Downsizing and consolidating is how the Marianites of Holy Cross have chosen to keep their ministry vibrant.
“We were looking at how we could decrease our expenses and continue to be of service to the church,” said Marianite Sister Ann Lacour, congregation leader. “We were putting more money into buildings than in people.”
Two years after a 2012 general chapter (held every five years) at Holy Angels convent in Bywater attended by Marianites sisters from Louisiana, France and Canada, the Marianites began looking at consolidating properties worldwide.
Locally, their biggest asset was the three-acre Bywater site at 1101 Gallier Street, home to the sisters since the 1860s when Sister Mary of the Five Wounds, who came from France to New Orleans in 1849, bought the property from St. Claude Avenue to the Mississippi River for $250 and built a convent and school.
Sitting on one square city block, the Marianite convent had 100,000 square feet, a chapel, concert hall, cafeteria and two large houses and was costing $500,000 annually to maintain. The electricity bill alone in August 2016 was $10,000. It was too big and costly for the religious order’s handful of sisters living there.
Who bought the property?
After considering several offers from buyers over the years, the Marianites found a proposal by MCC Real Estate, a local company owned by Joe Jaeger Jr. and Arnold Kirschman, aligned closer to their vision for the property.
The Marianites signed an agreement to sell the property in February 2016 for $3 million, Sister Ann said. She has been pleased with how the developers have been considerate of the convent’s history in discussions about the redevelopment.
“They have kept us in the loop of everything they are doing,” Sister Ann said. “They said they don’t want to do anything to hurt the sisters. They have been very inclusive of us and what we want to do. That is why we felt we wanted to sell to somebody from New Orleans. We had people look at (the property) from all over the United States. They (MCC) are in dialogue with the (Bywater) neighborhood association to determine what is possible in the neighborhood and the needs of the neighborhood.”
While MCC Real Estate hasn’t yet worked out the exact use of the property, Sister Ann said, the buildings are on the National Historic Register and can’t be torn down. MCC also agreed to honor an agreement through 2030 with Willwoods to retain low-income housing that Willwoods carved out of the former school at the Bywater site, which closed in 1992.
Taking, sharing history
“Anything that was movable, we had the right to take,” Sister Ann said about what happened to the furnishings at the Holy Angels’ site after the sale. “And we shared that with so many people.”
The Marianites helped furnish the Little Sisters of Nigeria’s first convent; gave furniture, appliances and more to Catholic Charities New Orleans; furnished three Chateau de Notre Dame apartments; gave furniture to Lazarus house and items to Most Holy Trinity Church in Covington, St. Katharine Drexel Parish in New Orleans, Our Lady of Lourdes in Slidell, Our Lady of the Lake and St. Rita schools, Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center and others.
Several items went to Holy Cross High School “because they lost so many of their historical things in Katrina,” Sister Ann said, including a 14-foot-tall archives piece made of walnut that once stored “the life of the sisters,” Sister Ann said.
Another significant piece (actually three pieces) also were given to Holy Cross: statues depicting Father Basil Moreau, founder of the Holy Cross family, sending off a nun and a brother, which was situated inside the Marianites’ Bywater chapel. It is probably 75 to 80 years old.
“They say it has become the biggest conversation piece,” Sister Ann said Holy Cross’ administration told her.
Marianite friends and family obtained a piece of history at an Aug. 27 estate sale.
Prudent use of money
Sister Ann said proceeds from the sale were put in a retirement fund for the sisters and paid to move its congregation center to a smaller, home on 5.2 acres in Covington.
“We moved from 100,000 square feet to 6,000 square feet,” Sister Ann said, with an electricity bill now less than $500. “We can do many of the same things in a smaller space. We cross the Causeway a lot, but it’s OK.”
The new site, a former private home, has three bedrooms that the Marianites renamed the Good Shepherd Congregation Center (after the first convent the sisters lived in) and a smaller house with additional bedrooms and a meeting space called Grace House, named after the Our Lady of Grace statue once outside Holy Angels.
Its furnishings are mainly from the Marianite convent, including a grandfather clock that was in the school, a buffet piece in the new dining room and many other antiques.
Since it lacked a chapel, the Marianites gained permission from Archbishop Gregory Aymond to build one.
Sister Ann was the first Marianite to move there in June 2016, followed a few months later by Sister Judy Gomila and Sister Marie Noel, congregational assistant. In September 2016 on the feast of Our Lady of Sorrows, an open house gave all Marianites an opportunity to tour the new site and participate in a blessing, Sister Ann said.
By October 2016, the move was complete. Marianite of Holy Cross sisters in Louisiana now live in Covington, Chateau de Notre Dame senior residence in New Orleans and several Marianite properties in Opelousas and Lafayette. They are involved in pastoral ministries, education, pastoral care at nursing homes in Opelousas and Chateau de Notre Dame.
Sister Ann said a total of 137 Marianite sisters remain in the world. In addition to Louisiana, the Marianites remain in Burkina Faso in Africa, several nuns are still in France, two small cities in Canada and New Jersey.
In addition to divesting themselves from the financial burden of the Bywater convent, the Marianites also withdrew from financial sponsorship of Our Lady of Wisdom Healthcare Center and the University of Holy Cross.
This June 11-18, the Marianites of Holy Cross, meet in chapter again to determine their future at “What is God Calling the Marianites to Be and to Do in the 21st Century?”
“Freeing ourselves of property frees us to be about mission – where are we called to be in mission today,” Sister Ann said,
A DVD “Remembering Holy Angels” has been made using archived photos, new photos and interviews with teachers, former students and Marianites who lived and worked at Holy Angels. For a copy, call (985) 893-5201, ext. 229.
Christine Bordelon can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.