An Ever-Changing New York City
The 20th Century had just begun. The growing Manhattan neighborhood of Chelsea was both changing and staying the same, as neighborhoods always do in New York City.
The Flatiron Building, one of the first skyscrapers north of Lower Manhattan, was going up over 23rd Street at Madison Square. Seventh Avenue was being extended south of 14th Street, cutting a new swath through Greenwich Village.
Sixth Avenue was still famous for its shopping, and New York’s great department stores such as Lord & Taylor’s and B. Altman’s employed many of the young women of Chelsea. On the west side of Chelsea, the meat-packing district and the Chelsea docks and ferries were in full swing.
The one constant force in Chelsea was the Catholic Church, always present and caring for the many needs of the poor who lived in the tenements that made up the bulk of the neighborhood.
A Daycare’s Humble Beginnings
Shocked by the numerous young children he saw in need of a healthy and safe environment during the day, Father Henry Van Rensselear, a Jesuit on the staff of St. Francis Xavier Parish, requested that Mother Mary Melita of the Sisters of Charity establish a day nursery in the parish in October 1901. Mother Mary Melita immediately assigned Rev. Van Rensselaer’s sister, Sister Marie Dolores, to help him find a location for what was to become The Nazareth Day Nursery.
The branch of the Van Rensselaer family that lived in Chelsea was the heart and soul of many good works in the neighborhood. “Father Van,” as he was affectionately called, knew the inside of every tenement house in the area. In his efforts to improve social conditions in Chelsea, he organized a Catholic Men’s Club headquartered on West 16th Street. His niece, Euphemia Van Rensselear Waddington, organized a Catholic Girl’s club, which was temporarily located on Seventh Avenue.
The Van Rensselear family’s unselfish commitment to the community led directly to the establishment of The Nazareth Day Nursery. Using family money, Father Van and Sister Marie Dolores purchased two adjoining houses on West 15th Street, numbers 214 and 216. Sister Marie Dolores received permission from her community superiors to contribute the $5,000.00 legacy left to her by her mother.
At the same time Father Van’s and Sister Marie Dolores’s sister, Elizabeth Van Rensselaer Waddington, contributed her $5,000.00 legacy in order that her daughter Euphemia could relocate her Girl’s Club next door to the Nursery. We owe a great debt to the Van Rensselaers given that Nazareth Nursery was begun as a private family project and has remained privately funded for over a century.
Nazareth Nursery Becomes Officially Incorporated
By December 17, 1901, two months after asking Mother Mary Melita for help in starting a daycare facility, The Nazareth Day Nursery was officially incorporated. Five lay directors from the neighborhood contributed their time, expertise, and enthusiasm: William E. Hill, Clarence J. Ramsey, Thomas Morrisey, Thomas H. Kelly, and John H. Halloran. The five directors shared Father Van’s dream that, in time, The Nazareth Nursery would develop into a full-fledged community center serving the people of Chelsea.
The original Articles of Incorporation included the following goals:
- to provide for the education and maintenance of needy children of working mothers
- to nurse the sick and poor in their own homes
- to distribute medicine, food and clothing throughout the community.
The new Nazareth Day Nursery opened its doors in February, 1902. Sister Marie Dolores and other Sisters of Charity gave all their energies to the new daycare as its success depended entirely upon the generosity of private contributors.
But it was Father Van, a human dynamo, who was its driving force. He built the altar for the chapel in the day nursery, enlisted the help of the entire neighborhood for the renovation of the houses, and continually solicited new contributions to keep Nazareth Nursery running. The day nursery was his special pride and joy, and he visited it every day until his death in 1907.
The End of an Era
Unfortunately, despite Sister Marie Dolores’s continuing efforts, Father Van’s death marked the beginning of a period of financial crisis for Nazareth. Manhattan’s endearing Chelsea neighborhood was also changing.
Increasing commercialization caused the disappearance of a large number of tenement houses and subsequent decrease in the number of children cared for. By 1911, Sister Marie Dolores had become resigned to the eventual closing of Nazareth, but at the personal request of the Board of Directors, she continued her work through 1913, when failing health forced her to retire.
It was a sad end to the Van Rensselaer era of The Nazareth Nursery—but happily, it was also the beginning of a new one.
Nazareth Nursery’s Rebirth
When John Cardinal Farley learned of the financial difficulties of The Nazareth Day Nursery and its imminent closing, he had the Chancery Office request that Rev. Mother M. Sebastian of the Sisters of St. Francis of the Mission of the Immaculate Virgin take over this good work. The Rev. Mother Sebastian appointed Sister M. Amanda the new superior, and fortunately the original purpose and ideals of the daycare’s foundation were preserved.
In 1914 The Nazareth Nursery reopened, and full day care (7:30 a.m. – 6 p.m.) was offered to self-supporting mothers in need. Fees at that time were 25 cents a day. The Sisters garnered additional support for the daycare from the neighborhood stores and businesses, and many generously gave food and monetary donations.
Approximately 40 children were cared for, and Nazareth quickly became known in the neighborhood for its emphasis on lots of healthy meals and outdoor play. Part of each summer’s program was to send the city children to the country for 2 to 4 week stays.
By 1915 there were 18 Catholic day nurseries in the borough of Manhattan. Nazareth remains the oldest surviving Catholic day nursery and the second oldest of all nurseries in New York City, the oldest being “Little Missionary’s Day Nursery” on St. Mark’s Place.
In its second year under the auspices of the Sisters of St. Francis, Nazareth provided for the needs of 124 neighborhood families. It served 9,620 meals to children, sheltered 34 children overnight, and distributed 1,095 articles of clothing to the poor. All of this was accomplished with a staff of four Sisters and a meager budget of less than $1,250.00.
Nazareth Nursery Becomes A Montessori School
In the years since 1915, The Nazareth Day Nursery has struggled to make ends meet, but it has always survived thanks to the generosity of many benefactors who shared in the belief that all children must be spiritually, emotionally and intellectually nurtured and given the best possible start on the road to adulthood.
Thousands of children have benefited from Nazareth’s love, and many innovative steps have been taken over the years to provide an even richer environment for them.
Play and educational facilities have expanded. Lay teachers have joined the staff. But perhaps the most significant innovation occurred in 1981 when The Nazareth Nursery became an accredited Montessori school.
The Montessori method of education for the preschool child was established by the Italian educator and physician Maria Montessori (1870-1952). Its philosophy is based on the belief that self-motivation, freedom with responsibility, and respect for the individual child is central to development. Dr. Montessori felt that a child would learn naturally if presented with proper materials suited to his ability and interests.
A “teacher-observer” demonstrates the proper use of these materials and only intervenes when individual help is needed—the reverse of the traditional system of an “active” teacher instructing a “passive” class.
A typical Montessori classroom has readily available materials, household utensils and plants that are cared for by the children, and child-sized furniture. There is also a great emphasis placed upon physical exercise in accordance with the belief that motor skills should be developed along with a child’s sensory and intellectual capacities.
More than 80 years after its inception by a intuitive priest and his dedicated and generous family, The Nazareth Nursery was on the brink of another new beginning, solidly grounded by the past 20 years of successful innovation.
In 1981 the Sisters of St. Francis appointed a new administrative team to supervise the day care and early childhood education program at Nazareth Nursery. Endowed with years of experience as both a teacher and administrator in the schools of the Archdiocese of New York, Sister Lucy Sabatini, Educational Director, began to implement the philosophy, method, and materials of Maria Montessori as the educational program for the children at Nazareth. In recognition of her exemplary work, the Office of Superintendent of Schools in the Archdiocese of New York named Sister Lucy a Consultant for Early Childhood Education.
Finances were tight, however. Standard Montessori materials had to be acquired over the course of years and staff had too be trained to become qualified Montessori Directors. Within an amazingly brief five years the complete Montessori environment was in place in each of the three classrooms.
In the early 1990’s, the Catechesis of the Good Shepherd, a program which adapted the Montessori Method to the teaching of Liturgy, Parable, and Prayer for children, was introduced at Nazareth Nursery Montessori School.
Where We Are Today
The Chelsea neighborhood is changing yet again. Older buildings are being demolished and high-rises take their place. Large numbers of women are still entering the workplace, either to pursue their own careers or to help their families financially. And single parents—both men and women—are still seeking a place that will cherish a child while he or she works.
These parents can rest easy because, 110 years later, Nazareth Nursery Montessori School remains what it always was—a beacon of learning and a haven of love.
The Sisters of St. Francis, the 14 dedicated lay staff, and volunteer students from St. Francis Xavier High School and Notre Dame High School watch over the 55 enrolled children with steadfast energy as they nurture, intellectually stimulate, and give each child a strong sense of identity—both of themselves and as a child of the Loving Father Almighty God.
As it has done for the past 11 decades, Nazareth Nursery sends precious children out from its care with a solid foundation for becoming a proud and valued citizen of our world.