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Where Two or Three are Gathered:
Retired Sisters Share Space and Spirit

“For where two or three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them.” (Matthew 18:20) 

Three Dominican Sisters (LEFT FRONT: Rosario DeBello and LEFT BACK: Amata Dawson and Peggy Manning) , two Carmelite nuns, and three Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius celebrate a total of 440 years of consecrated religious life at Maria Hall’s combined jubilee celebration

DANVILLE, PA -- God has certainly been in the midst of three religious communities challenged with providing care and security for senior members while maintaining their mission and charism. As a result, retired religious from the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius, the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci, and the Discalced Carmelites now live together under one roof.

Though from different traditions and apostolate, all three communities      
faced the similar problem of having facilities too large to meet their current
needs. The exorbitant costs of maintaining these buildings coupled with
the necessity of providing space better suited for their elder members
prompted these communities to consider how their properties fit into their
long-range plans. The congregations undertook intensive, multi-year
analysis of their goals and priorities and, in so doing, found a common solution to their retirement and facility challenges.

Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius

Founded in 1909, the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius will soon celebrate their 100th anniversary. Their sprawling wooded campus, located in Danville, Pennsylvania, is home not only to their motherhouse, but also to several healthcare facilities for senior adults. Together these facilities provide a continuum of service from independent and assisted living to skilled and memory care.

For many years, most of the care for the community’s retired and infirm sisters took place at Maria Hall.  The2001 opening of their skilled nursing facility, Emmanuel Nursing and Rehabilitation Center, meant that members who required acute or skilled care could be served there. Sisters who needed limited care remained at Maria Hall. In 2004, the congregation decided to apply for a state license for thirty personal care beds within Maria Hall. Originally designed to house about ninety community members, Maria Hall was by then home to roughly twenty-five sisters. The license would make it possible for others to live there as personal care residents.

Worry continued, however, over how to maintain Maria Hall, which had originally opened in 1970. The sisters tried to increase utilization by offering space on their upper floors for the local Catholic Charities office. They also partnered with Columbia Montour Home Health Association to furnish hospice rooms for patients and families needing an alternative to their own homes. Despite these efforts, they were still challenged to keep pace with rising expenses. The community began to consider razing the building.

Various options on how to address the situation at Maria Hall were considered. Of all the choices presented, the one wanted most by the sisters residing there was to have members of other religious communities come to live with them. They got busy praying.

Dominican Sisters, Carmelite nuns, and Sisters of Saints Cyril and Methodius gather in May to crown the statue of Mary that greets all those who come to Maria Hall.

Between 2000 and 2004, the community’s leadership wrote to numerous religious congregations to explore the possibility of sharing space at Maria Hall. No one was interested. Two years later, Sister Linda Marie Bolinski, SSCM, General Superior,attended the 2006 Leadership Conference of
Women Religious (LCWR) annual meeting.
While at a luncheon meeting, she learned of a religious community outside of Philadelphia who was looking to relocate twenty-three retired sisters.  She gave her business card to Sister Carol Gaeke, OP, Director of Personnel and Ministry for the Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci.

Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de' Ricci

The Dominican Sisters of St. Catherine de' Ricci were located in Elkins Park,  Pennsylvania, about three hours away from the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. Their campus was home to their motherhouse, administrative offices, and convent for retired and infirm sisters. It was also the location for two of their retreat houses.

The historic mansions that served as their retreat centers showcased the graciousness and elegance of another era. Despite their beauty, however, these buildings were ill-suited to today’s needs.

They lacked air-conditioning and private baths, and their sheer size made them increasingly unmanageable for the aging sisters working there. Updating them for the twenty-first century was simply not feasible.
Like other religious congregations, the Dominicans were faced with some very tough choices.

In 2003, the Dominicans leveraged support from an NRRO Special Assistance Grant with other income to fund long-range planning and analysis.  They secured a professional consultant who led them through a comprehensive process of retirement, ministry, and development planning. As a result, and after years of discussion, the community voted in 2005 to sell the property at Elkins Park. The sale included forty-two acres of land, five historic buildings, and a cluster of cottages and workshops.

In August of 2006, the congregation began the process of relocating their members living at Elkins Park. The greatest obstacle in this monumental task was finding a home for twenty-three of their retired sisters, sixteen of whom required some assistance with the activities of daily living.  For these sisters, who were already facing the reality of leaving their life at Elkins Park, the priority was on staying together.  Unfortunately, there were no congregations in the Philadelphia area with space for more than two or three sisters. 

Sister Carol’s meeting with Sister Linda Marie at the LCWR gathering could be written off to good luck, but neither one does. They both see the providence of God at work. Sister Linda Marie says, “I truly believe that our sisters living in Maria Hall prayed this into happening.”

When the two met, the Dominicans had been able to identify a few other communities that were able to accommodate all twenty-three sisters. However, after visiting the Danville campus, they found the best fit with the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius. A primary benefit of this situation was the continuum of care available on one campus.

The Dominican sisters began moving to Danville in August of 2007. Three or four sisters were moved at a time. A family member or another member of the community accompanied each sister and helped her unpack and get settled. Pictures were hung, easy chairs were positioned, and by October, all the sisters were in their new home.

At Maria Hall, the Sisters of St. Catherine de' Ricci occupy space on two floors, with members requiring personal care support residing just above those in independent living. Each sister has a private room with a shared bath, and there is a large common
room where the community can gather.

There are also eight sisters living at Maria Joseph Manor, the assisted living center. All residents of Maria Hall share the same dining room, and the Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci and the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius join together for morning and evening prayer.

Although the move went well and the transition was made as smooth as possible, leaving was not easy.  In the months leading up to the relocation, there was, understandably, much sadness. In early August 2007, the congregation met for their final gathering at Elkins Park. Based on the poetry of T.S. Eliot, their theme was: The ending is where we begin.

Once in Danville, the Dominican sisters put all of their energy into embracing their new home.  Sister Carol notes that as difficult as the move was, the end result has been far better than anyone dared to hope.  “The Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius have been beyond gracious,” says Sister Carol.  “There is at Maria Hall that intangible sense of warmth and hospitality and of them really wanting us there.”

Carmelite Sisters

Like the Sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius and the Sisters of St. Catherine de' Ricci, the Discalced Carmelite Sisters, formerly of Elysburg, Pennsylvania, owned a sizeable property. Located on ninety-two acres of hillside overlooking the town of Elysburg, their cloistered monastery included lovely grounds, a chapel, and cells for up to twenty-one sisters, the maximum number allowed at a Carmelite monastery.

Like the other communities, maintaining the property while providing for aging sisters became increasingly costly. The Carmelites were forced to consider alternatives. To facilitate this process, the Carmelites worked with Sister Sherryl White, CSJ, editor for NRRO’s newsletter, Engaging Aging.

A Special Identified Need Grant (SING) provided by NRRO helped with securing a long-range financial forecast. Using this and other data, Sister Sherryl assisted the congregation over a three-year period with defining their needs, establishing goals, and planning for the future. It became apparent that the sisters would need to sell their home in Elysburg. The Carmelites faced not only the challenge of relocating but also of finding space that would allow them to continue to live out their monastic
lifestyle. And of course, they wanted to stay together.

As it turned out, the answer was in their back yard.  Their Elysburg monastery was only a few miles away from Maria Hall. Sister Joan Lundy, OCD, Prioress, remarked, “The sisters of Sts. Cyril and Methodius had always been good friends. They helped us when we first established our monastery in Elysburg in 1961.” Maria Hall had space enough for the community to stay together, and it also offered the personal care support required by some of their members.

The congregation made the unanimous decision to relocate to Danville. They moved in early 2008 and are now involved in the final stages of the sale of their monastery.  At Maria Hall, the congregation of twelve has a private wing, and each sister has her own room.  They also have a large common room with a small kitchen area.

Like the Sisters of St. Catherine de Ricci, relocation for the Carmelites meant coping with the deep sense of loss they felt at leaving their beautiful monastery. It also presented the special challenge of creating a cloistered atmosphere in the midst of two apostolic religious communities.  To this end, the sisters worked with Fr. Kieran Cavanaugh, a Discalced Carmelite priest from Washington, DC.  He helped them both to create an enclosure at Maria Hall and to establish a horarium that incorporates the traditional elements of prayer, work, and meditation.

Still, the Carmelites have had to make certain accommodations to their normal routine. For example, it is not really feasible to eat in silence in the midst of a bustling dining room.  But the Carmelites are not dismayed. “We don’t expect it to be exactly the same as our life in Elysburg,” says Sister Joan, “and we have discovered that we have much in common even though we are from three different apostolates.  It has been a truly wonderful experience of religious life.”

A Leap of Faith Rewarded

There is today a new energy at Maria Hall. Perhaps it is the happiness that comes from making new friends. Or it could be the comfort found in discovering connections among people with different histories but a common purpose.  Maybe it is relief that the uncertainty of the past few years is over. Most likely though, it is simply the peace that comes from trusting completely in God’s plan and following where He leads.

The challenges involved with the transitions for these communities have been overshadowed by the joy and  companionship they have found in each other.  Perhaps the best example of how fully these three  communities love and respect one another can be found in the Jubilee celebrations that took place this past spring. Jubilarians from all three communities were honored at a special Mass.  Each sister renewed her vows according to her own community’s tradition. Following the Mass, a grand reception was held for all.  Together they celebrated—separate in mission and charism but one in faith.  It was, after all, a leap of faith that brought them together. 




Reprinted with permission from the Retirement Fund for Religious
Summer 2008 Newsletter
Volume 20, No. 2




















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