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Marydell Celebrates 100 Years of Service in Upper Nyack

Marydell celebrated its 100th anniversary on June 15th, 2024, on its beautiful grounds at Hook Mountain. One aspect of the celebration included an exhibit displaying its remarkable 100-year history from the early days of Save-a-Life Farm, through Marydell Camps, to today’s Marydell Faith and Life Center. Here is a quick look at this amazing history.

Marydell in 1924

Guests during the early days in front of the chapel house located along North Broadway next to the entrance to Nyack Beach State Park.

The Sisters of Our Lady of Christian Doctrine formed in 1910 in New York City on the Lower East Side. John Whalen gave them a gift of 79 acres at the foot of Hook Mountain, stretching from the Hudson River to 9W. The property included the riverfront estate known as Larchdell, an old building renovated by Colonel Alexander Pollock in 1880 as a summer home. The property also included a large barn, a boat dock, and a small beach. When the Sisters moved in, they found the farm neglected crops had not been planted, hay remained unmoved, and the house needed repairs.

Early view of Marydell Camp from an unpaved Midland Avenue. A few campers can be seen at the entrance. Hook Mountain is in the background.

Save-a-Life Farm

Sisters at work in the fields. Hook Mountain is to the right.

Undaunted by these challenges, the Sisters set to work in the fields to establish a working farm named Save-a-Life Farm. The farm produced grain crops, fruit trees, produce, eggs, and milk for many years, supplying the needs of campers and Sisters as well as many needy villagers. During the Depression years, homeless workers searching for fruit-picking jobs in upstate New York would stop at Marydell hungry and tired. In a long tradition of assisting those in need, no one was ever turned away from a good, nourishing meal at Marydell.

Marydell’s resident farmer stands beside the milk cows.

Around 1929, the sisters bought and erected (with help) a Sears kit-barn for housing cows. The barn still stands as Kateri Lodge, a two-floor building now used for meetings at Marydell Faith & Life Center. Also still standing is the old chicken coop, now used as a residence.

Kateri Lodge circa 1960

Convent House

The Sisters made the old Larchdell house their convent house, known for its flowers, candles, hardwood floors, and colorful scatter rugs. Pets played a part in the early life of the convent house. Polly the parrot, who came from a family with children of varying ages, would show off the cries of a baby, a whimper, and a burst of temper. Many canaries sang in the house, and doves would appear on the sun porch.

The old Larchdell estate house became the sister’s first Convent House.

Marydell Camp

Poster for the camp

Around 1930, the Sisters established Marydell Camp as a summer live-in camp for inner-city girls. They built several rustic log cabins for sleeping, a recreation and dining hall, and a nursing station facing a large open area. The camp and farm buildings, along with an open field, remain today as Marydell Faith & Life Center. Several groups utilize Marydell facilities, including Strawtown Studios and One to One Learning.

Archery class in the main field in front of the cabins. The mid-19th century farmhouse in the background is still in use at marydell.

Life at the Camp

Morning flag racing at the camp. Hook Mountain is in the background

Up to 150 girls aged six to 16 attended the July to September summer camp each year at Marydell. A full staff of guidance counselors and a nurse were on site. The Journal News reported that 73 girls were at camp in August 1932, housed in six rustic buildings. Most girls were Catholic, but girls from other denominations were welcome. The girls wore camp uniforms of blue and white, the Marydell colors, fashioned with divided skirts and sleeveless tops. The youngest campers wore romper suits. Counselors wore white jumpers.

Taking a break at the Hudson River

A typical day might include swimming, hiking, rest, choir, crafts, sports, horse riding, and showers. One favorite activity was the fashioning and dressing of marionettes used in a summer puppet show. In the evenings, campfires were held in the open area near a tepee below an old farm building, where Marydell currently holds its annual Maple Sugar Day.

Arts and crafts class led by the sisters.

Each week campers spent one day away from the camp going to Nyack Beach, Rockland Lake, or West Point. One outing in 1934 was to Orangeburg to see the preliminaries of a boxing match staged for the benefit of Marydell.

Campers atop a summit after a hike. Hook Mountain?

Skits and Plays

Near the beginning of August, 1932, campers staged a play, The Hicksville Bungler, in honor of ten girls who had graduated years earlier and were returning to Marydell for a vacation. Directed by campers Betty Leonard and Anne Doyle, campers played all parts of the drama. The play was supplemented by a military drill, a classical dance by the older campers, and recitations and songs by the younger campers.

Evening campfire near the tepee.

Closing Event

A closing event was held each year at the end of camp in August. In 1932, a Washington Bicentennial pageant was held with every girl in authentic colonial costume. Floats and a parade held in the village advertised the event. The pageant, researched and written entirely by campers, portrayed George Washington from age 10 to 23.

Campers posing in front of their cabin.

Marydell – Still Nyack’s Biggest Secret

The sound of children’s laughter resounded at Marydell Summer Camp for over 50 years. Remembered fondly by campers, counselors, and the Sisters who attended until the original camp was closed in 1988, Marydell still thrives as one of Nyack’s biggest secrets. Marydell Faith & Life Center is a nonprofit organization on nearly 10 acres of land. It incorporates the old Marydell camp, including the rustic cottages near the corner of Midland and Larchdale Avenues, just beneath the towering, steep cliffs of Hook Mountain.

Programs to teach children to garden and swim at the children’s garden and a renovated swimming pool with a lifeguard attract members of the public each summer. One-to-One Learning hosts hundreds of immigrants for classes in English and American citizenship. The camp, while changed, is still reminiscent of a sweet time when summers were more carefree, and entertainment was found in nature.

Mike Hays is a 38-year resident of the Nyacks. He worked for McGraw-Hill Education in New York City for many years. Hays serves as President of the Historical Society of the Nyacks, and Vice-President of the Edward Hopper House Museum & Study Center. Married to Bernie Richey, he enjoys cycling and winters in Florida. 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 sponsored by Sun River Health.

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