“I knew it. I knew it. Born in a hotel room, and God damn it, died in a hotel room," Eugene O’Neill famously said on his deathbed at age sixty-five, having been thrown into the offstage realities of life in the theatre from the start. He also commonly–and just as uninhibitedly–pronounced, “Once a Catholic, always a Catholic”–an embattled legacy he took with him until the end. As these two forces collided, in 1895, America's only Nobel-winning playwright was sent to live at the College of Mount Saint Vincent in the northern Bronx; it was an attempt for a more normalized, if traditional, upbringing for the child. In the shape of a hive-like shrine, built today from “the stone (and steel) found at Ground Zero,” it would also provide fodder for one of his greatest plays.
The placid grotto and tiny lake we see are not new—the Sisters of Charity had founded Mount Saint Vincent in 1847 in Manhattan. Actually, it was the first women’s college in New York City and has been coed since 1974. Because of the construction of Central Park, however, the land for a Bronx campus was purchased in 1855 from, of all people, a Shakespearean actor who had built a medieval castle for his wife (the castle, called Fonthill, still stands, but his marriage did not last). Dedicated in 1874, Mary’s pavilion, was sanctioned by Pope Pius IX, whose letter, now in bronze, reminds us that the “Blessed Mother is moved by the prayers and piety of her children.”
Dressed, as St. Bernadette explained, in white with a belt–Mary, beatific, looks toward heaven in the Mount Saint Vincent tableau. When the poverty-stricken French girl, who kneels beside her, said she saw “Aquero” (that one), she described a “soft glow” and “beautiful girl”—later she quoted Mary as answering an inquiry by saying “I am the Immaculate Conception” (which clarified a point of ecclesiastical debate the young girl would not have been aware of). The artist and researcher Ingo Swann wrote that “the apparition . . . might have faded into history were it not for the critical ninth [audience] (Bernadette was asked to visit the Blessed Virgin for fifteen days). In 1858, while the nuns in the Bronx were building their school overlooking the Hudson–which would later appeal to O'Neill's growing love of boats and the water–Bernadette, now drawing crowds, was asked by Mary to move toward a dry spot near a cave and begin digging with her hands. According to Swann, “Almost immediately some muddy water welled up from the shallow depression she had hollowed out. She drank some of this, washed her face with it, and plucked and ate some grass along the edges of the muddy hole. She stood and walked out of the cave with her face covered with mud and still chewing grass. . . . Later that afternoon, people [who were] arriving . . . saw a new stream of water pouring down from the rock grotto. . . . By the next day the spring was producing about twenty-five thousand gallons of clear, fresh water every twenty-four hours."
The first healing at Lourdes was for " 'a simple quarryman,’ one Louis Bourriette who was going blind. He asked that some of the spring water be brought to him. He bathed his blinded eyes with this water–and could see again.”
I told her (Mother Elizabeth), I wanted to be a nun. I explained how sure I was of my vocation, that I had prayed to the Blessed Virgin to make me sure, and to find me worthy. I told Mother I had had a true vision when I was praying in the shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes, on the little island in the lake. I said I knew, as surely as I knew I was kneeling there, that the Blessed Virgin had smiled and blessed me with her consent. . . .—Mary Tyrone, Long Days Journey Into Night (published in 1955)
James, Eugene O’Neill’s actor father, was “pleased with Mount Saint Vincent’s association with his early stage mentor, Edwin Forest,” who had sold his fifty-five acres with a castle to nuns, according to O’Neill biographers Arthur and Barbara Gelb. When he sent Eugene to the boy’s academy on the grounds for five years, it was named St. Aloysius (for ages 7-12)–those enrolled were typically the younger brothers of Mount Saint Vincent students. (The stone building, where O’Neill lived, now houses the administration offices of the Sisters of Charity; the holy order is “inspired by the spirit of Saint Vincent de Paul and Saint Elizabeth Ann Seton”; the grotto, at the time, had been in place for twenty-one years.) Eugene, was understood to have been unhappy during this period, but how many seven-year-olds would have been happy at being sent away to school to live? He knew little of the religious world his mother, Mary (called Ella), said she so painfully missed from her own childhood in the Midwest. Even if it had been hidden from him, the young O’Neill was also contending with the chaos of his mother’s morphine addiction.
. . . But Mother Elizabeth told me I must be more sure than that, even, that I must prove it wasn’t simply my imagination. She said, if I was so sure, then I wouldn’t mind putting myself to a test by going home after I graduated, and living as other girls lived, going out to parties and dances and enjoying myself; and then if after a year or two I still felt sure, I could come back to see her and we would talk it over again. (She tosses her head—indignantly.) I never dreamed Holy Mother would give me such advice! I was really shocked. I said, of course, I would do anything she suggested, but I knew it was simply a waste of time. After I left her, I felt all mixed up, so I went to the shrine and prayed to the Blessed Virgin and found peace again because I knew she heard my prayer and would always love me and see no harm ever came to me so long as I never lost my faith in her.—Mary Tyrone
“Ella did look in at Mount St. Vincent’s grotto when she visited Eugene,” the Gelbs wrote (the following quotations are taken from their biography O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo). “The walk to her son’s dormitory from the Mount Saint Vincent station, a stop of the New York Central Railroad, led past the lake. . . . ” Approached from two short forest-green bridges, the Virgin Mary, behind her gate, is surrounded by seven-day candles and fresh, cut flowers. How long Canada Geese have swum near her along with their chicks, or people have tried feeding the ducks and squirrels, may not have been recorded. Children might have always wanted to come with family or sitters to see the spray of the fountain and foot-long goldfish, although the lake was nearly raised in the late '90s before an outpouring of charitable giving saved the park (the sanctuary also contains landscaped grass and outcroppings, mountain laurel, pink dogwood, and oak). This writer has seen an old man with a white beard and moustache pleading with Mary, hands outstretched. A couple paces up to her and recedes back for much of an afternoon. Students pass, divinely directed to make class. Some meditate with eyes closed. Ella could have said prayers with Eugene here, on a walk to see the Virgin; she may have found her own peace, alone, even if it was only short-lived.
Writing that might be considered his most moving and powerful in, perhaps, O’Neill’s greatest masterpiece, transposed “his mother as a schoolgirl to his own campus. No shrine existed . . . [at] St. Mary’s Academy [in Indiana] when Ella was a student there . . . The shrine [of O'Neill's Long Day’s Journey Into Night where Ella, both real and imagined, talked to the Holy Mother] was at [the College of] Mount Saint Vincent.” And, like Eugene's motto about unchanging Catholics, it still is, after almost 140 years.
(The Shrine of Our Lady of Lourdes at the College of Mount Saint Vincent is located at 6301 Riverdale Avenue, Riverdale, Bronx, 10471. Visit the Web site of College of Mount Saint Vincent at http://www.mountsaintvincent.edu/index.php.)
Photos © 2011 by Marit Shuman; Text © 2012 by Bob Shuman. All rights reserved.
Interviews with: Kathleen Bonner, Sr. Kathleen T. Sullivan, SC.
College of Mount Saint Vincent. 2012. Web.
Gelb, Arthur, and Barbara Gelb. O’Neill: Life with Monte Cristo. New York and London: Applause, 2000.
O’Neill, Eugene. Long Day’s Journey Into Night. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1955.
Swann, Ingo. The Great Apparitions of Mary. New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 1996.
Bold in the O’Neill excerpts is mine.