This past December, The New York Times ran an in-depth article (linked below) about the elderly nuns who reside at the Convent of Mercy, which has been located at Willoughby and Classon Avenues for the past 147 years. As explained in the article, their order, the Sisters of Mercy, decided to close down the convent because of the prohibitive $20 million it would cost to fix “structural and accessibility problems” in the building. While a final decision had not been made yet as to what they are going to do with the building, selling was one of the options on the table. The nuns who have lived there together and no doubt thought they would die there, were instead split up and sent packing to nursing homes and other facilities at far remove, even in different states. Shortly after the article was published, the Society for Clinton Hill e-mailed a petition urging that the Landmarks Preservation Commission act on the request submitted in August, 2007 to grant landmark status to the Convent, stating that “the loss of this intact nineteenth-century religious complex to yet more "luxury condos" would be a sad thing for our neighborhood on many levels. We would much prefer to see this historic religious compound preserved and put to adaptive re-use.”
I happen to have an acquaintance who got to know some of the Sisters during 2007 and 2008, as she visited them on several occasions to provide professional health care services to them. She was kind enough to share some anecdotes about them with me so Clinton Hill Blog readers could get a better sense of these long-time neighbors.
First, she describes the sisters she visited as frail elderly (65+), and in various stages of dementia. However, with proper medical supervision and provision of home health aides, they were able to remain at the convent in good shape.
My friend says the women were sweet and kind and peaceful, but confused due to the dementia. Each of the sisters would always tell visitors that she loved them and would kiss them on the cheek. A favorite ruse that some of them liked to employ was claiming that they were going to the chapel to pray, but then going to the kitchen to sneak chocolate (not a good thing when one is suffering from diabetes!). At one point, when my friend happened to be bent over working with one of the nuns, another nun playfully smacked my friend on the rear, saying “You’re just so irresistible, I couldn’t stop myself!” On a more somber note, one of the sisters, who was a Mother Superior in her pre-retirement days and accustomed to being a formidable presence and running the show, would spend her time sitting in a chair all day with nothing to do, asking, “Where am I supposed to go? What am I supposed to do?”
At some point in the recent past the roof collapsed, rendering the living area unsafe for the sisters. This was probably when the decision was made to move the sisters out. The ladies were very upset and unhappy about the decision, since they had been living together for so many years and had formed a strong attachment to each other, kind of like a “band of sisters," I guess you could say. After all, they shared a common living area, and did practically everything together -- eating, praying together, playing cards, watching television, exercising together. They communally celebrated birthdays and shared holidays in prayer and celebration.
In closing, in this writer’s opinion, it is a shame that these dear elderly ladies are no longer in our community; and that the convent, with its rich history in Clinton Hill, is closed and may be sold. Who knows what will happen to the property?