Finding a new way to open their doors to the community

Convent: Franciscan sisters turn part of their North Baltimore home into unique low-income housing.

July 06, 2005|By Justin Fenton | Justin Fenton,SUN STAFF

Unable to work as she cared for her dying brother and raised her adopted granddaughter, Deborah Reddy was in desperate need of money and a place to live. The 54-year-old worked as a baby sitter, earning just $14,000 a year.

She found a place in a new low-income development at a renovated Franciscan convent near the old Memorial Stadium. On her first visit there recently, as she passed under the statue of Saint Elizabeth and walked through the front door, her memory was suddenly jolted.

Her new home was the former orphanage where she and her brother had lived when they were abandoned 50 years ago.

"I wasn't too sure till I got in the place, and then I got the feeling," said Reddy, who recognized the double doors of the room where the children slept. "I said, `Wait a minute. What is this? What did this placed used to be?' And that's when they told me it used to be an orphanage."

Faced with a dwindling number of sisters and unable to afford the 90-year-old building's upkeep, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi sold about two-thirds of the 50,000- square-foot St. Elizabeth's Convent to two nonprofit groups that patched together $5.3 million in federal, state and city funds for an ambitious project.

When it formally was rededicated last month as Clare Court, the building completed its transformation into something unheard of in the religious community - an active convent and low-income housing development for 36 children, their adoptive parents and the disabled, all under one roof.

"For the most part, the experience of religious communities was that they did not live in the midst of lay people," said Sister Ellen Carr, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi's coordinator of property development. "This is unique, this is different. It really is a model for modern religious communities."

The sisters and their new roommates share the first-floor lobby, a spot which Reddy recalls fondly from her childhood but which conjures up more difficult memories for the sisters. In 1993, their superior, Sister MaryAnn Glinka, was killed there - bound, gagged and sexually assaulted - a crime committed by an intruder that shocked the city amid its most murderous year on record.

A man who had previously worked at the convent as a contractor was convicted of the killing and sentenced to life without the possibility of parole. Instead of retreating into their 10-acre compound, the sisters opened up to the community even more.

"There was a hope and a desire that we would be able to live more in a way that might bring more peace to this city and less violence," Sister Carr said. "It's our identity. It's who we are. I know MaryAnn is very much present to what we're doing here, and I think she's delighted that we are opening the doors and making good use of this building."

St. Elizabeth's Convent, a four-story brick building perched on a hilltop on Ellerslie Avenue in North Baltimore, was built in 1917 as an orphanage and school. Hundreds of African-American children with no place to live and no schools that would accept them passed through the building until 1960, when desegregation had all but eliminated its need. Years later, it became a special-education school.

By 1999, that school had closed, and the outdated facility was empty but for 26 mostly frail and elderly sisters. Sister Carr, who was an economic development planner for Harrisburg, Pa., before becoming a nun, began seeking partners who could help update and better use the building.

She connected with two nonprofit groups - the Annapolis-based Homes for America and its new partner, Communities of Care, which was seeking ways to provide housing not only for adoptive parents but others who would support them.

Over two years, St. Elizabeth's Convent was transformed into Clare Court, a sparkling assisted-living facility with 30 apartments and four separate but adjacent townhouses.

The convent's new setup is considered unique. While religious orders across the country participate in vocational work outside the setting of the convent, nuns weren't allowed to freely associate with lay people from the early 1900s through the 1960s, said Sister Patricia Wittberg, a sociologist at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis.

Others, she said, temporarily housed or began outside programs for the needy, or sold buildings. The Baltimore sisters have lived with families in Lexington Market and opened several educational outreach centers throughout the city.

But the effort at Clare Court is different, a byproduct of too little revenue generated by too few nuns. Nationwide, membership in women's religious orders has been more than cut in half, from 179,954 in 1965 to 70,194 in 2000, according to the Center for Applied Research in the Apostolate at Georgetown University. Without younger nuns joining, there has been a growing need for religious orders to explore new ways to meet their needs.

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