On the main route parallel to the Hudson River in Esopus, N.Y., a wrought-iron gate is the only visible indication of the hidden treasure over the hillside, Mount St. Alphonsus.
But seen from a river tour boat, Mount St. Alphonsus stands like a majestic castle 200 feet above the Hudson, just as it has since 1907. Once a major seminary for the Congregation of the Most Holy Redeemer, known as the Redemptorists, today the 440-foot-long granite “castle” with 90-foot towers welcomes visitors to its Romanesque chapel.
In the fall, the grounds and views along the Hudson surround the “castle” with spectacular autumn colors.
Until 1985, only hundreds of seminarians and those people who attended the 1,300 ordinations held here saw this chapel treasure. But once Mount St. Alphonsus became a retreat center on 400 acres overlooking the picturesque Hudson, anyone could be inspired and spiritually enriched by the chapel’s spiritual and artistic riches.
Only recently did my wife, Mary, and I discover its beauty.
Dedicated to St. Alphonsus Liguori, a doctor of the Church who founded the Redemptorists in 1732, the 250-seat Romanesque chapel has honey-toned stone walls and arches and white marble altars. It’s elaborately decorated and filled with statuary from the finest sculptor of the time, as well as mosaic and some stained-glass designs by an internationally important religious artist.
The chapel’s strong European-American connections start with Swiss-born Boston architect Franz Joseph Untersee, designer of many churches throughout the eastern states. After this chapel, he did the Redemptorists’ Basilica of Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Brooklyn.
Naturally, the sanctuary commanded our attention first. The white marble main altar is intricately sculpted with arches, domes, pillars and cherubs. Nearby, two tall bronze angels standing on ledges once acted as twin sanctuary lamps. They’re a fine complement for two 500-year-old angels from a Renaissance palazzo who hold holy water fonts by the main entry.
Surrounding the high altar around the semicircular sanctuary, 12 more angels, even taller, appear in colorful mosaics. They represent 12 virtues the order contemplated annually.
Higher above, the stained-glass apse dome pictures St. Alphonsus welcomed into heaven by God the Father, the Holy Spirit, Jesus and Mary, plus angels and saints.
Next drawing our attention were two matching marble altars flanking the sanctuary. Dedicated to the Sacred Heart and to St. Joseph, these exceptional images and altars, surrounded by designs on gold-leaf backgrounds, inspire meditation.
St. Alphonsus’ Life
Before we visited the other eight altars and shrines — four off each side aisle under decorative arches and in their own “apses” — we saw major events in St. Alphonsus’ life captured in stained-glass windows high in the nave.
Longtime Redemptorist Father Thomas Deely summarized the brilliant scenes done by the fabled Munich artist Franz Mayer (who also did the Holy Spirit window in St. Peter’s).
The scene of Alphonsus’ birth recalls his father’s friend Jesuit Francis de Geronimo predicting the baby would be a holy bishop. (Alphonsus and Francis were canonized together in 1839 by Pope Gregory XVI.)
Another shows Alphonsus in the grotto laying his sword before the Blessed Virgin Mary, resolved to enter religious life. Later, he would write The Glories of Mary. Mary appears again in the scene where Alphonsus levitates in ecstasy.
Another window recalls the saint’s great love for visiting the Blessed Sacrament. Then there’s Alphonsus appearing to the dying Pope Clement XIV.
The windows, and some of the statuary, help bring out the Redemptorist spirituality synthesized as “Crib, Cross, (Blessed) Sacrament, Mary,” explained Father Deely.
Another shrine shows us Alphonsus standing, stooped with arthritis; he is the patron of arthritis sufferers. One of Alphonsus’ simple chasubles is displayed between these side altars, as are many first-class relics and a white cassock and zucchetto worn by St. Pius X, the Pope of the Blessed Sacrament. Pius has also been called a Marian Pope because he wanted to renew everything in Christ through Mary.
The importance of our Blessed Mother in this spirituality is evident. The only side-aisle altar or shrine without a marble statue is the shrine dedicated to Our Lady of Perpetual Help. Here, we see an icon of Our Lady enshrined on an elaborate altar generously detailed with arches, domes, fancy engraved designs and angels above and beside her.
The Redemptorists have honored Our Lady of Perpetual Help since Blessed Pius IX entrusted the original icon to the order in 1866, mandating them to “Make Our Mother of Perpetual Help known throughout the world!”
As a seminarian, Father Carl Hoegerl, 60 years a Redemptorist priest, explained how “the custom after night prayers was almost everybody made a visit to the shrine before going to bed.” Years of visits by 130 seminarians and 20 priests and brothers wore away at the marble floor tile where they stood before kneeling; it eventually had to be replaced, and the replacement tile now also has an indentation.
Father Hoegerl pointed out that the stained-glass dome scene above the high altar was originally planned in mosaic. It was designed by Redemptorist Brother Max Schmalzl, who also designed the sweeping mosaics of the 12 sanctuary angels. The pious painter lived and worked in Bavaria at the monastery Kloster Gars am Inn, which is about 20 miles from where Pope Benedict XVI was born and lived as a child in Marktl am Inn.
Brother Schmalzl did a lot of art for local churches, and his liturgical illustrations graced popular religious books in Germany. The Stations of the Cross in the National Shrine of Redemptorist Blessed Francis Seelos in New Orleans are his.
The Stations of the Cross in this chapel, however, are by German-born sculptor Joseph Sibbel, considered the most important American sculptor of religious statuary from the late 19th century, from 1907. These stations are in Sibbel’s usual style: high relief, detailed scenes and dramatic compositions. (Sibbel’s most famous statue is the 8-foot marble St. Patrick on the grounds of St. Joseph’s Seminary in Dunwoodie, N.Y., that originally stood in St. Patrick’s Cathedral.)
Sibbel’s work is abundant here. He got his Carrara marble for the Sacred Heart and St. Joseph, saints and cherubs on the main altar, and the tall bronze sanctuary angels from the same quarries Michelangelo used. He also designed the large statues of Redemptorists Sts. Gerard Magella and Clement Hofbauer. (Another shrine honors Redemptorist St. John Neumann, the first U.S. male citizen to be canonized.)
The life-sized lovely Nativity scene stirs awe and prayer — yet another reminder of the synthesis at the heart of Redemptorist spirituality.
Visitors exit with the message of the large mural over the main doors showing the resurrected Jesus commissioning the apostles: “Go Out, Teach All Nations.”
Staff writer Joseph Pronechen is based in Trumbull, Connecticut.
Planning Your Visit
Mount St. Alphonsus
1001 Broadway (also called Route 9W)
MountSaintAlphonsus.org for more information and video.
The retreat center is less than 100 miles north of New York City.