The Leo House: a refuge for German immigrants

© Leo House

When German immigrants came to the United States in the late 19th century, many of them entered through New York, seeking a new life in a world that promised endless opportunities. But the transition to a new life was not always easy. A New York based guesthouse called The Leo House took many of these immigrants in, guiding them on their journey in an unfamiliar land.

The Leo House is a Catholic guesthouse on West 23rd Street in New York. Today it serves as a nonprofit budget hotel for travelers, but it played a significant role in lives of German immigrants in the late 19th and early 20th century. Between 1865 and 1900, 35 percent of all immigrants who arrived in the US came from Germany. But after a difficult 4,000 mile journey, many of them found new hardships in the US.

German immigrants arrive in New York in 1850. © dpa

“They didn’t speak English. The gangs of New York were ruthless – they saw Germans who just got off the boat as ‘easy prey,’” says David J. Smith, executive director of Leo House. “And many Germans lost their faith.”
German businessman Peter Cahensly became concerned about the plight of German immigrants and founded the St. Raphael Verein in 1883, an organization dedicated to ensuring the safety of German travelers. In 1887, immigrants connected to the society started a fundraiser to further help incoming immigrants. Pope Leo XIII had recently received money in honor of the 50th anniversary of ordination, and the pope took that money and in turn donated $50,000 to the St. Raphael Verein. This money was then used to purchase a building in New York that became known as the Leo House, named in the honor of Pope Leo.

Located close the immigration center Castle Garden (the predecessor of Ellis Island), the Leo House became a home away from home for countless German immigrants. The German-speaking Sisters of St. Agnes from Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, became its caretakers.

The Leo House ensured that German immigrants were safe, kept their faith and were able to thrive and flourish in New York, Smith says.

In 1926, the Leo House was moved to its current location to accommodate the need for more space. Located in a brownstone building in the Chelsea district of Manhattan, it offers lodging, a business center, an in-house chapel and a dining room. One of the guesthouse’s most notable guests was Saint Mother Theresa, who stayed in room 409 on November 7, 1960. Another noteworthy guest was Mother Dolores Hart, an actress who kissed Elvis Presley in one of her films and later became a nun.

David J. Smith, executive director of the Leo House.

Today, the Leo House receives between 35,000 and 40,000 guests every year, 60 percent of which are international and 18 percent of which are German, Smith says. Even though the Leo House houses guests of all religions and nationalities, it is still proud of its background and its contributions to the German-American community in New York. The Leo House participates in various German-American events in New York, including the annual Steuben Day Parade on Fifth Avenue.

“The German American relationship is very important and it’s alive and well,” Smith says. “And we’re glad that the Leo House can have a part in fostering an improved and stronger German-American relationship. “

The Leo House is located at 332 W 23rd St, New York, NY 10011. Visit their website for more information.

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