Table of Contents
(Click on titles to go to sections or scroll down)
To mark the 50th Anniversary of the Cornwall Grail Center in 2013, we thought it appropriate to look back at the history of this property, which we received as a donation from the Stillman family in 1963. We start with a description of the land that has welcomed us and of the family who made their home here nearly 150 years ago and whose generosity resulted in the donation of the property to the Grail. Finally, we revisit the days when Grail members transformed it into the Grail Center we know today. Go to the Top
The land that the Cornwall Grail came to inhabit was formed over a billion years ago when giant continental plates beneath the land and sea collided violently to create granite that later erupted to form the Hudson Highlands, part of a string of mountains up and down the east coast. In the most recent geological era, huge glaciers spread over the area, rounding off the tops of the mountains and creating the beautiful landscape of the Hudson River that we see today, including Storm King Mountain, which rises above the Grail Center.
The first known inhabitants of the area were members of the Waoraneck sub-tribe, part of the Esopus tribe, which itself was tied to the Lenni-Lenape nation and the Algonquin confederacy.1 Along the Moodna creek, which flows into the Hudson River at Cornwall Bay, Waoraneck Indians lived in a series of wigwams, dome structures covered with bark or mats of woven plant material. They ate shellfish and various wild flora and fauna along with corn, beans, squash, and other staple crops they planted.
The Waoranecks’ power went into decline following the arrival of Henry Hudson in 1609, when he sailed into Cornwall Bay and dropped anchor. The captain’s diarist noted of Cornwall, “This is a very pretty place to build a towne on.” 2
The first European settlers came to the mouth of the Moodna Creek in 1685. The Waoraneck Indians made pacts with the settlers for the next twenty years until, weakened by encroachment and competition for resources, they were pushed from the area.
The white settlers continued arriving and, in 1788, they established the town of Cornwall, situated above the site where the Moodna Creek flows into the Hudson. A group of Quakers from Long Island were among the early inhabitants. By the early 1800s, the lower village along the Hudson riverfront had become a bustling hub of trade and transportation. Ships stopped there daily, bringing passengers and goods from New York and Albany.
After a popular writer, Nathaniel Parker Willis, began extolling the natural beauty of Cornwall in the early 1850s, thousands of people flocked to the area from New York City. Guesthouses flourished and wealthy families built mansions on the slopes of Storm King Mountain. The natural beauty of the area has attracted people to Cornwall for thousands of years. Go to the Top
A glen in Cornwall illustrated in an 1853 article by Nathaniel Parker Willis.
History of the Property
Among the well-to-do families who came to Cornwall was Mrs. Elizabeth Stillman, whose husband, Charles, was busy building his fortune in Texas. She first brought her young family to Cornwall in 1861, where she leased the original 1858 house of Martha Clark on the site of the present-day Grail property. Twelve years later, in 1870, she and her husband purchased the Clark house and 47 adjoining acres for $22,500.
In 1887, Mrs. Stillman tore down the original Clark house and hired the local firm of Mead & Taft to design and build the mansion now called the Phoenix. In the ensuing years, she expanded her property, purchasing additional acreage on the west side of Duncan Avenue that had been part of the property owned by Mexican War hero Colonel James Duncan.
During this time, Stillman’s son, James, attended the Alfred C. Roe school in Cornwall, then rose to become one of the most successful bankers in New York, heading up what is today Citibank. He was one of the most powerful financiers in America by the time of his death in 1918, leaving a $40 million estate.
In 1885, James broke ground for a mansion of his own near his mother, at the top of Duncan Avenue. A team of 20 carpenters directed by Mead & Taft built his home, which today is Jogue’s Retreat, a home for Jesuit priests. Go to the Top
None of the Stillmans lived full time in their Cornwall homes but when they were in residence, the two homes were scenes of great activity. James Stillman would bring people up from New York aboard his yacht, The Wanda, and according to his biography, “He would arrange the time of their arrival for dusk, when the ugly approaches – ruined by the new railroad – were shrouded in mystery. So sensitively he understood the charm of a twilight arrival, the care was characteristic of his artistic sense.” 3 Among Stillman’s guests at his Cornwall residence were President and Mrs. Grover Cleveland.
At Mrs. Stillman’s house, her three daughters, Isabel (Bell), Bessie and Clara, oversaw a garden and expressed their own artistic sensibilities. They had traveled extensively in Europe and had a home in New York City, but when they were in Cornwall on Hudson, they indulged in artistic and domestic pursuits. Bell, who died at age 41 in 1894, had a trained voice and Bessie played the piano. The two often performed drawing room concerts. Clara became a student of the internationally recognized artist Abbott Thayer, who built a studio on the property where he painted a portrait of Bessie and Clara in 1884, then taught Clara how to paint her own work. She left behind a number of family portraits and still life arrangements.
Abbott Thayer’s 1884 portrait of Bessie and Clara Stillman
is in the permanent collection of the Brooklyn Museum.
The sisters also sewed, embroidered, canned vegetables and worked in their garden outside the Phoenix, which was described by their grandnephew Chauncey Stillman as “a place of winding paths and bright borders with a recessed cedar grove enclosing a bird bath and tea house. A rustic summer house hidden in wisteria, with a wide view of the river, was specially for birthday cakes. Their houses at New York and at Cornwall on Hudson were handsome comfortable dwellings that made no concession to fashion, and little to modern convenience, full of objects acquired in Europe mixed happily with inherited furniture.” 4
After Mrs. Stillman’s death in 1910, The Cornwall Local 5 wrote that she was a “most estimable woman. She always retained a keen interest in Cornwall and its affairs and enjoyed her home here greatly, where she stayed from early spring until late autumn.” Her two surviving daughters, Bessie and Clara, lived in the Phoenix, which was known at the time as Lower Kenridge. In 1913, Clara oversaw extensive renovations to the house. Parker M. Hopper was the architect of the renovations and the Jaeger Brothers, a local construction firm, did the work.
The Stillman house at the end of the 19th century.
In Cornwall-on-Hudson and in New York City, the two sisters continued their lives of quiet refinement made possible by the wealth of the family. For 27 years Lila Perkins, a hired companion, tended them. None of the sisters ever married.
Up the hill, James Stillman’s family was expanding and strengthening its ties through marriage with other wealthy families who dominated society in the early 1900s, the Rockefellers chief among them. James’ son, Ernest Stillman, a scientist, spent many years in Cornwall and he donated the huge tract of land to Harvard that is now the Black Rock Forest Consortium. Ernest Stillman’s wife, Mildred Whitney Stillman, was an active pacifist and poet in the 1920s and their son, Calvin, was active in environmental causes and international relations with a focus on Africa.
Clara Stillman died in 1926 and her sister Bessie passed away in 1935. Clara’s passing was noted by the Cornwall Local 6, which reported that there were few years that she did not pass time in her beautiful home.“ Loving Cornwall as she did, she responded to any call for its betterment. In her unassuming, modest way, many who did not even know her name were helped by her bounty.” Go to the Top
From the Stillmans to The Grail
It is not known who lived in the mansion called Lower Kenridge for the next twenty-five years, though its ownership passed on to a niece of Bessie and Clara, Mrs. Langbourne Meade Williams, Jr. (nee Elizabeth Goodrich Stillman), who had inherited it from her father, Chauncey, following his death in 1927. By the early 1950s it was known as the Forester House, where families connected to Black Rock Forest lived. Benjamin Stout, a Harvard scientist , occupied the house from about 1953 until 1959 with his wife and three children. His daughter, Susan, recalls how she and her two brothers loved playing on the estate, calling it fertile grounds for imaginative play. “We had a terrific tree house, and I remember what I suspect was the rustic summer house hidden in wisteria...I can remember curling up on the window seat on the main stairwell with delightful books, and I believe I first learned to ride my bike in the big room to the right as one came in the main front door. My parents were square dancers, and their friends loved it that we had a room big enough for two full squares.”
Susan, Bruce and David Stout on the formal staircase in the Phoenix.
The young Stout family may have been unaware that after Elizabeth’s death in 1956, ownership of the Lower Kenridge House and that of the Stillman family house on top of the hill, passed to her brother, Chauncey Devereaux Stillman.
Chauncey Stillman had converted from Episcopalian to Catholic following his divorce in 1949. Many of his relatives were active in the Episcopal Church and Bessie and Clara had a stone inscribed in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine in Manhattan in memory of their parents.
Chauncey, in contrast, became an ardent proponent of Catholicism. In his home in Amenia, NY, he created a chapel near the front door and he later endowed the Stillman Chair for Catholic Studies at Harvard. He was sufficiently active in Catholic charities to be honored as a Gentiluomo di Sua Santita by the Holy See.7 In 1987, he willed that a 16th century Italian painting by Jacopo Pontormo be sold, with the $35 million in proceeds used to fund the Homeland Foundation, a Catholic philanthropic organization he founded.
Chauncey Deveraux Stillman
In keeping with his support of Catholicism, Chauncey decided to donate much of the Stillman estate in Cornwall on Hudson to Catholic charities in 1963. The 22-room mansion and its 52 acres was deeded to the Archbishopric of New York, along with a large parcel that is today the Hudson Highlands Nature Museum off Route 9W. He also donated the original James Stillman home to the Pious Society of the Missionaries of St. Charles Borromeo, Inc. and a large parcel of land nearby on Ridge Road to the National Catholic Rural Life Conference of Iowa.
Chauncey Stillman’s donation of the Cornwall properties stemmed from his relationship with Monsignor Luigi Ligutti, an Italian-born priest who designed a New Deal program in which unemployed miners would be given land for homesteading in Iowa. Msgr. Ligutti rose to become the head of the National Catholic Rural Life Conference (NCRLC) and a close friend of Chauncey Stillman. He served on the board of Stillman’s Homeland Foundation and later lived in Stillman’s house in Rome.
Msgr. Ligutti also became friends with Lydwine van Kersbergen, a Dutch leader of the International Grail Movement and co-founder with Joan Overboss of the Grail in the United States. In 1940, soon after arriving in the U.S., she attended a meeting of the NCRLC in St. Cloud, Minnesota where Msgr. Ligutti was speaking. After the speech, Lydwine stood up and asked why no one had said anything about the role of women on the land. She pointed out that no renewal of life on the land would be possible without the support of women. Ligutti promptly made her a vice president of the NCRLC and later assisted her effort to establish the U.S. Grail’s first center, Grailville, a 350-acre farm in southwest Ohio in 1944.
Nearly twenty years later, Msgr. Ligutti helped the Grail again when the donation of the Stillman property was decided. Go to the Top
Janet Kalven, one of the early members of the U.S. Grail, described how the donation occurred: “Mr. Stillman’s sister died and left him another three or four hundred acres at Cornwall. He offered it to Msgr. Ligutti for the Catholic Rural Life Conference, but the Msgr. did not want all of it, particularly the responsibility of the farm, and recommended the Grail for that. We did not want another farm, either, we had enough trouble finding staff for the Grailville farm. Finally it was all worked out. The Jesuits took the farm, the NCRLC took 180 acres that they could sell and the Grail got 52 acres with three buildings, a 22-room house, a modest 8-room house and a 4-room cottage.” 8
The Grail had been searching for a place to gather since its International Student Center outgrew its space in two apartments on Riverside Drive in Manhattan. A team from the Grail came up to assess the property, finding a farmer’s cottage, an old farmhouse (Burton House) and the Phoenix, at the time called the Forester House. They also found Mrs. Jones living in the farmer’s cottage, from where she took care of the maintenance of the house and grounds and was entitled to the fruits, vegetables and other products grown there. Her husband had worked for the Stillmans for 40 years and her daughter and son-in-law lived in the downstairs of the wood-heated cottage until 1976.
In random notes left by the initial assessment team from the Grail, the property was described as a “Josephine type of set-up: small farming and small animals and landscaping, varied to a point of perfection.” 9
The work of turning the “perfect” property into the home of the Grail thus began. Go to the Top
The 22 rooms of the “modest” mansion were unfurnished when the Grail members arrived. Maryknoll priests provided some bunk beds and the Philadelphia Grail gave some mattresses that turned out to have mold and mildew. The mattresses were laid out on the front lawn when Bishop John Maguire happened to drive up from the city to check on what the Grail women were doing. He saw the mattresses on the lawn and, as Janet Kalven wrote, it “moved him to get us access to the Diocesan warehouse,” which was full of donated furniture, dishes and other resources. Bishop Maguire made sure that the Cornwall Grail got a quick-cycle dishwasher donated from a bar, which may be the one in the kitchen today. Janet Kalven recalled they had a great time going through the warehouse and came back with a truck loaded with two couches, a mahogany table seating 14 people, a complete set of restaurant china, white with green trim, cutlery, desks, lamps and end tables. Anyone who has shared a meal at the Cornwall Grail may be familiar with the white-and-green plates.
The first formal use of the Cornwall Grail by Grail members was at Thanksgiving 1963. Two months later, in January 1964, the first ecumenical discussion group, coordinated by Mary Bridgid Niland and Janet Kalven, was held at Cornwall. Ten Catholic women met ten Protestants from the Interchurch Center in Manhattan, headquarters of many of the mainline churches. That dialogue led the US Grail General Assembly to open full membership in the Grail to Protestant women five years later.
Members of the New York Grail met in February and March to discuss “The Grail and Responsibility” in which they stated the Purpose of Cornwall: “To be a place where we can see together the relation of ourselves as Christians in the world. But we have to keep in mind that it is what we are as persons that makes us able to move forward in responsibility. This is the vantage point we take.”
In 1966 Josephine Drabek came to Cornwall after serving with the Grail in Uganda. She would send yearly reports to Chauncey Stillman on the activities of the Grail Conference Center, as it was called then. Her cover letter for the 1968 report follows:
Dear Mr. Stillman,
I am enclosing a short report regarding the use of the Grail Conference Center at Cornwall this past year. Our house at Cornwall has been very popular. Everyone loves its charming informal atmosphere and is grateful for the experience of community that it seems to encourage.
You may be interested in knowing that we are at present in the process of having two of the houses repaired and painted.
I am, of course, in touch with the Zuills and the Jones’. I am sure that, if they knew I was writing you they would want to have me greet you for them. They are good and helpful neighbors.
I hope you are in good health. I wish you much joy during this Pascal season.
Sincerely in Our Lord,
By 1968, the property was bustling with activity. Members of poorer parishes in New York City, many of them from minority groups, sought its quiet solitude for reflection and community prayer. That year, 57 different groups made use of the Grail Conference Center for retreats, study, discussion and prayer. Colleges, high schools, parishes and other groups, like Christians United for Social Action and Vista Volunteers, were represented. Go to the Top
When Josephine Drabek left Cornwall in 1971, her duties were taken over by April McConeghey along with Ginger Legato, Ann Pearson and Loretta Ulmschneider. They lived in Hospitality House and worked on developing an artists’ program as well as maintaining the conference center.
The building that is the Hermitage today became a potter’s shed. The brick kiln next to it was built by Wayne Scheck. Sister Yvonne, who taught a class in ceramics at Mt. St. Mary’s College, and Ronald Burke of Rock Tavern Pottery in Washingtonville were consultants to the program. During that time a number of arts programs and projects took place, including the creation of a mural depicting rural life.
When the artists’ residency ended in 1973, Philadelphia Grail member and former Catholic Worker Jane O’Donnell took up residence. Ann Burke, another Philadelphia Grail member, soon joined her.
Together they began the work of the Cornwall Grail in earnest: “To build a community among Grail members, to reach out and incorporate new people into that community and to provide opportunities for exploration of religious forms and values of life experiences.” The changes that were taking place in the world were reflected in questions Grail members were asking themselves: “How accepting are we of differences whether it be religious or social?” Then U.S. Grail president Mary Kane said, “We are so much at the beginning of a new experiment at Cornwall.”
Jane O'Donnell and Ann Burke led the Cornwall Grail on an exploration
of religious and social issues in the mid-1970s.
Included with the idea of building a community at Cornwall came a decision to focus more on Grail programs and Grail activities to the point of setting aside one weekend a month just for Grail programs along with Thanksgiving week, which had become a tradition at Cornwall.
Meanwhile, the work of maintaining the conference center for use by like-minded groups continued.
Just as community programming efforts were about to come to fruition, two dramatic events occurred. On St. Patrick’s Day in 1979, a fire began in the early morning hours and traveled under the roof of the Phoenix. By the time it was extinguished, there was major smoke and water damage throughout the building. Though a shock, this damage became an opportunity to recover and renew. It was then that the Phoenix gained the name by which it is now known, as it rose from the ashes, reborn anew.
Firefighters worked to extinguish the blaze that gutted the third floor of the Phoenix.
That same year, Jane O'Donnell planted the seeds for a year of reflection, both personal and communal, to deepen the sense of community and mission in the Grail. Called Metanoia, Greek for "change of heart,” it brought together a core group of Grail members living at Cornwall and an extended community of East Coast Grail members who joined in the reflection one weekend a month. Sadly, Jane died of cancer the month before the first gathering but the inspirational process she started continued with many Grail members from the U.S. and International Grail participating in the ongoing growth of community, outreach, and programming.
As a result of those first Metanoia years, a core team formed that included Ann Burke, Cay Charles, Ruth Chisholm, Alice Gallagher and Peg Linnehan. For 25 years they tended the Grail Center, joined for periods of time by many other women—both Grail and non-Grail—in the work of personal and social transformation.
The resident Grail team circa 1986.
The team’s work included managing guest use of the Phoenix and the Hermitage, a small private retreat space created as a legacy of Jane O’Donnell, while launching many programs and projects.
The Cornwall Grail Center became the site for weekend retreats exploring crucial spiritual, cultural and social topics; anti-racism workshops; garden internship programs; leadership training and skills development workshops; and long-term international training programs. They created a Young Women’s Network and participated in the development of a Women of the Americas network. In addition to studying feminist and liberation theologies, they spent several years exploring the New Cosmology that profoundly changed their worldview and understanding of spirituality.
Grail members and volunteers formed a work crew in 1977,
typical of many of the activities that still take place at the Cornwall Grail.
In addition to their work at the Center, staff members also participated in the work of other organizations such as the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women, the Newburgh Ministry, the Hudson Valley Peace Coalition, ROAR (Religious Organizations Along the River) and St. Thomas of Canterbury Church in Cornwall on Hudson. And each year they organized and hosted a Fall Festival that many locals of Cornwall still fondly remember.
Since 2005 the Grail Center has been staffed by a new team of resident Grail members that has grown to include Sharon Thomson, Simonetta Romano, Lucy Jones and Kathi Hurley. Along with other local Grail members who have long ties to the life and work of the Center (Emily Thomas, Cindy Cheyne, Rita Ponessa, Mary Ann G. Neuman, Jacki Murray, Linda Kolts, Natasha Mercado), they carry on the work of their predecessors, maintaining the gift of this property while providing programs rooted in the Grail’s mission: spiritual deepening, social justice, ecological sustainability, and the release of women’s creative energies.
Grail members at Cornwall-on-Hudson in 2013
From lower left: Sharon Thomson, Kathi Hurley, Emily Thomas, Simonetta Romano,
Lucy Jones and Linda Kolts (missing from the picture, Cindy Cheyne).
Working in collaboration with a Local Advisory Committee of Grail members and friends (Nancy Peckenham, Barbara De Fina, Lynn Peebles), programs and projects have been broadened to include the Cornwall community. One beautiful result of this collaboration was the Grail Labyrinth that was constructed by, and opened to, the community in 2011 thanks to the coordination and design of local residents Barbara Smith-Gioia and Terry Murray.
In addition, a wide circle of Grail members in the Northeast region is committed to supporting the life and work of the Center. The number of people who have dedicated months and years of their lives to the Cornwall Grail speaks to the abundance of energy that has sustained the Center throughout its history.
As we celebrate our 50th Anniversary Year, we give thanks for those who have gone before us. Inspired by their dedication, we continue to expand our programs and stewardship of this property, which has become a haven for members and friends throughout the world.
The Grail Labyrinth constructed in May 2011 by
Grail Members and Friends from the Cornwall Community.
1 The Encyclopedia Of New York State, by Peter R. Eisenstadt, Laura-Eve Moss 2005.
2 Journal of Robert Juet, first mate on the Half Moon ship. 1509.
3 The Portrait of a Banker - James Stillman by Anna Robeson Brown Burr, 1975.
4 Charles Stillman, 1810-1875, by Chauncey Devereaux Stillman, 1957.
5 The Cornwall Local, January, 20, 1910.
6 The Cornwall Local, May 29, 1935.
8 Women Breaking Boundaries: A Grail Journey, 1940-1995 by Janet Kalven.
For more information about the International Grail Movement: http://www.thegrail.org
For more information about the History of the U.S. Grail: http://www.grail-us.org/who-we-are/history-of-the-grail-in-the-us/
Cultivating Soil and Soul by Michael J. Woods, pp. 47-55
Women Breaking Boundaries: A Grail Journey, 1940-1995 by Janet Kalven
The U.S. Catholic Historian, v.11, #4, fall 1993
The Grail Movement and American Catholicism, 1940-1975 (Notre Dame
Studies in American Catholicism) by Alden Brown
For more information about the Cornwall Grail Center:
For more information about Grailville: https://www.grailville.org/
For more information about the Grail in the South Bronx: http://www.grail-us.org/where-we-are/the-bronx-grail-center/