Philadelphia archdiocese repurposes churches, schools as senior housing

June 1, 2012

Senior housing developments re-anchor urban neighborhoods

Mary Poiesz lived 84 years in the same row house in south Philadelphia. She and her brothers were born there. The parish church was on the same block.

Barely one block in the other direction was a boys' high school, St. John Neumann. The students played soccer and baseball, and drove their cars past her house at 1641 Bailey Street.

The street was noisy. Noisy and alive.

But in 2004, the Archdiocese of Philadelphia closed St. John Neumann's campus and consolidated the school with a former girls' high school 16 blocks west. Families were moving to the suburbs, away from Mary Poiesz' Bailey Street. Her parish, St. Aloysius, had closed the year before.

"It was all so upsetting to watch," said Poiesz, who is 88. "Everything I knew was changing." There was the stillness of empty buildings, symbols of a neighborhood in decline.

"It was too quiet."

Today, Poiesz has a comfortable apartment in the old neighborhood, with plenty of lifelong friends down the hallways. They live at St. John Neumann Place, the old boys' school, converted into 75 independent living units for seniors by the archdiocesan Catholic Health Care Services agency. The $17.5 million project opened in March 2008. Poiesz moved right in.

Poiesz still gets around the neighborhood. She goes to Mass at St. Gabriel Church, the consolidated parish, and visits a nearby community center. On many days, she still walks.

"I'm near everything I know," she said.

Keeping church alive
That was a big reason for the project, said Stuart Skinner, chief executive of Catholic Health Care Services. Skinner said the agency, which provides senior living options, manages nursing homes and offers other services for the elderly, wanted to use some of the church properties that have closed because of population shifts to the suburbs. Doing so can bolster neighborhoods and give deeply rooted residents a chance to stay and age in place, he said.

"We have a tidal wave of seniors in our community," Skinner said. "They need places for living. Many of these schools are architectural marvels, with good brickwork and beautiful stone. Restoring them gives people hope that their neighborhoods are still alive, that their church is still alive and ministering to their needs."

In Philadelphia, 11 parishes were closed during the past decade. The city's Catholic population still has 104 parishes.

St. John Neumann Place was the first building conversion effort by Catholic Health Care Services. The agency then moved to renovate a former parochial grade school building to expand one of its nursing homes, St. Monica Manor — also in south Philadelphia. It has plans ready for another independent living center in a three-story former grade school building north of downtown. Skinner said the agency has other projects in the idea stage.

Skinner's agency obtained tax credits, a grant from the Federal Home Loan Bank, city housing funds and other government money to develop St. John Neumann Place. John Wagner, the agency's director for project development and a graduate of St. John Neumann High School, called its transformation "the catalyst for a strategy of reuse."

The next project was St. Monica Manor, one of six nursing homes managed by Catholic Health Care Services. The agency bought the former Methodist Nursing Home, a 180-bed facility, for $2.7 million in 2004. It was about 30 years old, and crowded — some rooms had four occupants.

Nearby is Our Lady of Mount Carmel Church, still an active parish but no longer in need of its school annex or gymnasium. Catholic Health Care Services bought those buildings and began renovating them in 2009.

A major boost to the project was a $7 million gift from the Farrell-Townsend Trust, which had been created by the late Msgr. Aloysius F.X. Farrell and his aunt, Mary Townsend. He had been pastor for four decades of St. Monica Church, a parish in the heart of south Philadelphia, and they set aside money to help the neighborhood's elderly.

Suzanne O'Grady Laurito, a project developer with Catholic Health Care Services, said the agency bought the Our Lady of Mount Carmel buildings in 2009. It renovated the former school annex into a 24-bed subacute rehabilitation center and transformed the gymnasium into a chapel, using stained-glass windows from one of the city's closed parishes. The chapel was dedicated in December 2011.

To provide an enclosed connection to the nursing home and its additions, the project now includes a glass-and-steel entryway built across the alley. With its larger floor space, St. Monica Manor was able to eliminate the four-bed nursing rooms, replacing them with private or two-bed rooms. The project cost $17 million.

Catholic Health Care Services' third project is across town, in the Port Richmond neighborhood north of the city's downtown. The agency has plans to make the former Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary School, a building closed during a consolidation of area parish schools, into Nativity BVM Senior Housing. It will have 63 units, similar to those at St. John Neumann Place.

"It will provide a place for the seniors and stability for the neighborhood," said Kimiko Doherty, the project's manager. The price tag is $12 million, covered in part by federal loans.

Skinner said Nativity BVM has the support of most of the area's residents, the nearby parishes and the alderman, but currently is delayed in court by a lawsuit by one resident. Skinner called the delay "very frustrating," but believes the agency will complete the project.

"We will do more of these," said Skinner.

Invitation only
Wagner, the development director, said there may be opportunities for reuse of church properties in other city neighborhoods. He said Catholic Health Care Services follows three basic rules in deciding where to start — community support, community need and adequate financing.

Wagner said former schools generally are adaptable for senior housing provided they are large enough to create a sufficient number of units for financial stability.

"We go where we are invited by the community, and we are careful to obtain that support," he said. "When church buildings close, there is a lot of hurt and sadness. What we can offer communities is the church's continued presence, to serve the people we are called to serve."

Fr. Michael Lee can attest firsthand to that success. He is past principal and president of the former St. John Neumann High School for boys. He also is a former pastor at St. Gabriel Church, which Mary Poiesz now attends. His grandmother first moved into the neighborhood in 1898.

"When the high school closed, many people held their breath in worry," Fr. Lee said. "Many went over the bridge to south (New) Jersey. The seniors needed a safe environment."

He said a group of area pastors worked with the archdiocese and Catholic Health Care Services to develop and support the senior-housing project.

"Now the building and grounds are beautiful, and the people around it feel more secure," said Fr. Lee. "This has been a very positive and creative move by the archdiocese."


Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States
For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3477.

Copyright © 2012 by the Catholic Health Association of the United States

For reprint permission, contact Betty Crosby or call (314) 253-3490.