encounters that reflect a belief in social justice and harmony.

The 2020 Children’s Garden

New Settlement students learn about monarchs in the Children’s Garden.

Getting children connected to the land and learning how food is grown has become a key mission at Marydell. According to board member Denise Oswald, “we knew kids needed to be in a garden, especially this year because of the pandemic. We watched children’s confidence and calm grow along with sunflowers and tomatoes.”

The Children’s Garden at Marydell is located near the historic 1920s Sears kit barn called Kateri Lodge. While other charitable gardening activities have been a long-term mission of Marydell, the Children’s Garden started almost by accident. A “fake” garden used as a location in the filming of the Hulu series, The Path, was converted to a children’s garden by Oswald and a team of volunteers in 2019. Kathy Rauth, a teacher and gardener, was brought in to lead small group sessions on how to plant and care for vegetables. Summer day campers also participated in programs like a live demonstration of the life cycle of monarch butterflies.

This year all bets were off due to the pandemic, but, by June Oswald and Rauth with the encouragement of parents and other volunteers held a scaled-back program for 4-7-year-olds. Extra produce, at least what was left over after the children tried everything, was donated to neighbors including for Sister Veronica’s morning smoothie.

Bandi, Marydell caretaker, putting lights on the Tree of Peace and Light. The Reflection center is next to the three. The Hudson River is in the background.

2020 Garden of Faith

For the last eleven years, an organic vegetable garden called the Garden of Faith has been planted at Marydell. Reminiscent of the Save-A-Life Farm from the 1920s, master gardener Janet Fenton has led a group of volunteers in raising vegetables for charity under the auspices of St. Ann’s Parish. Vegetables are picked throughout the growing season. In the middle of summer, baskets of tomatoes, bunches of greens, varieties of peppers, summer squash, and herbs galore are picked on Friday for distribution Saturday morning to those in need in Nyack at St. Ann’s Food Cupboard.

2020 Partnership with the Nyack Center

Because of the virus this year, many of the students from New Settlement School in the Bronx were unable to attend summer day school camps as they have done for many years. However, the sounds of children laughing and playing on its grounds happened after all. Nyack Center was able to organize a summer camp at Marydell. Nyack Center serves the Nyacks and the larger community of Rockland County by supporting children, youth, and families through educational and recreational programs. The Center provides space for vital before-and-after school and summer childcare programs, cultural celebrations, and community events. The camp, which usually convenes at Nyack Center, needed additional and outdoor space over the summer to accommodate children safely during the pandemic. The campers and staff enjoyed the pool, the garden, and the space to run. 

The Virtual Tree Lighting & Reflection Center

Riley Joy recording inside the Marydell Reflection Center.

The program includes performances of Bach’s Celebrated Air by violinist Yong Kim and his wife, cellist Madelein Golz, We Remember Them, adapted by Guitarist Jamie Rickert, and Clementi’s Sonatina Op.36, played by Riley Joy. Christian, Jewish, and Muslim prayers for peace. Through the diligent efforts of filmmaker Emily Welch, the entire performance was filmed in advance of its first showing just after sunset, 5:30p on December 5 on Marydell’s You Tube channel.

Marydell’s Reflection Center, a small cabin facing Hook Mountain near the Tree of Peace and Light and overlooking the Hudson River is available for personal reflection upon appointment by contacting Marydell. The Reflection Center contains placards of the those for whom tree lights have been lit and a centerpiece of a globe with world flags in memory of all those who have died across the world because of COVID-19.

As the emcee of the virtual performance, Sister Veronica states, “I have never done a virtual performance and I am not comfortable. Nonetheless, I am glad that technology allows us a way of doing our celebration. I am looking forward to the willing participation with more people than could gather in our Marydell dining room.”

See also:

Nyack People & Places: Marydell’s Garden of Faith

Nyack People & Places: the Barons of Broadway – Larchdell

Nyack People & Places: Marydell’s Camp was Vintage Fun

Nyack People & Places: The Sear’s Kit Barn at Marydell

Michael Hays is a 30-year resident of the Nyacks. Hays grew up the son of a professor and nurse in Champaign, Illinois. He has recently retired from a long career in educational publishing with Prentice-Hall and McGraw-Hill. Hays is an avid cyclist, amateur historian and photographer, gardener, and dog walker. He has enjoyed more years than he cares to count with his beautiful companion, Bernie Richey. You can follow him on Instagram as UpperNyackMike.

Nyack People & Places, a weekly series that features photos and profiles of citizens and scenes near Nyack, NY, is brought to you by Sun River Health and Weld Realty

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