Tag Archives: Quarantine stations

New York Harbor


I went on a boat trip on Sunday into New York harbor, one of my favorite places. We followed a giant container ship from Singapore under the Verrazano Bridge.

Indian tribes were the first here to fish and to trade. The Dutch and the English followed them. It’s a great harbor with a great history. The fishing’s gone, unfortunately, and I wonder what happened to the Indians? Their story never seems to be told.

Indian fishing

Indian fishing

The Hudson River reaching north was a trading dream. Early on, furs and timber and raw materials were brought here from the interior to be shipped all over the world. The Eire Cana only increased the river’s reach.

liberty stat - Version 2Millions of immigrants, looking for work and a place to live, sailed into this harbor from distant places. The sign welcoming them, the Statue of Liberty, and the place where many of them were processed, Ellis Island, are on the left of the harbor as you come through the Narrows from the open sea.

Many of our ancestors, my own included, first saw the New World here. Many never left the area. On a recent TV program on Italian immigration, the question was asked “Why did so many Italians choose to live in New York City and New Jersey?” “That’s where the work was, “ someone said. My ancestors–Irish and Swedes– chose to live and work here too. Skyline medium

Skyline close

As you look at the impressive skyline of New York, look also to Brooklyn on the right and Jersey City and Bayonne on the left, Staten Island behind you. Those places were where the immigrants who built the city lived–and still do.

Quarentine station, staten island,

Quarentine station, staten island,

The Quarantine Station built in 1799 by Doctor Richard Bayley, father of St. Elizabeth Seton, was located near Stapleton on Staten Island, just south of the Staten Island Ferry terminal at St. George. Passengers with infectious diseases like small pox, cholera or yellow fever were detained and treated there, and sometimes returned to their own countries.

In the summer of 1801, Elizabeth Seton was staying with her father at the quarantine station when a boatload of sick Irish immigrants were brought in. She describes what poorer immigrants faced coming here:

“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801)

That same year, Richard Bayley died from yellow fever contacted while caring for a boatload of Irish immigrants at the Quarantine Station. He’s buried in the family plot next to the Episcopal Church of St. Andrew in Richmond, Staten Island.

Too bad no remains of the quarantine station are left to remind us how difficult an immigrant’s journey could be. There’s no quarantine station in the harbor now; sick immigrants and travelers go to nearby hospitals, as far as I know.

People in ancient times looked at travel over the uncertain sea as a perilous challenge. You never knew when you would arrive or the welcome you would get. No cruise ships then to make the journey a pleasure. An anchor was the sign the ancients used to symbolize their arrival, safely reaching port. Some ancient Mediterranean seaports like Alexandria and Antioch adopted the anchor as a symbol of their city.

Early Christians used this same sign on the burial places of their dead to symbolize their hope in Jesus Christ. The anchor closely resembles a cross. Jesus would bring them safely home, to harbor, to the New Jerusalem.

No Nest, No Den

We’re reading from the 9th chapter of Luke’s gospel this Sunday. (Luke 8,51-62) Jesus has completed his mission in Galilee, in the small towns around the lake, and sets out for Jerusalem. That’s how today’s gospel begins:

“When the days for Jesus’ being taken up were fulfilled,
he resolutely determined to journey to Jerusalem.”

Luke doesn’t describe a journey from place to place. Rather, Jesus gathers disciples on the way. He’s not making this journey alone, or just with the twelve. He’s calling many others to experience with him the mystery of his death and resurrection.

It’s a hard call. You have to go through tough places, Jesus says, like the Samaritan town that he and his disciples passed through, where you’re not accepted. You may not feel powerful or secure. If you follow me, Jesus says, you won’t have nests like the birds or dens like the fox. You’ll meet circumstances and difficult situations that may seem unreasonable.

But don’t worry, by following Jesus you’ll made the journey.

Last week I had some visitors from Australia and I took them on a tour of downtown New York, to visit a saint who once lived on Wall Street. She’s St. Elizabeth Seton, Mother Seton; she lived with her family on Wall Street and a number of other places downtown in colonial times. One of the last places she lived in New York City is on State Street, right across from the Staten Island Ferry. A church honoring her is built over that house.
Setonshrine - Version 2

She’s a good example of what it means to follow Jesus, according to today’s gospel.
1.Elizabeth Seton 1797

I took my visitors on the Staten Island Ferry to show them where the quarantine stations were in the harbor. Mother Seton’s father, Doctor Richard Bayley, was New York City’s first health officer and his job was to isolate and care for people with diseases like yellow fever who were coming into the country on ships from overseas.
Quarantine 1833

In the summer of 1801, his daughter described the conditions at the quarantine station at Tomkinsville, Staten Island, where she was staying with her father. A boatload of Irish immigrants with yellow fever had just been taken off a ship:
“I cannot sleep–the dying and the dead possess my mind. Babies perishing at the empty breast of the expiring mother…Father says such was never known before: twelve children must die for want of sustenance…parents deprived of it as they have lain for many days ill in a ship without food or air or changing…There are tents pitched over the yard of the convalescent house and a large one at the death house.” (Letter July 28, 1801) Her father contacted yellow fever himself then and died shortly afterwards.

Through her life, Mother Seton experienced hard things like that. She was four years old when her mother died, and her father quickly remarried. Her stepmother never had much time for her, but neither did her father, a good man absorbed in his work as a doctor and away a lot.

She describes how lonely she was as a child. What kept her going was looking up into the clouds and believing that God was her father and he loved her.

Her fortunes changed dramatically when as a young woman Elizabeth Bayley met William Seton, one of the wealthiest young men in New York. They got married and had children and became part of New York’s high society. Alexander Hamilton was a neighbor, George Washington lived down the street. They were on top of the world and blissfully happy.
Wall St. 1825 copy

William Seton was one of the venture capitalists of his day. He was into banking and shipping. But as we know venture capitalists can go bankrupt as well as make millions. That’s what happened to the Setons. They went bankrupt, he died of sickness and his wife became a widow with five kids.

Elizabeth Seton went through a spiritual crisis. She was attracted to the Catholic faith, but the Catholic Church then was looked down on by New Yorkers. She lost most of her friends when she decided to become a Catholic. She had to leave New York and go to Maryland where she began a school and a religious community of women, the Sisters of Charity.

Her school was the beginning of Catholic Parochial School system in the United States and she’s honored as our first native born American saint. In the new United States Catholic Catechism for Adults she’s presented as an example of how our search for God takes place. Sometimes we’re on top of the world, other times we’re like birds without nests and foxes without dens.

Sometimes we may think that the gospel is an old book about things from long ago. But if you look at it with yourself in mind you can see how it applies. There are times when our lives are transfigured, as the lives of the disciples were when Jesus took them up the mountain. At other times we are not sure where we are. Sometimes we can feel like we’re going through a Samaritan town where nothing makes sense. To follow Jesus is like that.

Saints like Elizabeth Seton are good guides too. Take a look at them. They’re better guides to life than movie celebrities, and more real.