This month a 72,000-square-foot Tudor mansion, completed in 1920 and containing eighty-seven rooms and a magnificent chapel (in which many notable Catholic clerics, including Bishop Fulton Sheen and Francis Cardinal Spellman, celebrated Mass), is being demolished.
Known as Inisfada – Gaelic for “Long Island” – the house is located in the Nassau County “Gold Coast” village of Manhasset and was the home of Nicholas and Genevieve Brady, America’s leading Catholic couple in the early decades of the twentieth century. The most prominent guest ever to visit Inisfada arrived in 1936: the Vatican Secretary of State Cardinal Eugenio Pacelli – the future Pope Pius XII.
Nicholas F. Brady (1878-1930), a convert to Catholicism, made a great fortune in the utilities business, serving as chairman of New York’s Consolidated Edison Company. In 1906, he married a devout Catholic, Genevieve Garvan (1884-1938). The couple donated millions to Catholic charities and financed the construction of numerous buildings at such U.S. Catholic institutions as the Jesuit Novitiate in Wernersville, Pennsylvania and Georgetown University.
In the 1920s, the Brady’s turned their attention to Vatican affairs and spent winters at the palace Casa del Sole at 16 via Aurelia Antica in Rome. Nicholas was the first America to be inducted into the Ordine Supremo del Cristo (Supreme Order of Christ), the highest order of chivalry awarded by the pope – generally reserved for heads of state.
During this period, the Bradys befriended a young priest who was the lone American in the Vatican State Department, Father Francis Spellman. He served as translator for members of the Curia who attended Brady dinner parties and as a tennis partner on the Brady courts. When the couple asked for a private chaplain, Spellman was assigned the job.
After her husband’s death in 1930, Genevieve continued to live part of the year in Rome and remained close to Spellman. To further ingratiate himself with Mrs. Brady, Spellman planted the idea with Pius XI that led to her appointment as a papal duchess.
In the fall of 1936, Spellman, now an auxiliary bishop in Boston, learned from Mrs. Brady that Inisfada was to serve as a vacation getaway for Pacelli. Although Mrs. Brady was dead set against the cardinal having any public schedule, Spellman realized that was not a good plan. He severely strained his relationship with Brady when she learned that he organized a nationwide tour for Pacelli that was to culminate with a visit to President Roosevelt’s home in Hyde Park, New York.
Spellman greeted Pacelli at New York harbor when his ship arrived and served as tour guide and press spokesman. After spending a few days at Inisfada, the two men drove to the Knights of Columbus headquarters in New Haven and ended the day at Spellman’s parish in Newton Center, Massachusetts. Pacelli said Mass in the bishop’s church using the chalice that Pius XI had given to Spellman as a parting gift when he returned to Boston.
The cardinal spent the following two weeks visiting dioceses in New York, Philadelphia, Washington D.C., Cleveland, Chicago, South Bend, Cincinnati, St. Louis, San Francisco, and Los Angeles. Reminiscing years later, Spellman said that during their cross-country flights, he would persuade the pilot to make detours so Pacelli could see great natural wonders of America; especially Niagara Falls and the Grand Canyon.
Since America was in the middle of a presidential campaign, a meeting between Pacelli and F.D.R. was delayed until after the November 3 election. On November 5, two days after Roosevelt swept the nation carrying forty-six states and receiving 61 percent of the vote, Bishop Spellman, Joseph P. Kennedy, and N.Y. auxiliary Bishop Steven Donahue, accompanied the Cardinal-Secretary of State to the president’s home along the Hudson. There were discussions about sending an envoy to the Vatican and an agreement was reached to reign in the notorious radio priest, Father John Coughlin.
Cardinal Pacelli spent his final night in America at Inisfada and left for Rome on November 7, 1936. While Mrs. Brady was unhappy that Pacelli did not spend more leisure time there, she stayed on friendly terms with the cardinal, and for her continued philanthropic work, was showered with numerous papal honors.
Bishop Spellman and Cardinal Pacelli
In 1937, Genevieve married the Irish Free State minister to the Vatican, William Babington Macaulay. She died in Rome the following November, only months before Pacelli was elected pope and Spellman was appointed archbishop of New York. She was buried next to Nicholas in a crypt below the main altar at the Jesuit Novitiate, St. Isaac Jogues in Wernersville, Pennsylvania. A plaque hangs in the Church of St. Patrick in Rome that describes her many contributions to the Church.
Mrs. Brady left Inisfada to the New York Province of the Society of Jesus. Initially it served as a house of formation for seminarians and later as the St. Ignatius Jesuit Retreat House, which in recent years has featured Zen Buddhists as guest lecturers.
In early 2013, the Jesuits announced Inisfada was too expensive to maintain, closed it, and put the estate on the market. The mansion and the surrounding thirty-three acres were bought by a developer for $36.5 million who plans to build upscale single-family homes. A petition to declare Inisfada a historic home was denied.
The Jesuits did not even bother relocating artifacts of historic importance to Catholic institutions, century-old antiques in Inisfada, including the Cathedral Chair used by Cardinal Pacelli. Instead they were auctioned. The $50,000 proceeds went to Fordham University.
Another U.S. Catholic treasure is lost. And sadly, because we live in an age obsessed with consumer culture trivia, very few will miss – or even notice – that Inisfada is no more.