- Associated Press - Thursday, April 2, 2015

TERRE HAUTE, Ind. (AP) - A new season brings changes for the Sisters of Providence at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods, who have announced facility changes that will aid the financial future of the congregation.

Plans call for relocating the administrative offices from Owens Hall to the former Woods Day Care building near the property entrance, and relocating the residents of Owens Hall to other housing. The moves will allow the closing of Owens Hall, which is in need of about $10 million in renovations that include a new heating and cooling system, as well as a new roof.

Some of the sisters have already relocated to Providence Hall, Lourdes Hall, Woodlawn Inn and other locations. A grant will be sought to renovate the former day care into office space. If the grant is received, the renovation could begin in May, with completion planned for early 2016.

“I think everything right now is bittersweet,” General Superior Sister Denise Wilkinson told the Tribune-Star. She was joined by sisters Joseph Fillenwarth, Martha Wessel and Ann Margaret O’Hara in the chapel of Owens Hall.

“This building has served as home,” Sister Denise said. “A lot of our staff members have worked here as long as they have worked with us, and to see the sisters move out has been difficult.”

It was not a surprise when a planning report commissioned last year recommended the closing of Owens Hall, Sister Denise said.

In July 2014, the sisters began working with Wisconsin-based Hoffman Planning, Design and Construction on a study of their buildings and land holdings at Saint Mary-of-the-Woods. The firm presented its final report to the congregation’s planning committee in February, and a summary report was shared with the sisters and Providence associates this month.

The major recommendation of the report is for the sisters to move out of Owens Hall and to repurpose the former Woods Day Care as administrative space.

Sister Denise said Owens Hall could be reopened if an organization is willing to invest in the needed upgrades to the building.

“This building has been a center of hospitality,” she said, “a wonderful ministry of welcoming persons to stay with us who have come for all different reasons. But I think to me, that’s one of the most beautiful uses this building has had, and one that will be most missed.”

A group of sisters meets for morning and evening prayers in the chapel, and guests and other groups also gather in the chapel for prayers and meetings.

Sister Ann Margaret agreed the hospitality of the building is much-needed, noting that many people visiting inmates at the federal prison in Terre Haute have stayed in Owens Hall. Its rooms have also been used to house Providence associates, guests of the college, and people attending classes and programs at the college. The Riley Auditorium on the hall’s lower level has also hosted many community events and receptions.

“I think it will be a big loss to the community of Terre Haute,” Sister Joseph added. “It’s like losing a friend. It has the same emotion of it, and the same anxiety of moving on.”

But all of the sisters being interviewed agreed their community is doing its best to see the change in a positive way, and to look to the future.

“I think we’re probably doing what families do,” Sister Denise said. “We just don’t have the money or the members or the resources. It’s like letting go of a family home. Just as it’s sad in a family, it’s sad here.”

Owens Hall was constructed in the 1950s as housing for 150 novices. It opened in 1959 as the Novitiate, and that continued for about 10 years. It was gradually converted to private rooms for older sisters and the business offices of the congregation also moved in. The building has needed many upgrades for several years.

Sister Martha, who has served as building administrator of Owens Hall for 22 years, recalled that the building was renamed from Novitiate to Owens Hall to honor Mother Gertrude Clare, whose council made the decision to construct the building. Owens was her family name.

“She was a well-loved person in the community,” Sister Martha said.

While Mother Gertrude Clare can be seen in groundbreaking pictures with shovel in hand, she became ill and never saw the building completed. She died in 1963, just a few days before President John F. Kennedy was assassinated.

Sister Joseph recalled that the building was furnished with dishes, silverware and other items purchased with the decades-ago practice of saving trading stamps from merchants. The students in the Fort Wayne schools collected and sorted the food labels and “green stamps” that could be redeemed for catalog items.

“It really was built on stamps and love,” Sister Joseph said. “The sisters who lived here are the ones who sacrificed to build it.”

The move relocates about 37 residents. The Sisters of Providence have more than 300 sisters, with about 160 residing at the Saint Mary-of-the-Woods property. The average age is 78, and the cost of care for the elder sisters has increased. New members are still being received into the community, but there has been a decrease in annual wage earners. The sisters also experienced negative effects on investments due to the economic downturn. The main sources of income for the community are mission advancement and invested money.

To extend the life of the congregation’s retirement trust, the sisters undertook the planning study. Decreasing expenses and increasing revenue are necessary, the study showed.

The report also considers that the community owns about 1,000 acres, of which 838 acres is undeveloped. The sisters have about 300 acres of land that is organically farmed. Sister Ann Margaret said that the report did not have a strong recommendation for added use of the land. Selling the property would not generate enough income to keep changes such as closing Owens Hall from occurring.

The report did recommend using buildings and spaces more efficiently. Sister Ann Margaret noted that the assisted- and independent-living facilities were not filled at the time of the study, so some of the Owens Hall residents have moved into those vacancies.

The facility crisis is not unlike the community’s situation a few decades ago when the sisters made the difficult decision to close Foley Hall, which stood where the entrance to Providence Center is now located. Foley Hall housed residences, classes, offices, dining and library spaces. A developer was sought to take over that building at the time, but eventually, it was torn down.

“Hopefully, someone will care about this structure and say, ‘It’s a sound building, and I can invest in what needs to be upgraded’,” Sister Denise said of Owens Hall. “If not, then God doesn’t want that to happen.”

She added that tearing down Owens Hall would also be a costly venture, estimated at $800,000. That would require its own fundraiser, which she said she finds “distasteful.”

“It seems like we could find something better to do with $800,000,” she said.

Pragmatically speaking, Sister Martha said the community is relying on its faith to get through the transition.

“Providence says you trust in God’s plan, and God will reveal the plan as you go along,” she said. “So we just trust.”

Sister Denise agreed. “Like Martha said, we do believe Providence will show us a way, and we’ll cooperate with those plans.”

She said she was heartened Wednesday morning on her way to a meeting when she drove past a billboard of Saint Mother Theodore Guerin, founder of the community in 1840, and it carried the message, “Don’t give way to uneasiness about the future.”

“I said thanks for the reminder, Mother Theodore,” Sister Denise said, chuckling.

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Source: Terre Haute Tribune-Star, https://bit.ly/1HQm97W

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Information from: Tribune-Star, https://www.tribstar.com

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