Brooklyn Convent of Mercy closes after helping generations overcome
By Verena Dobnik
NEW YORK ó Ringed by massive red brick walls, the Convent of Mercy rose during the Civil War. Two decades later, the Brooklyn Bridge opened. And more than four decades passed before the Empire State Building appeared on the Manhattan skyline seen from the windows of the Brooklyn convent.
Since 1862, the fortress-like complex has sheltered, educated and nurtured people in need, from Irish orphans to developmentally disabled adults and poor Hispanic children.
But suddenly, some months ago, the convent’s elderly residents faced shattering news: They learned they’d be forced to leave the “mother house” of the Sisters of Mercy in Brooklyn, a Roman Catholic order whose aim is “to help people to overcome the obstacles that keep them from living full and dignified lives,” according to their mission statement.
The reason for the convent closure in mid-February: money. Engineers said it would cost more than $20 million to fix structural and safety problems discovered in the building in the Fort Greene neighborhood.
Preservationists fear that the property ó a collection of buildings that covers almost a city block ó could be targeted by developers and demolished, like other religious institutions across the country that have vanished for lack of money or members.
To many, the convent transcends its walls.
“It represents the spirit of wanting to do things for the right reason,” said 91-year-old Sister Olivia Clifford. “I can look at a person ó a poor person, or even a very rich person who needs help, and say, ‘I’m doing this because Jesus lives in him as well as he lives in me.’ And therefore you reach out to that person and do good.”
In the spacious chapel, sunlight streams through German-made stained-glass windows ó one of them a gift from former orphans.
“This chapel means more to me than any spot on earth and I cannot bear the thought of losing it,” said Sister Camille D’Arienzo, 76, a past president of the Brooklyn Sisters of Mercy who worked from convent offices, while living elsewhere. D’Arienzo would once have been called the mother superior, cloaked in a long black-and-white habit. These days, she wears civilian clothing, sometimes with elegant earrings.
The 29 nuns who still lived at the convent recently were all moving to Catholic-run homes in the New York area.
“Sept. 28 ó I’ll never forget it,” said Clifford. “That’s the day they broke the news to us that the house was slipping.”
Countered 89-year-old Sister Margaret Clacherty, a Scottish-born retired teacher, “But the building seems to be in such good shape!”
“Yeah, but if you’re sliding off your foundation…!” shot back Clifford, who had lived in a tough neighborhood in her native Brooklyn, where she opened a residence for disabled youths.
The sisters’ work ó which includes caring for abandoned children, teaching school, visiting prisoners and performing social and religious services ó will continue from the community’s other locations. But the sisters will be gone from the shining convent corridors that were filled with the voices of orphans through the 1970s.
On a frigid winter day recently, the halls were silent.From the far end of the convent’s rose garden, 5-year-old Jeremy Aparicio pointed, explaining, “That’s the mother house, where we do music.”
The convent’s auditorium was a special place where he performed as part of an afterschool center for working parents who can’t pay for babysitting. It’s housed in a new two-story building at the edge of the garden.
The center’s founder, Irish-born Sister Kathleen Quinn, said she was assured that it wouldn’t be part of “any kind of deal” involving the convent.
Nearby is another small building where four developmentally disabled adults live while working in the city ó part of the Mercy Home agency that operates a dozen such group houses. These residents are expected to stay.
A decision on the future of the complex has yet to be made by leaders of the order’s Mid-Atlantic Community, in Merion, Pa., who oversee 1,100 sisters in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Virginia, Massachusetts and New York.
The Mercy order could use the money from selling the property, worth millions, to bolster the mission of the dwindling number of sisters ó about 8,000 worldwide, down from 10,000 a decade ago.
“At this point, every option has to be considered, and anything is possible,” said Sister Christine McCann, president of the Mid-Atlantic Community that’s part of the Institute of the Sisters of Mercy of the Americas in Silver Spring, Md.
The institute is an umbrella group for 4,078 sisters in the Americas, the Caribbean, Guam and the Philippines. That’s down from 5,500 a decade ago. Their average age is 73.
“We have fewer members, and we must be much more strategic about how the future of our ministries will be stewarded by us and by lay leaders,” said Sister Patricia McDermott, the institute’s vice-president.
In some Third World countries, however, religious orders are thriving, or even growing. And thousands of people have joined the Sisters of Mercy as associates ó lay men and women who don’t have to be either Catholic or celibate to work in various ministries.
“What tugs at my heart is, what is God asking of us in this moment?” said McDermott. “Our mission is needed, it’s critical, as we confront a world in economic crisis and more and more people are in need of housing, health care, education.”
Most Mercy sisters live scattered in homes resembling ordinary housing, and e-mail is a common link.
The Mercies rely on individual salaries, private donations and government grants to operate their schools and foster homes.
“The charism, the mission, will continue even if there are not a lot of sisters,” said Quinn. “We pass on to others what we believe in.”
She rushed off to make sure the children received gifts left over from holiday donations.
The more than 40 kids’ gleeful shrieks floated across the convent garden from a classroom where their parents also learn computer literacy, English and job skills.
Such hands-on service to the outside world, not cloistered prayer, is the hallmark of the Mercies.
The order began in 1827 in Dublin, Ireland, where a wealthy woman, Catherine McAuley, built a “House of Mercy” for struggling women and children. The church hierarchy was not pleased, since nuns rather than lay women usually engaged in this sort of activity.
McAuley “was forced against her wish to found a religious community by the bishop of that time,” explained D’Arienzo. “But she didn’t want to be stuck behind the walls.”
So the non-cloistered Sisters of Mercy became known as the “Walking Sisters” who took care of needs outside a convent.
The nuns received just a meager allowance, having taken a vow of poverty and given what they earned to the order. That’s a practice still followed today.
“It’s almost like communism,” Quinn said jokingly.
In 1855, five Irish-born sisters boarded a ferry from Manhattan to Brooklyn to help destitute Irish immigrants and children living in the streets, eventually building the convent on Willoughby Avenue. The stately edifice was designed by Patrick C. Keely, America’s leading 19th century church architect, and a preservationist group is now seeking landmark status for it.
After 147 years, the convent has completed its service to the Sisters of Mercy ó but not without deep nostalgia.
“This was a place of constancy,” said D’Arienzo. “People knew that good things happened here.”
On the Net:
Sisters of Mercy: http://www.sistersof mercy.org
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