Serenity restored at retirement home

January 29, 1994|By Ed Brandt | Ed Brandt,Staff Writer

Thirty years ago, Sister Maura Eichner wrote:

"The seasons wheel about Villa Maria with God's touch upon them.

"Springtime orchards are shell pink and white. Summer light lingers on the meadows . . . autumn means the gum tree will be flaming . . . winter brings whiteness and an almost paradisine beauty. . . ."

That much hasn't changed, but everything else has for the former convalescent home of the School Sisters of Notre Dame on Glenarm Road in Baltimore County.

Today it's the site of a nonprofit, continuing-care retirement home called Glen Meadows.

At the turn of the century, there was a breeding farm there called Notch Cliff, where "high-class trotting-bred horses" were raised. And before that there was a sprawling, plantation-like farm, complete with a manor house, an overseer's home and slave quarters.

In recent years, the property has been through a bumpy ride, including bankruptcy for the consortium that bought it from the School Sisters in 1984 and converted it to a retirement home. It was a threatening time for the residents, who sometimes wondered if they would end up camping on the parking lot.

Now Glen Meadows, a joint venture of the Presbyterian Church of Baltimore and Presbyterian Homes of Pennsylvania, has the glow of health and satisfaction about it, with about 200 residents in largely renovated apartments.

"It's a delightful place to live," says John Malcomb, 77, a former casualty manager for Harford Mutual Insurance in Bel Air, who has been there for almost two years.

Villa Maria was created in 1908 when the School Sisters, a teaching order with U.S. headquarters in Baltimore, bought 274 acres for $24,705 and began building Villa Maria for ill and retired nuns. By 1912, the holdings had been increased to more than 500 acres.

The land was fertile, well-suited to raising grain, potatoes and fodder, and Villa Maria "began to furnish vegetables and dairy products" for the sanitarium and for the order's motherhouse at Charles Street and Bellona Avenue, Sister Maura wrote.

For the next 72 years, hundreds of sisters worked, prayed and died there and were buried in a small graveyard about 150 yards south of the main building.

Then time ran out. Its steadily declining population made Villa Maria expendable, and it was put up for sale in 1982. It was sold two years later, and the 107 sisters still there were moved to the motherhouse a few miles away.

"We retained rights to the graveyard," says Sister Louis Marie, Villa Maria administrator from 1978 to 1983. "Our sisters are still being buried there. Glen Meadows is kind enough to ring our NTC 'Joseph' bell for us at the funerals."

The 500-pound bell, named after St. Joseph, patron saint of a "happy death," was rung three times a day from 1909 until Villa Maria closed in November 1984.

The new owner was Notch Cliff Associates, a consortium of doctors and businessmen. By 1988, the Notch Cliff retirement home was facing bankruptcy.

"We found out at dinner one night in September 1988, when someone from the Baltimore County Department on Aging walked in and said to us, 'You're in trouble,' " said Alice Thomas, who has been at the home for more than seven years.

The residents feared that they would lose the money they had put up for their apartments.

"We also didn't know where to go on such short notice," Ms. Thomas said. "It was a rough time. Fortunately, the banks kept the place open for two years after the owners went bankrupt. Only about 50 of us were left by then."

Presbyterian Senior Services, which operates Glen Meadows, has steadily renovated and added to the operation since it became Glen Meadows in 1991.

There are now 114 patio homes built around five courtyards and 101 apartments in the renovated main house of the former Villa Maria.

Capacity is 260 to 270 residents, says Executive Director Steven Jewell.

Apartments range in cost from $40,400 to $104,000, refundable upon resale. Monthly charges range from $770 to $1,120 for a single person, and $1,290 to $1,470 for double occupancy, depending on the level of care the occupants require.

The rural atmosphere -- most of the 483 acres of the property are farmed on a rental basis -- is an attraction, says Ann Reed, who has been at the community for nearly seven years.

"Many of us take an interest in what's going on around here," she says.

Elaine Brickett, a retired professor of speech pathology and audiology at Loyola College, still goes to the office two days a week. Many others also continue to work or volunteer.

She met Bob Brickett while the two were walking their dogs at Glen Meadows. Widow and widower married in the chapel on Jan. 2, 1993.

The reception was held at Glen Meadows, and everyone was invited. "It was the social event of the year," Mrs. Brickett says.

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