Wednesday, June 25, 2014

Countess Annie Leary 1832 / 1919 - Forgotten Female Philanthropist of New York's Gilded Age - Bio Sketch

Papal Countess Annie Leary of NYC
Photo by Theodore C. Marceau 1859-1922
(original copyright expired)

Annie Leary was born in 1832, the second of James and Catherine Leary’s six children. The Leary family was originally from Ireland but had been established in New York for at least two generations. By the time of Annie’s birth her father was a very successful business man who could send his two daughters and four sons to the best private schools.  James Leary was an associate of John Jacob Astor, one of the wealthiest men in the United States. Remarkably, Leary and Astor amassed a fortune buying and selling beaver pelts that were used to make the tall hats worn by gentlemen in Europe and America. 

The demand for beaver pelts was such that the beaver population in North America almost became extinct. In addition, James Leary had a hat factory in which he employed poor Irish immigrants; there he developed a process that revolutionized the industry by making more affordable hats using less expensive napped nutria pelts. When the European market began to favor silk in the manufacture of hats, he was the first to introduce it in the U.S. market. His shop was the most fashionable in New York’s Chatham Square and later in Hannover Square. He was known as the “arbiter of hat fashion” in the city. At his death he left his entire fortune to his unmarried daughter Annie and not one penny to any of his other five children.

A search through the social pages of the New York Times mentions Annie in every list of fashionable parties and in every charitable board. She loved to entertain in her palatial home in the city and during the summer in Paul Cottage, Newport, Rhode Island, which she shared with her brother Arthur. Annie loved music and was a regular at the opera.  Her musical soirĂ©es featured the best chamber music and the likes of Enrico Caruso.

Her homes were furnished lavishly with Persian rugs, crystal chandeliers, antique Japanese vases, and huge gilt-framed mirrors, 68 of them. The N Y Times, August 20, 1905 describes her in formal attire: “Miss Leary is a conspicuous figure in her white satin gowns cut high, having elbow length sleeves draped with rare old lace, and wearing a small headdress of white ostrich plumes and white satin ribbon.”

When her brother Arthur, a bachelor, described as a “Beau Brummell,” one of the best know men in business and society, died in 1893, he left her a huge fortune. Her wealth was estimated to be between five and twenty million dollars.

Mentioned many times in the society pages for throwing lavish parties, Annie is many more times noted for her generosity towards the Catholic Church, and for her efforts to alleviate the plight of the poor and ill. Her love of the Eucharist led her to donate altars to poor churches both in the States and abroad. After the death of her brother Arthur she built a chapel in his name on the grounds of Bellevue Hospital in New York, the oldest and poorest in the city.  

She created the Arthur Leary Mission to care for destitute patients, to assure them access to the sacraments, and to provide them with books, toiletries, coffee and cigarettes. She was vice-president of Stony Wold, a beautiful sanatorium for destitute tuberculosis patients in the Adirondack Mountains and also vice-president of the Flower Guild, since she was especially interested in the establishment of small gardens for children in the poorer quarters of New York. Annie contributed a considerable sum of money to provide for the establishment of the community of the Fathers of the Blessed Sacrament in New York in 1900. Shortly after their arrival from Montreal, Archbishop Corrigan entrusted to them the church of Saint Jean Baptiste which served the French speaking Catholics. They continue their ministry there to this day. 

For all her good works, Pope Leo XXIII conferred on her the title of Countess on October 11, 1901; Pope Pius X later re-conferred the title.


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