Sunday, September 13, 2009
The Marycrest Community Remembered --- and its Post-Vatican II Death
A Vision on a Hill
Recalling Marycrest, an inspiring experiment in Christian community
By Jack Holland
There is still only one road through Marycrest, the Catholic community that for more than 50 years has lain buried in the woods of Rockland County about 25 miles north of New York City.
The woods have thinned somewhat since 1950, when the first Marycrest members dug the foundations for the first house. But the leafy canopy is thick enough on a summer’s evening to remind a visitor of what it must have been like five decades ago when they came, from the Bronx mostly, city slickers with a vision of a Christian life they thought they could realize here in the tranquility of the tree-covered countryside that was Rockland before it was a suburb.
Of the 12 original members of the community who shared that vision, only three are still alive -– Alan Hudson, Jack Dermody and Phil O’Brien; two of them, Dermody and O’Brien, still live in Marycrest, in the homes they constructed with their own hands 50 years earlier. But now parcels of what remains of the community’s original 56 acres have been sold off, and new $600,000 houses have sprung up, some with sumptuous swimming pools, all redolent of the prosperity of suburban America. An exclusive golf club of 227 acres owned by a Japanese consortium now impinges on the community’s borders just a few yards down the road. Plans are afoot to construct 10 $5 million homes nearby. These things belong to the kind of world that Marycrest set out to defy.
“Our principle aim was an experiment to create a Christian community,” recalled Jack Dermody, who has just celebrated his 80th birthday. “We wanted to find out what a Christian community would be like.” Dermody is spry and lean, with a riveting gaze when he talks that still conveys the kind of passion that helped inspire the Marycrest experiment. “It was essentially about having charity toward each other,” he continued, “caring for each other’s children.” Children were a major factor in the Marycrest enterprise: the average family there had 10 of them. They, being devout Catholics, allowed no form of artificial contraception.
The attraction of owning your own home, even if you had to build it yourself, was an important incentive for all the original community members.
“We had five daughters in a one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx,” remembered 82-year-old Alan Hudson, whose family was the first to move into Marycrest, in late 1950. When completed, their new home would have five bedrooms. “We built it for $6,000,” he said proudly. The bedrooms were soon occupied as the Hudson family expanded to 10.
Among the original aims of the Marycrest pioneers was to create a community where fathers would be able to spend more time with their families.
“We felt the big hole in modern life was the family’s deprivation of the father,” Dermody said. “We wanted fathers to be present, rather than absentee fathers. We wanted to overcome that so that he could be a contributor to the family. Too often fathers were just a threat used by the mother to keep the kids in line.”
The idea of the community had come about in the late 1940s, mainly through informal meetings held by a group of men in each other’s homes. They were partly inspired by a radical Catholic magazine, Integrity, and its charismatic editor, Ed Willock. They were influenced by some of the ideas circulating in the Catholic Worker movement and the Christian Family Movement. Dermody, Hudson and another of the founding members, John Hogan, all belonged to the CFM.
“There was a lot of idealism around after World War II,” said Phil O’Brien, who is 85. He was deeply influenced by the cooperative movement, and saw the Marycrest experiment in those terms rather than as a primarily religious community.
The men who gathered to discuss and debate these ideas were for the most part of Irish-America background. Few had a university education. O’Brien had been a cop and then a fireman before he went back to college to take a degree in mathematics. Jack Dermody worked as a technical illustrator, Alan Hudson as an agent for a railway company. But they read widely about the history of the church, and thought hard about issues raised by Catholic morality, and how they did or did not square with the challenge of life in 20th century America. All agree that Ed Willock was the guiding genius of the experiment. As editor of Integrity, which at its peak sold 25,000 copies a month, he critiqued modern institutions through the eyes of a follower of St. Thomas Aquinas.
“Ed was a natural leader; he had intelligence, courage and integrity,” said Dermody, who worked for a while as the magazine’s circulation manager. “You couldn’t fool him, buy him or scare him.”
Willock was a Southie from Boston. After being injured in a football accident, he was laid up for five years and spent it educating himself. He was a voracious reader, as well as an artist. He was deeply influenced by Peter Maurin a radical Catholic thinker, and Dorothy Day, one of the founders of the Catholic Worker movement.
“He was a profound thinker on social matters,” agreed Alan Hudson.
56 acres on a hill
Willock was convinced that a truly Christian community could be established –- within driving distance of New York City. Two of their group, Charles Neill and Charles McGroddy, who were both lawyers, learned that a piece of land was going cheap in Rockland County. Hudson, Dermody, John Hogan and the two lawyers decided to go take a look at it. More than 50 years later, Hudson still remembers that day.
“It was Feb. 12, 1949 –- a Saturday,” he said. “It was a mild, spring-like day. We took the train to Tappan, where we met Neill and McGroddy, who took us to the site.”
What they saw was 56 acres of woodland on the crest of a hill, a place still frequented by deer hunters. The asking price was $7,500. One might have thought that the prospect of turning this wild spot into a living community would have intimidated a group of guys from the Bronx who had little or no experience of building or living in the country.
“We were so full of hope for an escape from our plight,” Hudson said. “We were just overjoyed when we saw the place. We didn’t think about the difficulties.”
A trust agreement was drawn up and the Marycrest Association formed, named because of the hilltop location of the site. Its 12 founding members were Charles Neill, Charles McGroddy, Bill O’Mahoney, Ed Willock, Bill Cob, Dick Bourett, Phil O’Brien, John McCue, Jack Olive, John Hogan, Alan Hudson and Jack Dermody. They were a mixed group, ranging from Cobb, who was a Jewish convert to Catholicism, to O’Mahoney, an on-the-run IRA man who had lost an eye in a gun battle with the Black and Tans in the Irish War of Independence. Over a period of between six and nine months they drew up a constitution, the trust agreement and bylaws. The initiation fee for each member was $600. This entitled him to a one-acre homestead and a share in the remaining acres, which were eventually put under the control of a group of trustees.
Work began cutting down trees, clearing the land, and sinking wells. The first building that the Christian pioneers from New York erected on the new site was a shed that had been a 100-foot-long U.S. Army latrine. They had bought it and reassembled it for use as a work shed. Work began on the first house, for the Hudson family, in early 1950. On Nov. 3 that year, the family moved in.
Their translocation from the Bronx to the Rockland woods was celebrated in the newspaper of Our Lady of Mercy parish in the Bronx, from where they were moving, as something close to a miracle.
“It is almost unbelievable,” declared the paper in the issue of Nov. 13, 1950, “that the Hudson’s house as it now stands was done for the most part by amateurs.” The only indication that the work had indeed been done by amateurs was the fact that the house was built back-to-front. But the parish paper did not mention that.
The paper went on to applaud the Marycrest effort. It wrote: “Behind the whole community idea is the desire of the members to raise large families and to bring them up to be saints. City life, the members feel, works against large families and it works against their growing in a deep love of God.”
Said Dermody: “We built seven homes without a single penny of bank money. It all came from friends and relatives –- or personal resources.” They built about one house a year after the first.
The Hudson’s and their five daughters, all under the age of 7, spent their first winter in the woods like solitary pioneers. But Alan’s wife, Dorothy, did not notice that aspect of it.
“I was so thrilled to own a home, being poor” she said. “It was wonderful to move into the countryside. The kids were out all day. You never had to worry about them.”
As the other families gradually moved in, Marycrest was soon teeming with children. By the late 1950s, there were 107 children in the community.
“I loved living there,” recalled Regina Hudson, one of Alan and Dorothy Hudson’s seven daughters and three sons. “It was like having a hundred cousins. There was always someone around to play with.”
Mary Ann Olive was 2 when her parents brought her to Marycrest.
“It was a wonderful place to be raised, playing in the woods,” she said. She remembers the names the children gave to of their favorite spots –- the First Brook, the Angel’s Forest and the Devil’s Forest. “Today you have to have play dates –- you have to arrange to meet other kids. Here, you just opened the door and there they were.”
Virginia Olive, Mary Ann’s mother, had 11 children. Their aim, like that of the other families in the community, was to be as self-sufficient as possible, she recalls. Her husband Jack, one of the founding members, who died four years ago, used manure from the chickens he kept to make butane gas. Virginia baked the family’s bread. They grew many of their own vegetables. Jack Olive produced and printed The Marycrest News And Views that appeared once a month. He also found time to build astronomical telescopes.
“He was a real pioneer,” Mary Ann said of her father.
Virginia Olive recalls the life of the community being centered on Catholic rituals and feast days.
“We used to kneel down and say the Rosary every night,” she said. “Sunday Rosary was said on the Hudson lawn in front of a statue of the Blessed Virgin Mary, which stood in a bird bath.” Then there was the Blessing of the Fields in May and the Feast of St. Nicholas, when Ed Willock disguised himself as St. Nicholas and Jack Dermody would dress up as Black Peter to terrify those children who had been bad and reward those who had been good.
A community unravels
That first generation of Marycrest children are now in their 40s and 50s. Recently, on a muggy Saturday afternoon, about 150 of them gathered with their own children, their friends and relatives under a white tent to celebrate Jack Dermody’s 80th birthday. Four generations were there. It was a time for reflection as well as celebration. What happened to the vision of the Christian community?
There were problems right from the start, according to Dermody.
“You had 12 different men with 12 different opinions on everything,” he said. Some resigned from the association before the building even began.
“Some went off the deep end in religious matters,” said Phil O’Brien. “They saw it as a kind of Franciscan community. I thought it should be broader -– more of a cooperative. I brought Jewish people up here.”
Marycrest suffered a serious blow when Ed Willock was felled by a stroke not long after moving into his home. There was no one to replace him. Disputes continued on doctrinal matters. At least as far as men were concerned, they were doctrinal, but for the women, some were decidedly practical. Alan Hudson’s daughter Mary, the second eldest, remembers the men debating as to whether washing machines should be allowed into the community.
“There were some real inclinations to go back to a more primitive means of production,” Dermody said. “But there were also discussions in the 1960s about machines liberating women.” They successfully kept TV at bay until 1954. “Bourgeois” remained a bad word for many years. One of Ed Willock’s more famous sayings was:
“Mr. Business went to Mass: he never missed a Sunday.
“Mr. Business went to Hell for what he did on Monday.”
Practical matters, however, dominated the discussions. Some members were unhappy with others for not pulling their weight. In 1962, Alan Hudson resigned and left the community, angry over a refusal, he said, to apply the rules fairly to everyone. As the cost of land in Rockland County soared, some members wanted to sell off the remaining undeveloped acres. An ailing Willock commented shortly before he died in 1960: “We are now in the hands of the bookkeepers.”
Land was gradually sold off to non-members who simply wanted a pleasant place to live. After a long dispute about who owned the right to sell off the remaining acres, the trustees or the individual members, Marycrest was wound up in 1974 as an association. It became a corporation.
Underlying this, however, there is a deeper failure, one that visionary communities of whatever ideology usually have to confront. Not only did the community unravel, of the children it produced, almost none are practicing Catholics. What had happened to a community whose ambition was to raise saints?
“It is the greatest failure in my life,” admitted Dermody, the day after he had turned 80, “the most brutal irony.”
Alan Hudson nodded his head in grim agreement. “Along came the sexual revolution -– that wiped them away,” he said. “That was a major factor. We lost an entire generation.”
Yet anyone who attended the Dermody party the day before, and saw the children, the grandchildren and the great-grandchildren enjoying themselves just as they did in the days gone by, might not see any failure at all, but a loving community still in existence, though the old Marycrest is gone.