Nestled in the hamlet of Pocantico Hills in Westchester County, the Church of the Magdalene is a country church drawing its parishioners from more than fifteen surrounding towns and villages. Roads leading to the hamlet pass by rolling fields protected by stone walls. A handful of homes, large and small, a school, two churches, and a fire house are located in the center of the village. The white frame country church stands in the midst of this community of homes surrounded by the large acreage of the Rockefeller homes and estates.
"Where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them." Christ, himself, gave us this vision for church and parish life in the Gospel of Matthew. It is this model that describes the beginnings of the parish. The church began in 1893 as a mission Church of St. Teresa of Avila parish in North Tarrytown – now Sleepy Hollow. The church, staffed by a priest from St. Teresa, served a small number of families in Pocantico Hills and in Eastview. In those early days Mass was celebrated in the Lyceum Building in Pocantico. In those early days, Mass was celebrated in the Lyceum Building where the fire house now stands. The Lyceum also hosted religious services for what would become the Union Church and housed a library.
By June 1894, Father Joseph Egan, the pastor of St. Teresa’s, asked New York’s Archbishop Michael Corrigan to create the Church of the Magdalene as a parish to serve the residents of Pocantico and the village of Eastview. When Archbishop Corrigan laid the cornerstone of the church in October of 1894, Father Egan had already purchased and given to the new parish the house that serves as the rectory. The dedication of the Church took place in September of 1895. Shortly after the dedication ceremonies, Fr. Egan resigned and was succeeded by Fr. Joseph Sheahan.
At its start, the parish served about forty families. These families contributed both funds and labor to build the church. By the time Fr. Sheahan left in 1906, the parish was almost debt free. The $2500 outstanding debt was retired during the pastorate of Fr. Patrick Lennon with a generous donation from James Butler, the owner of a chain of grocery stores and prominent businessman living in Eastview. The Butler family is also responsible for many of the beautiful stained glass windows in the Magdalene. This relationship begun so early in the parish’s history continues today through the association and service to Mother Butler's community, the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary at Marymount.
Local changes and the Great Depression slowed the growth of the parish. Railroad service on the Putnam line passed close to the Church and the Rockefeller lands. The noise and the smoke bothered Mr. Rockefeller so he bought the property the railroad used and the line was relocated much farther east. The demise of the railroad left the commuters in Eastview without train service to Manhattan. Rockefeller bought up these homes, adding green space to the estate surrounding his home.
This loss of the railroad coupled with the loss of parishioners and the Great Depression brought hard times to the parish. To support the parish during these difficult days, the Archdiocese gave the priests responsibilities for serving as chaplains at Grasslands, the Westchester County campus in Valhalla which housed a hospital, a penitentiary, a home for the aged and other social services. These commitments brought much needed income to support the parish. When good times returned in the economic boom after World War II, these services very gradually were taken over by others yet the responsibility remained with the parish. Today in different times, the Magdalene has actively resumed this role in serving at the Westchester Hospital by providing pastoral care to the patients.
"Visible Church — God's People United in Prayer and Liturgical Service .... "
In various documents issued by the Second Vatican Council we find a number of definitions of a parish all of which are operative in the Church of the Magdalene. The parish is "Visible Church — God's people united in prayer and common liturgical service, a community of believers sharing in Christ's mission to spread the Gospel message and reach out to all God's people in service, peace and reconciliation."
Today, the Church of the Magdalene is unique in its makeup. Its almost four hundred families come from more than fifteen towns and villages in Westchester County. Many come to the parish because they belong to the Pocantico Hills School District. This district's boundaries cover an area in parts of five towns. It is this geography that ensures the parish's diversity. There are second or third generation families for whom this parish is home. Others come because a friend or family member invites them. Still others are new to the area or have searched out a welcoming and prayerful worshiping community.
The sense of community in both worship and service continues to mark the parish. Volunteers come from almost thirty percent of families. They contribute as Parish Council members and religious education instructors for children and adults. They assist as lectors, Eucharistic ministers, ushers, choir members, and social ministry and hospitality. They lend their talents as musicians, and liturgical planners. They share their expertise in maintaining the physical plant. The Magdalene is a dynamic faith community that continues to grow.