Towson nuns in legal fight with twice-fired contractor Dispute revolves on motherhouse

March 02, 1992|By Edward Gunts | Edward Gunts,Staff Writer

Sister Danielle Murphy is accustomed to putting her faith in God.

But for the next several weeks, she also will be putting her faith in Henry H. Lewis Contractors Inc.

The Owings Mills-based firm is racing to complete a $3.7 million motherhouse for Sister Murphy and the religious order she heads, Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart.

The rush is on because the nuns fired their previous contractor -- twice -- and are counting on Lewis to help them meet a March 23 deadline for leaving their current home at 1001 W. Joppa Road near Towson.

The nuns say construction delays and building defects by the first contractor prevented them from moving into the new building. The contractor, Kasco-Chesapeake Builders Inc., says the nuns wanted perfection and interfered with the construction, causing the delays.

Now, it's up to a three-member arbitration panel to judge who's right.

"They're suing us. We're suing them," said Sister Murphy. "To be quite honest, we were first-time builders and women and nuns on top of that. They must have thought we didn't know what we were doing.

"We trusted," Sister Murphy said. "We trusted that the . . . contractors were looking out for us, and they weren't. We've been living out of boxes for eight months now because we thought our building would be finished. We get ready to move and think we're going to move and then we don't move. It's psychological torture. Mental anguish."

Charles E. Rosolio, an attorney for Kasco, said the firm "bent over backward" to satisfy the sisters -- but to no avail.

"They're nuns," he said. "I believe, because of their lack of construction experience . . . and the nature of what they are all about, they are probably impossible to please."

Kasco initially offered to make certain changes at its own expense, but that only led to requests for more, he said.

"One of the sisters would review the project and say, 'I don't like that. Fix it,' " he said. "Because Kasco has a reputation of pleasing its owners, they would continue to fix and continue to fix and continue to fix. But it never stopped."

Kasco has worked for many large and prestigious clients, and has completed several hundred million dollars worth of work without any problems since its founding 10 years ago, Mr. Rosolio said. But he said Kasco sued the nuns because they owe the company $600,000 on their $3.7 million contract. Mr. Rosolio said he is confident the arbitrators will rule that Kasco earned its money -- and then some.

In the beginning

Founded in Baltimore in 1890, the Mission Helpers moved in 1923 to the Joppa Road property, from which missionaries are sent to Venezuela, Puerto Rico and all across the United States. Only 30 to 40 of the 130 sisters live in the motherhouse at any given time.

When the Roman Catholic order began planning the new motherhouse in the late 1980s, its members believed it would be a national model for religious orders that want more cost-effective living space and cash from valuable land they no longer need.

Meyers & D'Aleo (now D'Aleo Inc.) was hired to design the new complex in 1988. Its plans called for individual residences for 42 nuns, administrative offices, a chapel, community center and recreational facilities -- including an indoor pool -- all surrounding a landscaped courtyard.

The complex takes up five acres on the eastern end of a 45-acre parcel the nuns own. The order planned to sell the remaining 40 acres to the developers of a posh retirement community called Blakehurst to help pay for construction of the new motherhouse. The plan hinged on the nuns' ability to move into the new building before the sale, so their old buildings could be razed to make way for Blakehurst.

With a land-sale agreement worked out, the nuns hired Kasco in October 1989 to build their new home. According to Sister

Murphy, the contractor missed the first deadline for completing the building: Nov. 1, 1990.

The nuns say as work progressed, they began to have problems with the way the building was taking shape. The most conspicuous problem was the roof, which ripples where certain sections of the sheathing and shingles meet the wood framing underneath.

"People have stopped along Joppa Road and asked us, 'What is wrong with your roof? Why is it so wavy?' " Sister Murphy said.

"The design is simple, and the execution ought to have been simple," said Read McCaffrey, an attorney for the Mission Helpers. "But the trusses don't line up. The sheathing heaves. It is about the worst looking roof I have ever seen. The product would appear to be the product of people who didn't know what they were doing."

The nuns soon discovered other signs of what they consider substandard workmanship.

"We have over $2,000 worth of pictures of places where the work doesn't meet specifications," said Sister Murphy. "Everything kept getting chiseled back, and the owners didn't get the benefits they thought they would."

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