The Congregation of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace founded the York Street Project in downtown Jersey City in 1989. The Project dates back to the work of Mother Francis Clare Cusack, known as the "Nun of Kenmare," at a mid-nineteenth-century townhouse at 78 Grand Street. It is now a residence for the sisters involved with the social service organization.
The elevated Italianate-style row house at 78 Grand Street was built by Jacob J. Banta in 1857. Banta, whose family emigrated from Holland to America in 1659, grew up in Jersey City. He worked as a carpenter and eventually became a builder. Charles Wakeman purchased the handsome three-story house of soft reddish-brown sandstone. The exterior has heavy stoop balustrades, iron handrails and prominent window and door trim. The interior originally featured a double parlor, common to the architectural design; New York cabinet marker John Henry Belter made the furniture of laminated and carved wood.
Mother Francis Clare Cusack founded the religious order of the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace in Nottingham, England, in 1884. There she had been an activist for the cause of Irish famine relief. Cusack decided to come to America where she believed she could obtain help for poor immigrants, especially women. She first approached the diocese of New York to establish her work but was rejected because of her radical reform ideas. Cusack later won approval of Bishop Winand M. Wigger of the diocese of Newark to settle in Jersey City. Here she purchased the house at 78 Grand Street in 1885 for immigrants and orphaned children. The Sisters had a convent at 235 Grove Street.
Cusack's biographers write " [her] aim was to establish a chain of residences for immigrant girls where they might find help in getting jobs and protection from exploitation and unhealthy living conditions. She also proposed setting up a training school for the blind . . ." (McQuaide and Richardson 118). According to local historian Barbara Petrick, "The Sisters . . . would meet immigrant women at Castle Garden and escort them to the house in Jersey City. An employment bureau, a training program, a children's day-care service, and a rest home were established for the women. Cusack was successful in attracting financial support and other women to join the religious community" (Petrick 221).
Cusack came into conflict with the Roman Catholic Church over her views on the social order, education, and working women. She believed that her views, made known through a publication, threatened the work of her congregation. Cusack thereby returned to England in 1891, but her work and the order of sisters she had incorporated in New Jersey continued to fulfill her goals with a focus on education, housing and childcare.
Today, the York Street Project, a not-for-profit organization sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, receives funding from the state and federal governments, as well as corporations and individuals. Under its aegis are a number of nondenominational community programs. A renovation of the York Street Project properties in the 1980s accompanied a relocation of some of their programs from earlier addresses.
St. Joseph's Home at 89-91 York Street provides housing for women and children who are homeless. The home was founded in 1886 and incorporated in 1905 for poor, abused, and homeless girls. The Nurturing Place at 81 York Street, a five-story brick building constructed in 1890, is an accredited early childhood program.
St. Mary's Residence, at 242 Washington Street, houses single, working women. It was started in the former Hotel Washington that the Sisters purchased in 1902. In 1905, the Residence opened its doors to working women from Ireland needing an affordable place to live. Today, after renovation in 1991, the Residence offers lodging to working women who have emigrated from numerous countries.
The Kenmare High School is an accredited secondary school that assists women between ages seventeen to twenty-seven to obtain a diploma and job training. It opened at St. Boniface R.C. parish in Jersey City in 1982 and is now at 89 York Street.
The sisters expanded their network of the York Street Project to other social institutions in Jersey City. In 1987, they extended their ministry to St. Ann's Home for the Aged at 198 Old Bergen Avenue. The home had been incorporated by the Sisters of Charity of Providence from Montreal, Canada, in 1911. Their ministry also includes the Cusack Care Center (formerly St. Joseph's Home for the Blind) at 537 Pavonia Avenue and St. Joseph's School for the Blind at 253 Baldwin Avenue, both dating back to 1891.
St. Joseph's School for the Blind, the only school for the blind in New Jersey, was started by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace and has been located in the Baldwin Avenue building since 1927. In 2006, the school moved to the three-acre site of the former Reservoir No. 2 at 761 Summit Avenue. It is a secular institution and receives funding for the education of it students from their respective school districts. Nearby on the site is Concordia House that provides housing for students who reside too far away to commute to St. Joseph's School.
Today these later facilities provide care for the visually impaired, for the elderly, and for 200 blind and visually impaired students and those with multiple disabilities from infancy to age 21.
Deering, Sally. "Helping Women Get Back on Track." Jersey Journal 28 December 1998.
Kaulessar, Ricardo. "A New Vision." Jersey City Reporter 9 December 2005.
McQuaide, Rosalie and Janet Davis Richardson."Margaret Anna Cusack, 1829-1899." Past and Promise: Lives of New Jersey Women by Women's Project of New Jersey. Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1990.
Petrick, Barbara. Church and School in the Immigrant City: A Social History of Public Education in Jersey City, 1804-1930. Metuchen, NJ: The Upland Press, 2000.
Petrick, John. "Women and Children." Jersey Journal 30 April 1996.
Polakowski, Martin Pierce. "A House to Survive a Vision, 1885-1985" in Sisters of St. Joseph of Peace, House at 78 Grand Street.
York Street Project: http://www.yorkstreetproject.org