The History of Enders Island
“It is understood that this House is to serve, primarily, as a novitiate for the Community, but I express my hope that it will serve to carry out the other good works which are proper to your Congregation, as time goes on.” —Alys Enders
Thomas B. Enders, M.D., a Yale-educated graduate of the College of Physicians and Surgeons (Columbia) and Hartford surgeon purchased Enders Island from the Daughters of Charity of St. Vincent DePaul on August 24, 1910, and work began almost immediately developing Enders Island. By 1918, work had begun on construction of the Enders House and on March 1, 1920, Dr. Enders purchased a right of way from the Masons Island Company and proceeded building a bridge connecting Enders Island to Masons Island. On Tuesday, December 22, 1925, Dr. Enders married Alys VanGilder in the West End Presbyterian Church, in New York City. Work continued on Enders Island, including the extensive stone tiles prominently on display throughout the interior and exterior of the arts and crafts style mansion that were designed by Mrs. Enders herself.
Dr. Enders conveyed Enders Island to Mrs. Enders on January 16, 1932, and died on January 26, 1943, at the age of 77. He left the sum of $100,000 (nearly $1.5 million in current dollars) to Mrs. Enders “for work, labor, and materials, in the repair, restoration, or improvement of the land and buildings known as Enders Island.”
By 1953, Mrs. Enders' health began to fail, and she set out to settle her affairs. Mrs. Enders' primary intention was to assure the preservation of her beloved estate on Enders Island well into the future. She determined that the best way to accomplish this was to gift the property to some religious institution to be used in carrying out its religious charitable use and not fall into secular hands. So representatives of Mrs. Enders approached the Episcopal Church and offered them Enders Island; however, the Episcopal Diocese required that Mrs. Enders also leave a sum for work, labor, and materials, in the repair, restoration, or improvement of Enders Island—as Dr. Enders had left for her. She declined their counteroffer and set about seeking a different religious institution for her gift.
Since Mrs. Enders had been raised a Catholic, she sent her representatives to meet with The Most Reverend Henry J. O’Brien, Bishop of the Archdiocese of Hartford, during the summer of 1953, who delayed making an immediate decision, knowing that his diocese would soon be divided into three, one being the Diocese of Norwich. Any ownership of Enders Island by the Catholic Church would then fall under the jurisdiction of this new diocese. Bishop-Designate Bernard Joseph Flanagan was formally appointed as the first Bishop of Norwich by Pope Pius XII on September 1, 1953. Bishop Flanagan, a native son of Vermont, was consecrated a bishop in Burlington, Vermont, on December 3, 1953, and formally installed in Saint Patrick’s Cathedral in New York City on December 8, 1953. He would go on to serve as Bishop of Norwich until 1959. The newly installed Bishop met with Mrs. Enders' representatives after his installation and did not see any use that the new Diocese of Norwich could make of Enders Island. However, he did foresee a way to help fulfill Mrs. Enders’ wish.
Prior to his appointment by the Pope, Bishop Flanagan had served as secretary to Bishop Edward Francis Ryan and chancellor of the Diocese of Burlington. During his years in Burlington, he had established what would become a life-long friendship with Father Jeremiah T. Purtill, SSE, a member of the Society of St. Edmund—an order of priests and brothers who foster spiritual renewal, evangelization and social justice, and who had established St. Michael’s College in Winooski, Vermont in 1904. Father Purtill was born and raised in the village of Pawcatuck, Connecticut, and knew of both Dr. Enders and Enders Island. He graduated from Stonington High School and then left for St. Michael’s prior to Dr. Enders' marriage to Alys. Therefore, he had not been present for the extensive expansion and capital expenditures on Enders Island—which included expansion of the mansion and construction of the cow barn, horse barn, hen house, tea house, and art studio. Upon graduation from St. Michael’s College in 1929, Father Purtill remained in Vermont and took his vows as a member of the Society of St. Edmund.
By 1953, Father Purtill had become the Superior General of the Society of St. Edmund. By 1951, the Society’s novitiate in Putney, Vermont (now the Putney Inn) had been outgrown. Bishop Flanagan knew of the Society’s need for a new home for its novitiate so he introduced Father Purtill to Mrs. Enders' representatives around the beginning of 1954. Father Purtill visited Enders Island shortly after the New Year. It was the first time he had ever set foot on the grounds. Father Purtill formally accepted Mrs. Enders' gift of Enders Island by a letter dated January 6, 1954. Mrs. Enders went home to God on January 30, 1954 knowing that Enders Island was now in the hands of a religious order to be used in carrying out its religious charitable use and would not fall into secular hands. Bishop Flanagan formally approved the Society’s presence in the Diocese of Norwich in a letter dated October 9, 1954. In this letter, he welcomed his friend, Father Purtill, and the Society of St. Edmund by writing:
“It is understood that this House is to serve, primarily, as a novitiate for the Community, but I express my hope that it will serve to carry out the other good works which are proper to your Congregation, as time goes on.”
The “other good works” began almost immediately with the opening of a retreat ministry at the new novitiate center—and beginning in 1967, a formal recovery ministry was established at what had become known as "St. Edmund’s Retreat." By 1990, however, St. Edmund’s Retreat was tired, dispirited and bankrupt. Father Thomas F.X. Hoar, SSE, was asked by the Superior General of the Society to chair a task force of 20 individuals, both religious and lay, to evaluate Enders Island along with its retreat and recovery ministries. The task force met for nearly a year and in the spring of 1991 —by a vote of 19 to 1—recommended to the Superior General that St. Edmund’s Retreat be closed. Father Tom cast the only dissenting vote; he composed a minority report declaring that the Island should be revitalized. Thus, in 1993, the Superior General asked him to move from his assignment at St. Michael's College to Enders Island, to create a strategic development program, to collaborate with the Diocese of Norwich to solidify the ministry’s financial position, and to renew its spiritual mission.
In order to ensure the long-term sustainability and viability of the ministries of Enders Island, the Society of St. Edmund transferred title of the island from the Society of St. Edmund to the newly formed St. Edmund of Connecticut, Inc., a 501(c)(3) non-profit religious organization controlled by a three-member board of directors consisting of the Bishop of Norwich, the Superior General of the Society of St. Edmund and the Bishop of Providence. In addition, Pope John Paul II approved the lease of Enders Island from St. Edmund of Connecticut, Inc. to St. Edmund’s Retreat, Inc., an independent 501(c)(3) Catholic non-profit that is governed by a board of trustees made up of 25 men and women—lay and religious—who posses a wide variety of skills and expertise. Today, the board continues to be actively involved as a steward of Alys Enders' precious gift, fulfilling her intention that the island would be used for religious purposes after her passing.