St. Agatha Home alumni committee works to preserve bell tower



(Original publication: July 3, 2007)

NANUET - It felt like just another hot, summer afternoon for members of the alumni committee as they chatted in front of St. Agatha Home last week.

But the group's year-long efforts to save a bell tower that sat atop the administration building were about to pay off.

Since about 40 acres of St. Agatha's property were sold to the Nanuet school district last year, members of the alumni committee have been rescuing commemorative plaques and other mementos from the former campus on Convent Road. One of the remaining relics is an 18-foot-high bell tower.

"It's on our shirts and our letterhead," said Eddie Miranda, the campus caretaker, as he looked up at the bell on a recent afternoon. "You can see it from the highway. It's a landmark is what it is, a memory for all of us."
St. Agatha's, which is owned by New York Foundling, once served as a residence for children from broken homes, said Nancy Canfield, a member of the alumni committee.

Some of the campus' buildings were built more than 100 years ago, and maintenance costs became a burden, she said.

"It's too expensive," Canfield said. "The rehabilitation of a place like this was prohibitive."
The home, which now occupies about seven acres of land, still offers many services, including a retirement home for nuns and care for disabled people.

The school district plans to use the land it acquired for green space and athletic fields.
News of the $18.25 million sale to the school district was difficult for former residents who remembered how the nuns would sing folk Mass on weekends and Kumbaya at night. As children, they would marvel at snapping turtles in a nearby pond that has since dried up.

"This is a very organic place, a very living place," said Canfield, author of "Home Kids," a book that traces the history of St. Agatha Home. "There's tons of history here. History that needs to be somehow preserved."
Canfield said the tower was brought to the campus as a gift in 1891. The bell, called an Angelus bell, was manually pulled several times a day. Years later, it was set up to ring automatically.

"If you heard the Angelus bell, you had to stop wherever you were and pay respects," Canfield said.
But that didn't mean the residents didn't have a little fun with it, she said.

"Some of the girls would sneak up in the middle of the night and pull the rope of the bell," Canfield said. "Just a little, though - not enough to make it ring."

Members of the alumni committee said there were two major goals to be achieved - get permission to move the bell tower and find a company that would physically remove it, for free, of course.
When they asked the contractors for the bell tower, they were told they would have to buy it from them, an option that seemed both ridiculous and hopeless.

"Do you know how hard it is for this alumni to even scrape together $4,000?" Canfield said. "You may as well go out on the road and scratch the concrete."

They said they had been talking to local officials and people who had, in some way, been involved with St. Agatha's to see how the bell tower could be saved. They have already obtained the bell, which is in storage.

Then, in a matter of an hour or so, everything came together. Mark McNeill, superintendent of the Nanuet school district, strolled onto the grass and right up to the group.

After chatting briefly with him about their predicament, McNeill made a number of phone calls before making his announcement.

"You have permission from the school district," he said, but added that the building was slated to be demolished in about two weeks. "There's not much time."

Over the weekend, the group managed to find local companies that have agreed to donate nearly all of the materials necessary.

The committee then partnered with the school board to use the bell tower as the main feature of a memorial children's garden with a timeline of St. Agatha's history.

"It's hard to realize that you're going to be losing something that's so valuable if you don't keep part of it documented and make it available to others," said Sarah Chauncey, a member of the board. "This is history in our backyards."