Along Staten Island's south shore lies Mount Loretto Unique Area, a former Archdiocese property now owned by the state and managed by the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation. Even for New Yorkers, most of us anyway, this more than 200-acre expanse of grassland, woods, freshwater wetland, and coastal/marine habitat is truly the undiscovered country.
There's no mountain here, not even a hill. Mount Loretto was the name of a large Catholic orphanage founded here in the 1800s on the former Bennett Farm and named for the Ladies of Loretto nuns' order. According to a remembrance by a onetime resident, from a 1992 article in the New York Times: "Robin's first memory of Mount Loretto is a stern nun in black habit, supervising a line of girls who had rags under each shoe and were rocking back and forth, buffing the floor. She slept in a room with 50 bunk beds."
Reported numbers vary, but one source says that at the orphanage's peak, 1,400 children lived there. According to Hatching Cat, "By 1947, Mount Loretto comprised over 700 acres and consisted of 42 buildings to accommodate 700 boys, 360 girls, 85 Franciscan nuns, and 5 priests. The property was farmed until 1967, when the last dairy cow was sold off." According to the Times article, in 1992 there remained "just 130 retarded teen-agers, supervised by lay professionals. The nuns are retired or dead, the buildings on the girls' side abandoned." The facility, which still exists, ceased foster-care services in 1995.
But the history of the place is so interesting I'm almost forgetting to write about the amazing park that everyone can enjoy, whatever your religion and whether or not you have parents. If you're lucky enough to get a spot in the tiny parking lot, that is. (Presumably you can get there by the Hylan Boulevard bus too. But the official website doesn't even suggest using public transportation. Remember, this is Staten Island.)
We spent a good three hours there on our recent visit and still covered only half the park. Granted, our mission also included birdwatching, for which Mount Loretto is well known, so there was a lot of stopping and starting and very little brisk walking.
We decided to start by following the wide, straight path that runs from the parking lot directly toward the shoreline. Shortly before the water's edge, we came upon a large stonework shrine at which people leave clamshell offerings, a custom I had never encountered before.
Arriving at the rocky beach, we encroached on the territory of an annoyed killdeer plover guarding its eggs.
Stepping back from the shore, we began walking east.
Grasslands and wet patches stretch far and wide. Birds were all around.
The spire of the abandoned church looks tiny in the far distance.
With swallows, raptors, and other birds overhead, we spotted a pair of brown-headed cowbirds pecking in the grass.
Wetlands? They're not kidding.
Wildlife? That too, and not only the avian variety.
We couldn't get a good look at the John Cardinal O'Connor Lighthouse (formerly Prince's Bay Lighthouse) because the area was fenced off such that the house obscured the not-very-tall lighthouse itself. Here's an old postcard image I found at Lighthousefriends.com.
Built in the 1820s, the lighthouse was deactivated in 1922. The resident forest ranger now inhabits the house. A local we ran into here told us an eagle had been frequenting a particular tree near the lighthouse, but wasn't there just then.
We followed the rough Wetland Trail, looping back to the entrance.
Just west of the parking lot, we watched an osprey hunt over Mount Loretto's freshwater pond. It circled so slowly and patiently that I could follow its perambulations with my binoculars. A few minutes after I took this photo, it dove and came up with a fish.
A bridge over the shallower end of the pond offers a different perspective.
There are other parts of Mount Loretto Unique Area, including Butler Manor Woods, that I mean to explore soon.
All photos © Jon Sobel, Critical Lens Media