Sisters of the Divine Compassion

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The Sisters of the Divine Compassion are a Roman Catholic religious institute founded in New York City in 1886 by Mother Mary Veronica (formerly Mary Dannat Starr), Msgr. Thomas Preston, and a group of young women moved by the "Compassion of God" in their lives and by a desire to bring that compassion to New York City’s destitute children in tangible ways.


Mary Caroline Dannat Starr[edit]

Mary Caroline Dannat Starr came from a wealthy New York family. She was born in New York City on April 27, 1838, the oldest of six children born to William Henry and Susannah Jones Dannat. Susanna Dannat was the daughter of Daniel Jones, a Welsh immigrant who became a wealthy merchant and amassed a fortune in brewing and real estate. William Dannat came from a prosperous Episcopal family involved in the lumber business in the New York area in the firm Dannat Pell.[1]

Her family had occasionally attended the neighborhood Baptist church. In 1857, at the age of nineteen, she married Walter Smith Starr. They moved to Brooklyn where she briefly attended a Congregationalist church. The marriage produced two sons, Chandler Dannat (b. Sept.3, 1858) and Walter Dannat (b. March 11, 1860).[1] While her mother joined an Episcopal congregation, her father had by then gravitated towards the tenets of the Swedenborgian Church, and Mary Caroline did the same.[2]

Association of the Holy Family[edit]

Dissatisfied with her faith community, she sought instruction in Catholicism from Father Thomas Preston, parish priest of St. Ann's on the East Side. and was received into the Catholic Church in April 1868. Shortly after that, now widowed, she founded with Father Preston's assistance the Association of the Holy Family, with a house at 316 W14th. That autumn she and some associates opened a sewing school for girls in St. Bernard's parish, whose congregation was mostly Irish immigrants and their descendants. The school also provided the children with lunch, and by Christmas 250 students were enrolled.[2]

To better indicate its aims and mission, the group would change its name to the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls, and its activities extended to providing shelter, training, and religious education to girls left to fend for themselves or sent by their families into the street to beg, offering the girls safety, love, and hope.[2] In 1870 they established the House of the Holy Family at 134-136 Second Avenue in Manhattan, accepting girls between the ages of 10 and 21 years. There were 102 girls cared for in 1900. Census records for 1910 show fifty-eight "dependent women and delinquent and unprotected girls" in residence. "Colored people" were not received.[3]

Institute of the Divine Compassion[edit]

Seeing the necessity of a religious community which should be trained to this work and perpetuate it, Father Preston compiled a rule of life for those who desired to devote their lives to it. The first draft was written September 5, 1873, and was observed in its elemental form until 1886, when it was elaborated and obtained the informal approbation of the Archbishop of New York.[4] Starr became Mother Mary Veronica. By the 1890s, the Sisters were also in charge of the Association for Befriending Children and Young Girls at the Second Avenue address and the House of Our Lady for Business Girls at 52-54 East 126th Street in Manhattan.

By the late 1890s, the Congregation and its ministry to children and young women were flourishing. At the same time, the area around Second Avenue was becoming increasingly commercialized and less conducive to their work. With the advent of commuter rail travel and widespread use of the telephone, the "country" was becoming the "suburbs", and Mother Veronica decided on the expansive Tilford estate in White Plains, New York, in Westchester County, for a novitiate and relocation of the ministry. Dannat and Preston named it Good Counsel Farm and created the Vacation House for Working Girls there. The convent was at the historic Mapleton home in White Plains from 1894 to 1925.[5]

In 1892 the House of Nazareth opened in White Plains and children from New York City relocated there. The chapel was erected on the site of the Prudhomme house that was the earlier convent for the Sisters in White Plains. To make room for the chapel, the house was moved to the back of the property and later became Our Lady of Good Counsel Academy Elementary School. In 1901 Good Counsel Training School was begun, and in 1918 the Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel high school was added to the eight-year elementary school.

In the 1920s the Sisters of the Divine Compassion were invited to staff seven parish schools and at the same time were developing a women’s college, Good Counsel College. In 1947 the congregation opened a second high school, Preston High School, in the Throggs Neck section of the Bronx, and served as educators in over 25 parishes in Manhattan, the Bronx, Westchester, and Putnam counties. In 1972, Good Counsel College became the College of White Plains, which was merged with Pace University in 1976.[6] The Good Counsel Complex at White Plains was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1997.[7]

In January 2015 it was reported that the pre-K through 8 Good Counsel Academy Elementary school would be re-locating to a new site at the former Holy Name of Jesus School in Valhalla, New York, in September 2015.

In February 2015 the Sisters announced that the Academy of Our Lady of Good Counsel high school would close in July 2015. The community's leadership team reported that, "multiple properties were investigated and eliminated as possible sites for relocation during this past year"; no suitable site was found affordable.[8]


The Sisters of the Divine Compassion today are a religious community of vowed members, lay associates, and partners committed "to proclaim and witness by our lives and service the Compassionate Presence of God in our world." As of 2015 the Sisters of the Divine Compassion number about 80 women serving in 38 ministries. These include education, health care, pastoral ministry, and the Divine Compassion Spirituality Center.

Sr. Susan M. Merritt, PhD, Dean Emerita of the Seidenberg School at Pace University, led the community from 2008-2012, celebrating the 125th Anniversary of the Sisters in 2011, and was succeeded by Sr. Carol Wagner.


Further reading[edit]

  • Sister Mary Teresa. The Fruit of His Compassion. Pageant Press, 1962

External links[edit]