Sisters losing historic home USF&G says nuns must leave building in Mount Washington

September 23, 1997|By Robert Guy Matthews | Robert Guy Matthews,SUN STAFF

A group of nuns were evicted yesterday from a historic building they had occupied since 1915 by USF&G Corp., which wants the Northwest Baltimore site to make way for a company-wide expansion.

The eviction notice by the Baltimore insurance giant says the nuns must leave Provincial House in Mount Washington by Nov. 30, ending a five-year battle by the Sisters of Mercy to continue to operate the Mount Saint Agnes Theological Center for Women in the landmark two-story, blue-stone house.

"We've gone to the wall and they've said no way," said Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill, Sister of Mercy of Baltimore, who helps run classes, worship and fellowship at the house and also lives there with another of the six staff members.

O'Neill, who acknowledged that the nuns had been told by the company years ago that they would one day have to vacate the building, said that she is unsure where she will live after Nov. 30.

"I haven't a clue," O'Neill said. "This is not just an educational institution, but it's a question where living human beings will reside."

An official of the company -- which has allowed the nuns to operate the center rent-free on a month-to-month lease since 1992 -- said the nuns had to be evicted now because the building had become unsafe to occupy.

The building has an inadequate heating system, falling roof shingles and bad electrical wiring, said Jay Erbe Jr., USF&G vice president for administrative services.

"Very frankly, the same awareness that we both have concerning safety is certainly more profound than their continued occupancy on a 24-hour, seven-day-a-week basis," Erbe said.

"They have had free housing and landscaping and numerous repairs. There is a long-standing history of generosity, but we don't have another house to offer," he added.

Erbe said USF&G has no "immediate need" for the Provincial House, but when the company expands, either the house or the site can be used.

"We will wait until we get a comprehensive plan," Erbe said. "We will not let it become an eyesore."

USF&G has offered the Sisters of Mercy free use of conference rooms on the Mount Washington campus. The nuns have accepted the offer but said they would be more comfortable in their own facility.

The Sisters of Mercy once owned Provincial House and the surrounding land that makes up USF&G's Mount Washington campus, but they sold it to the company for $2.5 million in 1982 to raise money for the nuns' retirement. As part of the sales agreement, the nuns were allowed to remain at Provincial House -- which was built in 1881 and has two dining rooms, a library, 10 bedrooms and six bathrooms -- for 10 years without paying rent.

The Sisters of Mercy have asked the company to extend them a long-term lease. But USF&G would extend only a month-to-month lease that required 30-days notice to vacate, and told the nuns they could not stay forever.

The Sisters of Mercy said they wanted to fix some of the problems in the house, such as the heat, but they wanted a long-term lease before paying for repairs.

The company had planned to tear down Provincial House as part of its expansion plans, but it dropped those plans after opposition from the neighborhood.

For months, Mount Washington residents and the business community have been at odds with USF&G over the company's plans for the 74-acre campus that extends into Baltimore County.

Before the City Council ended its session in June, USF&G unsuccessfully tried to persuade the land-use committee to approve a planned addition of 91,000 square feet of office space in two locations and 56 more parking spaces. Another major expansion at the campus already has been approved by the council.

The committee tabled the request, hoping that the company would reach an accord with residents and the business community, which wanted to lease parking spaces on campus and ensure preservation of Provincial House.

Company executives decided not to give in to the demands and threatened to relocate the planned expansion from the city to Baltimore County.

City leaders think that a deal can be reached between the company and Mount Washington residents and business leaders.

"I have no plans to bring [the USF&G bill] out of committee," said land-use Chair Lois Garey. "I would like to see if we can get an agreement between the community and USF&G."

The company's expansion is necessary because more than 800 workers have relocated from USF&G's downtown tower to the Mount Washington campus.

Pub Date: 9/23/97

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