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Mother Superior

John Conway
Posted 3/29/24

Catherine Staigele was born in Brooklyn in 1870, but spent nearly all of her professional life in Sullivan County. She was as accomplished during her lifetime as perhaps any woman in the area, and …

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Mother Superior


Catherine Staigele was born in Brooklyn in 1870, but spent nearly all of her professional life in Sullivan County. She was as accomplished during her lifetime as perhaps any woman in the area, and yet most people likely did not know her name.

She was better known as Mother Polycarpa, a Dominican nun who helped build and manage the expansive St. Joseph’s Sanitarium and its ancillary operations in Forestburgh, and served as postmaster there for more than 40 years.

Catherine grew up in Brooklyn, where she attended the Holy Trinity Parochial School, and entered the Holy Rosary Convent in Amityville, Long Island at the age of 16, eventually taking the name Sister Polycarpa. She served as a missionary for eight years before coming to Sullivan County as part of the contingent of Dominican nuns at St. Joseph’s, where a sanitarium was opened in 1897.

The sanitarium arose from rather humble beginnings and was eventually augmented by a boarding school “for children of from 6 to 14 years of age whose delicate health does not permit them to attend the crowded city schools,” and separate summer camps for boys and girls. It was afforded its own post office by the federal government, and for part of its existence generated its own electricity.

It all began when a small contingent of Dominican Sisters visiting from Brooklyn were out for a country drive in a horse and carriage one afternoon and came upon the just completed summer residence of grocery magnate Thomas Hunt Talmadge. Talmadge had died before the expansive home was finished and had never lived in it. In fact, his family had put the elaborate shingle-style Victorian structure up for sale.

Before long, the Sisters had purchased not just the house, but nearly 1200 acres of land, including a nearby lake. As reported in the Industrial Edition of the Sullivan County Republican in 1899, “despite the lack of funds, the sisters, trusting to Divine Providence, began to build, May 19, 1897. Ground was broken for five buildings, which were respectively dedicated to Our Lady of Lourdes, St. Dominic, St. Vincent Ferrer, St. Antonina, and St. Rose of Lima. The cornerstone of the new convent was laid September 12, 1897. This spacious structure affords ample room for about forty sisters. Attached to it is a large chapel, a gem of its kind. Adjoining this are the apartments for the chaplain.”

The lake, christened the Lake of St. Dominic, was utilized to furnish electrical power for the entire complex. “A large dam, a model of scientific engineering, has been constructed at [the] lake, supplanting the old one, and furnishing sufficient water power to light the grounds and buildings with electricity, and a splendid system of arc and incandescent lights have been established throughout,” noted the Port Jervis & Monticello Railroad Vacation Guide of 1900.

Sister Polycarpa arrived in 1896 and was appointed postmaster of the St. Joseph’s post office by President McKinley in 1898. She was the first nun to serve as a postmaster in the United States, and held that position until reaching the mandatory retirement age of 70 in 1940. Interestingly, she was succeeded by her longtime assistant, Sister Michelena Ostermayr, who then became the second nun ever so designated.

In August of 1938, a number of dignitaries gathered at St. Joseph’s to honor Mother Polycarpa on the Golden Jubilee of her entrance into the convent. Patrick Cardinal Hayes, archbishop of New York, was in attendance, as were Bishops Donahue and Eustace. Pope Pius XI sent a congratulatory cablegram. Cardinal Hayes, who maintained his summer residence in the Victorian home that once belonged to Thomas Hunt Talmadge, spoke fondly of his close friend.

“I have known you the past forty years as the simple, humble, sincere servant of Christ,” he said. “You are today known far beyond the confines of your own order of St. Dominic and your own archdiocese. Your name is a household word far beyond the seas.”

Cardinal Hayes died at his summer home less than three weeks later.

During the festivities, Mother Polycarpa was lauded not just for her work in the religious world, but for her more worldly accomplishments, as well.

“Under her management, 2,000 acres of practical wilderness has been developed into one of the largest institutions for education and health in the country, with many large buildings, including a sanatorium, a convent, and a boys’ and girls’ camp where more than 1200 of the New York archdiocese are cared for every summer,” the New York Times reported in its August 16, 1938 edition.

By 1946, 600 acres were being farmed, and it was reported that “5,500 bushels of potatoes, carrots, beets, cabbage, and corn were yielded annually. Apples, pears, plums, and grapes were grown and preserved. Much work was required by the good nuns in canning approximately 8,000 quarts of both fruits and vegetables each year.”

Mother Polycarpa died in March of 1947. She was 77.

John Conway is the Sullivan County Historian and a founder and president of The Delaware Company. Email him at jconway52@hotmail.com.  


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