Mother Polycarpa, O.P.: the First Nun-Postmistress in the United States

While working on the Cardinal Patrick Hayes and the Archdiocese of New York in the Bahamas digital exhibit last year, I uncovered the story of an incredibly interesting woman. Her name was Mother Polycarpa Steigle, a Sister of St. Dominic, who I came to believe was the author of the numerous scrapbooks I was working on. After many hours of research and a trip to the Sisters of St. Dominic in Amityville, I was able to piece together her story and understand why exactly she was making scrapbooks of Cardinal Hayes’ Bahamas trips.

Mother Polycarpa and Cardinal Hayes, 1938

Mother Polycarpa and Cardinal Hayes, 1938

Mother Polycarpa Steigle was born on January 6, 1870. At the age of sixteen, she entered the Order of St. Dominic, Congregation of the Holy Cross convent in 1886.  She received her habit on September 8, 1887 and took her vows on March 19, 1889. In July 1896, Mother Polycarpa and a few of her fellow sisters traveled to Forestburgh, NY to look at a large portion of land that was for sale. The following year they broke ground for the early buildings of what would become St. Joseph’s Sanatorium.  The Sanatorium was a place for convalescing patients recuperating from long-term illnesses. An elementary school, a high school, a convent, and two summer camps would also exist on the grounds of St. Joseph’s. Mother Polycarpa was appointed Superior of the Convent in 1913 and oversaw all activities at St. Joseph’s.

Mother Polycarpa is appointed postmistress of St. Joseph's in 1898

Mother Polycarpa is appointed postmistress in 1898

Shortly after the establishment of St. Joseph’s, a post office was approved in 1898. Mother Polycarpa was appointed postmistress, making her the first nun-postmistress in the United States. She served at this position for 42 years. Over the years, Mother Polycarpa worked with various diocesan priests, two in particular, Fr. Vincent Arcese and Cardinal Patrick Hayes, would result in lifelong friendships. Fr. Arcese was the chaplain of St. Joseph’s and a close friend of Cardinal Hayes. Cardinal Hayes would visit St. Joseph’s numerous times throughout his life and even having his own cottage and a memorial built there after his death. These two men traveled often together, while still maintaining contact with Mother Polycarpa. Fr. Arcese and Cardinal Hayes’ correspondence with her resulted in the creation of scrapbooks where she pasted letters, photos, postcards, and more documenting their trips. Many of these scrapbooks are found here in the Archives. For an inside look into one of these scrapbooks, visit the digital exhibit on our website!

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