Church of Our Lady of the Rosary
7 State Street
New York, NY 10004
Our Lady of the Rosary began through the inspiration of Charlotte Grace O’Brien, another faithful woman, who, like Elizabeth Seton, was born a Protestant. The daughter of the famous Irish patriot and rebel William Smith O’Brien, Charlotte O’Brien’s concern for young female Irish immigrants victimized in America led first to the establishment of an Irish immigrant mission and then a church serving the people of lower Manhattan.
In 1881 O’Brien watched young Irish girls being herded aboard a steamship in Dublin. Bound for America, the steamship carried young women from Ireland to an uncertain future in the New World as participants of a British government policy of assisted immigration. O’Brien knew that as soon as they disembarked at Castle Garden, these young immigrants would be preyed upon by individuals who, by offering assistance with jobs or lodging, lured them into brothels.
In 1882, O’Brien travelled to New York on an emigrant ship to learn firsthand what the real circumstances were. Her experience convinced her that she had a duty to help these young women. As her advocate in this endeavor she chose Bishop John Ireland of St. Paul, Minnesota, who had established a program that resettled impoverished Irish immigrant families from eastern slums on farms in the Midwestern United States.
O’Brien met with Bishop Ireland and proposed a mission consisting of an information bureau at Castle Garden, a temporary shelter to provide accommodation for immigrants, and a chapel. The Archbishop sympathized with the dire situation O’Brien laid out and promised his support of providing assistance until the young women could contact relatives or secure employment. He approached Irish societies and secured the cooperation of John Cardinal McCloskey of New York.
The mission was established in 1883 with Father John Joseph Riordan as its pastor. Following O’Brien’s plan, Fr. Riordan had three goals for the project: to establish a Catholic Bureau at Castle Garden to provide information and counseling to arriving immigrants, to offer temporary housing for immigrants while they waited be reunited with their families or friends or until they found work, and to establish a chapel for the spiritual support of immigrants.
Riordan bought property on State Street in 1885 and immediately began the task of looking after the young Irish girls as soon as they arrived in New York City. He played no favorites. Any girl was welcome no matter what her religious belief. Before the tide of immigration had died down, the mission befriended more than 100,000 immigrant girls (of whom 65,000 are listed in the parish archives). Not one of them had to pay anything for the assistance they received—the whole project was purely an act of Christian charity. Click here for more information on the Irish Mission at Watson House.
In 1886 Cardinal McCloskey divided St. Peter’s Parish and directed that the 1500 Catholics living in Lower Manhattan and on the Harbor Islands be constituted as the Parish of Our Lady of the Rosary.
The mission occupied two buildings on State Street—8 State, where Elizabeth Seton had lived between 1801 and 1803 and bore her fifth and last child—and 7 State, the Watson House, built by importer James Watson in 1793. Inside these two buildings were a reading room, offices, and temporary accommodations for immigrant girls. An 1897 New York Times article described how the “grand salon of the old mansion” had been turned into a chapel.
By the early 1960s both buildings had deteriorated to the point that 8 State Street, Elizabeth Seton’s former home, was demolished, and the Watson House next door was gutted inside and reconstructed as a rectory. Architects Walter Knight Sturges and Joseph Sanford Shanley, who was a descendant of Mother Seton, designed a new church for the 8 State Street site in a style that drew from the Federal and Georgian periods to complement the Watson House next door. It is said that Sturges and Shanley planned the sanctuary to be reminiscent of a ballroom because of Elizabeth Seton’s love of dancing. Outside, above the entrance looking out over New York harbor, is a white marble statue of Mother Seton sculpted by Robert E. Gaspari. Francis Cardinal Spellman dedicated the shrine on September 8, 1965.
Charlotte Grace O’Brien returned to Ireland before having the chance to see the completion of the mission she was largely responsible for creating. However, upon returning to Ireland, she was received into the Catholic Church, the church of her ancestors.
In 2015, the Parish of the Our Lady of the Rosary was merged back into St Peter's Parish to form St Peter -Our Lady of Our Rosary Parish.