Religious orders getting into senior housing business

Posted: Friday, April 26, 2002

BARTLETT, Ill. (AP) -- When Sister Jean Conzemius looks a dozen years into the future, she sees her order's retirement fund dried up and about 30 nuns trying to support the 230 or so who no longer work.

If that seems like an impossible situation, Sister Conzemius has faith. That and a chunk of land in the Chicago suburb of Bartlett.

The order plans to use the land to build a senior housing project, most of which will be occupied by lay people. The income will support its three retirement homes for nuns.

''This gives us a way to care for our sisters and also support a new ministry,'' said Conzemius, president of the Stevens Point, Wis.-based Sisters of St. Joseph of the Third Order of St. Francis.

If opening a housing project for as many as 600 people sounds odd for a religious order, Conzemius and others say it represents the beginning of a trend that will grow in the coming years.

''You're going to start finding them all across the United States,'' said Glenn Trembley, project administrator of the Benedictine Sisters, who plan to build a $50 million retirement community at the Sacred Heart Monastery of their campus in Lisle, Ill.

The sisters are looking for income because the number of nuns in the United States has declined drastically, from 179,000 in 1965 to 78,000 last year. As fewer young women join, the orders get older, and there is less money to support retired sisters.

Conzemius, 60, said the median age in her order is 78. Nationally, there are about twice as many nuns at least 90 years old as there are nuns under 40.

Meanwhile, it's hard to find any group less equipped financially for retirement.

Historically, nuns have supported themselves with pay earned as teachers or working in hospitals. Given that their income was minimal -- Conzemius recalls earning $30 a month during the 1950s -- it's not surprising that few have any kind of nest egg.

There is an annual national collection for the nuns' retirement, but it doesn't come close to being enough. ''We're pretty much on our own,'' Conzemius said.

Together, these factors prompted the sisters to turn to their one asset worth any money: Land.

''The sisters here are dirt rich and cash poor,'' Trembley said. ''They have land that, when they bought it, was in the country, out in the middle of nowhere, and now it's prime real estate.''

In cities, some orders invested in property to build schools. ''They (the schools) may no longer exist but they still have the property,'' said Suellen Hoy, a historian who has written about nuns.

Having land and also the experience of caring for their own elderly, running a retirement complex seems a natural to the nuns. And being nuns might give them an advantage over the competition in the growing business of elder care.

''You know if you bring your parent to them, they're going to try very hard'' to provide good care, Hoy said.

Because religious orders typically handle their own business affairs, nobody tracks the number of property sales nationally. But Conzemius said orders are selling land and developing it ''all over the country.''

In some parts of the country, orders have found themselves fighting with communities that don't want a quiet convent or undeveloped land turned into something else.

In the Chicago suburb of Glenview, for example, residents have been fighting a proposal to convert a former convent into condominiums and single-family homes. For two years, Active Living of Illinois LLC has been trying to work out a deal to buy 19 acres from the Missionary Sisters, Servants of the Holy Spirit. In that time, opposition from an adjacent neighborhood has whittled a plan to build 344 units down to 132 -- and it still hasn't won final approval.

''The irony is that the only opposition is coming from neighbors in 309 homes that are on land that once belonged to the sisters,'' said Kenneth Barnes of Active Living.

In Bartlett and Lisle, the nuns have thus far avoided that kind of battle. A big reason is the projects themselves. ''Developing senior housing is one of the goals for the village,'' said Jim Plonczynski, Bartlett's director of community development.

A tougher sell might have been the sale of an adjacent 43 acres for single-family housing to help finance construction of the project. But Conzemius said the order worked with the village to control aspects of the plan including the number of homes that could be built and the number of trees that could be cut down.

The proposal has yet to receive final approval, but both Conzemius and village officials expect that to happen.

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