LI manor reborn as peaceful retreat

The solarium with yoga mats at St. Ignatius The solarium with yoga mats at St. Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House in Manhasset. (June 10, 2011) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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It resembles something straight out of "The Great Gatsby" -- a majestic Gold Coast mansion with 87 rooms, 37 chimneys each uniquely designed, and fireplaces so tall people can stand inside them.

The medieval-looking castle in Manhasset is a little-known gem and one of the grandest mansions on Long Island. But today, instead of holding opulent balls for the rich, as in the Roaring Twenties, Inisfada (Gaelic for a long island) is on another mission: It is the St. Ignatius Retreat House run by the Jesuits -- known as the intellectuals of the Roman Catholic Church -- which draws people from as far away as China and Australia for some inner peace.

"It's such a place of tranquillity and peace," said Evelyn Sheehan, a former New York City schoolteacher from Hempstead and a staff associate who leads retreats. "There's a contagion of peacefulness and joy."

About 22,000 people stream through its corridors each year for retreats, yet many of Manhasset's own residents have never set foot on the property of rolling hills, gardens and reflecting pools just off busy Searingtown Road and the Long Island Expressway. "People right around the corner barely know it," said Don Holden, the center's executive director.

Part of Inisfada's peacefulness and power come from the Tudor-Elizabethan mansion and its rich history. Its original owners, Nicholas and Genevieve Brady, were arguably the leading Catholic couple in the United States in the early 1900s, the friends of popes, cardinals and high-level Catholics who frequently stayed with them.

When Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli, who would later become Pope Pius XII, visited the United States for a month in 1936, he made Inisfada -- not St. Patrick's Cathedral in Manhattan -- his headquarters as he traveled the country.

On Oct. 24, 1936, about 700 local dignitaries, politicians, clergy and friends of the Bradys flocked to the mansion to meet Pacelli, already widely rumored to be in line to become the next pope (which he did in 1939). Knights of St. Gregory with swords, uniforms and plumed hats received the guests at the front door and formally announced them as they entered the Great Hall to meet with Pacelli for a few minutes and receive his blessing. The event made the pages of Time and Life magazines.

The mansion has what some describe as one of the most beautiful small chapels in the United States -- and one that received rare special permission from the Vatican to be placed in a home, said the Rev. Damian O. Halligan, one of the Jesuits on the center's staff and the author of an upcoming book about Inisfada.

The second-floor St. Genevieve Chapel, which the center calls "the precious pearl of the house," features magnificent stained-glass windows and breathtaking hand-carved woodwork including the Stations of the Cross and statues of the Madonna and St. Joseph. The Bradys and their staff attended daily Mass there.

Cardinal Pacelli celebrated Mass there, too, and some of the vestments and other attire he used, including his red cardinal's hat and slipperlike shoes, are displayed in a wood-and-glass case on the first floor.

The Great Hall on the first floor has been turned into the mansion's main chapel, which still has a second-floor balcony where bands used to play for revelers below.

The Bradys bought the 300-acre property in 1915 and had the mansion completed by 1920 -- it was Nicholas Brady's present to his wife for their 10th wedding anniversary. He had inherited part of the $70 million that his father, Anthony, the first president of the New York Edison electricity company -- the predecessor to Con Edison -- left his four children in 1913. Genevieve Brady, former chairwoman of the board of the Girl Scouts of America, was herself the daughter of a millionaire. Nicholas Brady, who attended Yale University, went on to run the family empire, which included everything from lumber to rubber to locomotives.

He was named a papal duke by Pope Pius XI in the 1920s; she was named a papal duchess. Still, the Bradys were more low-key than other industrial barons of the time such as the Vanderbilts, and remained much less known to the public. While wealthy, they were also devoted Catholics intimately familiar with the church's social justice teachings and carried out numerous philanthropic and public service works, Halligan said.

Nicholas Brady, for instance, was especially interested in treating his workers fairly. The largely ceremonial titles he and his wife received from the Vatican were bestowed on people for their great generosity and service to the church.

"They were not into the Gatsby crowd," Halligan said.

But they were still well connected to the power elite, and when Nicholas Brady died in 1930 at 51, his wife received cablegrams and telegrams of condolence from Pope Pius XI, President Herbert Hoover and New York Gov. Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Despite its opulence, Inisfada was just the Bradys' summer home. They also had a 27-room villa just outside Rome and an apartment on Manhattan's Upper East Side near St. Ignatius Loyola boys school and parish run by the Jesuits, with whom they became close.

Seven years after Nicholas Brady's death, his widow donated Inisfada to the Jesuits, hoping the Loyola School would move to Long Island, where students could have more playing fields. The school never relocated, and the mansion at first served as a Jesuit seminary for studying philosophy. It later was used as a residence for Jesuits, who renamed it St. Ignatius after their founder, until it became a retreat house in 1963. The original 300-acre property has dwindled to 33 acres over the years after a series of sales by the Bradys and the Jesuits. Genevieve Brady died in 1938 at age 54.

The core of most of the retreats at the center is St. Ignatius and Ignatian spirituality, which, broadly defined, is an "effort to find God in all things," said the Rev. William P. Walsh, another Jesuit at the center.

Some of the retreats include the famed 30-day silent retreat that all Jesuits must do, and that a number of lay people also choose. Other retreats go only for a week, a weekend or a day and are geared to men, women, couples or young people. Most retreats are not completely silent but include significant prayer time.

In recent years, the center also has expanded its mission and rents space to groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous and Nar-Anon, a support group for relatives of drug addicts. It also has encouraged more interfaith work and even hosts a Christian meditative Zen retreat. The center also has a trained staff of 22 associates who go out to parishes mainly throughout Long Island and Queens to hold retreats.

Russ Ball, a retired building contractor from Manhattan who helped keep the center functioning for years by donating his workforce, has been attending retreats there since 1967. He said it is the spiritual anchor of his life.

"This is my second home," Ball said, "maybe my first home."

The center is not inexpensive to run -- Holden says it costs about $1.8 million a year and depends substantially on donations from benefactors.

The directors also look for other sources of revenue that don't violate or interfere with the center's mission.

The beauty and majesty of the place and its sense of a bygone era of luxury frequently attract location scouts, and one cable TV series -- "Royal Pains" on USA -- has shot scenes there. But the center ordinarily does not permit large catered events or receptions, as it is, after all, a place devoted to prayer.

At a time when many retreat houses are closing, St. Ignatius manages to stay afloat.

"We're having a tough time" financially, Holden said, "but we are surviving. It's a jewel on Long Island that needs to be maintained."

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