St. Helen's Convent (and Church and School)
This is the first post in who knows how many about exploring our new home. What is our new home? History is never as discrete as histories tend to make it. I envision this as a sort of spiral, darting far and near, but centered on our home address in Niskayuna. We know parts of the area in a shallow way from having criss-crossed the area for big portions of our life, but breezing through and getting to know the inside out are two different things entirely. So we might as well be self-centered and proclaim that history begins with us, where we sleep (and I expect some future blog posts about the history of our house, if and when we get around to doing a little research.)
We live in a section of town called "Old Niskayuna", which looks the part but which I'm told is a complete misnomer. The real "old Niskayuna" according to the Images of America volume on the town is on the eastern edge, along the old road into Albany, and the older housing and irregular lots still there bespeak an origin of small wagon-farms clustered around America's first superhighway, the Erie Canal-Mohawk River-Hudson River system (much, much, much more about that likely to come in future posts). One suspects this got the monniker "Old Niskayuna" because, even though it's on the very Western edge of the town, it's adjacent to the Electric City -- Schenectady -- and this clearly was the first bedroom community for it (and/or Union College, very close by, a two-chickens and an egg issue we will have to explore at some point).
It's dense, mixed housing stock dating largely from the 1910s (on the Schenectady side) to the 1940s, but with some obvious post-war construction filling in here and there. The lay of the land looks like it was probably open, small farms until the current housing stock was built. The trees are certainly mature and (out of my area of expertise here) seem to be right for having been planted when the houses were built - we have two very mature and tall maples in our yard, one in front, one in back. Our house was built in 1928.
A few blocks from us is Union Street, just over the border between Niskayuna and Schenectady, which is a major road running between Schenectady and Troy, 11 miles away (on the other side of the Hudson from Albany). Union Street has clearly seen ups and downs as the commerce and traffic patterns have changed, and the section just a few blocks from us is clearly on an "up" cycle, although its name - "The Upper Union Business Improvement District" -- suggests the echoes of the down times.
On Union Street is a Catholic church and parish school, both named St. Helen's. What intrigued me about St. Helen's was not so much the church but the small brick convent that backs onto the church complex from a side street. It's the only incongruity in our neighborhood of old frame houses (if you don't count the public elementary school) - you drive along a tree-lined street filled with these houses and there's what looks like a brick bunker with the words "ST. HELEN'S CONVENT" across the top. It's a smallish two-story structure remarkable only for its blocky and out of place architecture.
I was also intrigued by St. Helen herself - not a common name in my experience for a parish.
My immediate assumption, of course, was that this was the convent where the sisters who taught at the Parish school live. Or lived? None of the current school staff seem to be in religious orders. It does appear to be occupied, but I say that only because it's not falling apart. I haven't yet found out anything about the history of the convent, which I suspect I'll have to discover by asking parish members or neighbors, when we get to know them.
Some history of Catholicism in the region. The French, obviously, were the first to bring Catholic practice to the area during the earliest fur-trapping era but they do not seem to have left a presence. I was surprised in reading the Diocesan history, though, despite the roster of Italian and Irish names on the school rolls today, that it was German Catholic immigrants who were first served by churches in the area, who apparently were among the waves of settlers in the early 19th century who started filling in the countryside as it moved from agrarian to industrial in the immediate area. The ethnic mix among Catholics - including Lithuanians, Slovaks, Irish, Italians, Ukrainians, French, and the Germans - seems to have caused Diocesan organization to have come late to the area (and perhaps the nativist sentiments of the English and Dutch protestants - cf. the Know Nothings of the 1830s and 1840s - played a role in discouraging institutional development). So the diocese wasn't formed until 1847, and St. Helen's itself until 1926.
The church was originally located at what is now a bank down the street on the corner - I will try to get a picture of it later -- that was one of those early 20th century wonders, a pre-fabricated two-story brick building from Sears & Roebuck. Yes, you could mail order a building from Sears back in the day.
The church was named after St. Helen of Sweden (as they seem to call her here - St. Helena of Sködve according to my Dictionary of Saints), but the Parish history notes that when they ordered the stained glass, presumably from a cookie cutter list, they got a depiction of St. Helen of Constantinople, the Empress-mother of Constantine the Great. The latter seems to be what I would call a "political" saint, notable in her lifetime for being the mother of the great converter of the Eastern Empire, and who in subsequent millenia has developed odd associations with cat ladies and British chivalric legends. The former was a simple herder (though of noble origins; such are the lives of the saints) from rural Sweden who was known for giving all her possessions to the poor, whose martyrdom came in the form of a sort of trailer-park story of domestic abuse and revenge following the murder of her abusive son-in-law. The stained glass of the Wrong St. Helen still adorns the church; I can only wonder what confusion this has caused in generations of congregants. I will see what I can do about getting a tour someday and get a picture of the Wrong St. Helen.
In the 1950s the parish bought a cleaning plant and built the current church (1954), then the rectory (1957) and convent (1959), and the cleaning plant was converted into the present-day school (1955). There was a new rectory built about 20 years ago and the old rectory seems to have utility/office/storage ues now. The school was staffed by The Sisters of the Presentation of the Blessed Virgin Mary (an Irish order that had 19th century roots in Upstate; although there is a Presentation High School in San Jose, of all places.) The sisters also participated in helping in the Diocesan orphanage and "industrial school" in Greenbush (more on that in future posts).
Reading between the lines, the Parish seems to have the typical modern problems with older Parish sites in keeping up numbers to sustain programs, since there's a plan on the church's web site for "sharing programs" with their "cluster church", Our Lady of Fatima, which is well out into the outer burbs and small towns in Delanson, and has a new and modern spacious facility. As to what subsequently became of the local order, I know not, but will try to find out at some point. They had no real association with St. Helen (either one) that I can discern.
Which St. Helen better represents the 21st century remains to be seen. The one student at St. Helen's Parish School whom we've met is the daughter of Izzy's new pre-school teacher - a West Indian immigrant with incredible poise and self-composure (her mother, the teacher, has what Mika and I call "the presence") and probably as good a model for the future as one could hope for.
As for the Parish, it does seem to be in the process of a merger of sort. On the church's website is a call for a contest to name the new joint Parish with Our Lady of Fatima, with all the usual rules. St. Helen's will probably no longer survive as a Parish per se, so the congregants will have to choose some sort of compromise between modern Portuguese miracles and medieval Swedish martyrs (or Byzantine Empresses). It will be interesting to see what emerges.
So, shallowly researched as it is, that's my first entry on the natural and social history and geography of our new home.