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Remembering Mother Ruth: A trailblazer who created a Community on a historic Putnam County homestead
In 1959, Rev. Mother Ruth (1897-1986), founder of the Community of the Holy Spirit, an Episcopal religious order for women, brought her vision of education to the verdant pastures of Putnam County where the farmland was rich and ministry bells would toll over the hillsides.
Today, recognized as a trailblazer in the Episcopal Church, Mother Ruth spent her earliest days in Harlem. She grew up in poverty and had a difficult journey on her way to joining a religious order as she was discriminated against for being of mixed race. As a young woman, she found her place with the Canadian Sisterhood of St. John the Divine in Toronto, and according to her obituary, was Life Processed on December 29, 1922.
Mother Ruth received an impressive education in Canada. By 1950, she was granted a leave of absence by her Community and she returned to New York to open St. Hilda’s preschool in Morningside Heights. Later, this school expanded to N-12 as St. Hilda’s and St. Hugh’s School, with a fully integrated faculty and student body. During this time, she obtained an M.A. and Ph.D. from Columbia University and became Reverend Mother of the Community of the Holy Spirit.
Mother Ruth negotiated a large real estate deal in the Town of Southeast, establishing a 125-acre property on Federal Hill called Melrose, initially used as a summer residence. This site, including the historic Sears family homestead dating back to 1743, became home to a convent, the Melrose country-day school, St. Cuthbert’s Retreat House, two chapels and a farm.
Unique to the property has been the eight bells, cast at the Whitechapel Bell Foundry in London, the same maker of Big Ben and the Liberty Bell, which are used in the art of change ringing, music based on mathematical sequences. The bells were a memorial to the Community’s former neighbor, Cornelius Van der Starr, realized through a gift of the Starr Foundation. The bells were installed in the chapel in 1973 and blessed by Archbishop Michael Ramsay, the 100th Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1974. In 2006, it was noted in Oxford Magazine as the only change bell-ringing tower in New York State and one of only few in in the northeast US.
Mother Ruth was a strong advocate for multicultural classrooms. The Melrose School was founded in 1962 and promoted as an independent, progressive, non-discriminatory day school, “geared toward the above-average student”. The school was known for hosting cultural and musical events and often partnered with the Southeast Museum for programming. Unfortunately, about the time of its 50th anniversary, the school ceased operations.
For many years the Community of the Holy Spirit has farmed the land and tapped the majestic maple trees surrounding the campus. Today, the Community shares their historic farm property with Second Chance Foods, Inc., a non-profit organization that collects foods from stores, farms, orchards and organization that have surplus and cook or process items in their commercial kitchen and connect the fresh groceries and meals to those in need through local hunger relief organizations, food panties and their own weekly distribution. For more information visit www.secondchancefoods.org
In the mid-20th century, Mother Ruth experienced challenges of being a woman in a then-white male dominated Church and faced discrimination. She lived to witness the first women ordained in the Episcopal Church in 1974. Today, there is a presence of African-American women serving as diocesan bishops. To play on the wonderful words of Patricia Allen who wrote a Hidden Figures piece on Mother Ruth for The Episcopal New Yorker (Fall 2019), it’s fair to say that Mother Ruth shattered a stained-glass ceiling.
68 Marvin Ave.
Carmel, NY 10512