NYC’s Leo House: safe haven for travelers

Leo House, NYC

Hundreds of police and firefighters in need of respite during 9/11 rescue and recovery work found their way to The Leo House, three miles north of New York City’s World Trade Center.

The simply furnished Catholic guesthouse has Wisconsin roots and a 122-year history of providing a safe haven to travelers, especially those who minister to others. The Congregation of Sisters of St. Agnes, based in Fond du Lac, Wis., operates the 75-room urban retreat that has changed little since moving to the Chelsea neighborhood from Battery Park in 1921.

Mother Teresa stayed here during a snowstorm. Producers of the “Law and Order” television series filmed episodes in the old-time lobby. Travelers throughout the world stay at Leo House, even though it has no website and rarely advertises.

The rare-for-Manhattan room rates begin at $90 for a single bed, small television, toilet and sink but no private shower. Add $9 for a hot breakfast buffet that includes eggs, meats, hot and cold cereals, fruits, juices, from-scratch cinnamon rolls and other bakery/breads.

“This is a Catholic place – a crucifix is visible in every room – but everyone is welcome,” says Sr. Marilyn Ellickson, a native of Waunakee and the site’s director of development. “When a priest is our guest, there is a morning Mass.”

Guests are not expected to participate in worship, but they need to respect the setting and what it represents. Portraits of Pope Leo XIII, for whom the facility is named, are subtle reminders.

“People today appreciate the safety of our place, and it’s close to many things” of interest to average travelers, says Sister Marilyn, a teacher for 25 years who returned to Leo House in 2007.

The nonprofit enterprise began in 1889 as a safe haven for German immigrants, who typically would stay weeks to months, “until they met family, learned English or found a job,” says Sister Marilyn. Leo House staff coordinated their work with the St. Raphael Society in Germany.

The service was particularly crucial to the well-being of single women, whom the sisters would meet when transcontinental boats arrived. Before this safety net, overwhelmed female immigrants sometimes turned to prostitution because they lacked other options and support.

The Sisters of St. Agnes were involved with Leo House from the beginning because New York architect William Schickel designed their Fond du Lac motherhouse and was among the first Leo House board members. Mother Agnes was in the original group who managed the facility in every way, from operating the dining room and front desk to cooking meals and housekeeping.

They also nursed and taught English to the new immigrants. Eventually the concept of ministry through hospitality expanded to include other travelers, especially those of the Catholic faith.

In the early 1900s, 42 sisters from France arrived without notice. Leo House had no available beds, so they slept in the chapel before continuing their travels to Minnesota on the next day.

Although Leo House is only four blocks from the Hudson River, it did not flood because of Hurricane Irene – but that weekend the retreat was full and serving guests more meals than usual because other neighborhood businesses temporarily closed.

On staff are two other professed sisters from the St. Agnes community, Kathleen Ries of Sheboygan and Regina Anhalt of Two Rivers. The religious order was founded in 1858 and has 253 members who are based in the U.S. and Central America. More than 800 served the religious order at its peak in 1958.

The Leo House will expand to 100 rooms by 2013. Proceeds from selling part of the site’s annex and garden will help finance the project, but additional funds are sought. “We’ve previously made simple appeals,” says Sister Marilyn, “but now is the time for a bigger fundraiser” since room revenue only covers operational costs.

The Leo House, 332 W. 23rd St., New York City, has plans to add an online room reservation system. Until then, fax reservation requests to 212-366-6801, preferably at least 10 weeks prior to travel; provide arrival and departure dates, contact information and a Visa or MasterCard account number with expiration date. Call 212-929-1010 only to inquire about room availability within one month of travel.

The minimum stay is two nights on weekdays, three nights for weekends. The maximum stay is 14 days. In December, rates increase by $5; that means $95 (single bed, no private shower) to $195 (with shower, for a traveling family of up to six people).

Donations to support the mission and expansion of Leo House can be sent to: The Leo House, 332 W. 23rd St., New York, NY 10011.

The guesthouse is a block from subway connections, three blocks from The High Line (a newer public park that is 1.5 miles long and on former elevated freight rail tracks; see www.thehighline.org), one-half mile southwest of Penn Station and 10 miles from LaGuardia Airport.

At the outskirts of Fond du Lac, the Sisters of St. Agnes operate a hermitage – four simply furnished cottages – that can be booked for overnight stays and quiet contemplation. The cost for this silent retreat setting is a freewill offering. For more: www.csasisters.org/hermitages.cfm or call 920-907-2300 on weekdays.

Thanks go to Joyce Carey of Madison for making me aware of Leo House.