Sisters’ Quiet Life of Prayer Disrupted by an Affordable Housing Fight

From left, Sister Mary Angela, Sister Mary Linda, Sister Marie Aimée and Sister Mary Francis at the entrance of their convent in Greenburgh, N.Y. The sisters are embroiled in a dispute over a proposed affordable housing development next to their convent.

GREENBURGH, N.Y. — The morning light bled through the dormant trees and filled the windows of the chapel. The sisters, white veils covering their heads and tunics draping their bodies, sat in silence, their day adhering to a routine that has defined their lives for decades.

Soon, they would break from prayer to their various responsibilities: Sister Mary Linda runs the order’s business selling altar bread to churches, and Sister Mary Angela prepares music for Mass. In the evening, they watch “Wheel of Fortune,” working together to try to solve the puzzles.

But their existence, based on their vows as Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, is centered on a life of prayer. After they rise in the morning, before they go to sleep and during much of the time in between, they pray — for children, for medical researchers working to cure diseases, for fighters for the Islamic State to have a change of heart, for the people who approach them at the supermarket. “I’m praying for the whole world,” said Sister Mary Francis, the superior of the order. “I was praying for you even before you were born.”

The order once had dozens of sisters, enough to have one praying every hour of the day. Now, there are just four. But the sisters see a more terrestrial threat — looming heavier than time and a shortage of younger women looking to follow them — imperiling their way of life. They have become mired in a recurring conflict in the wealthy suburbs of Westchester County: a contested proposal to build affordable housing. This time, it involves property abutting the convent.

The fight has included a volley of familiar accusations: a greedy developer attempting to trample a sedate neighborhood versus homeowners discriminating against minorities as they guard property values and high-performing schools.

But the twist in this case are the sisters who find themselves in the unusual position of siding with homeowners. The sisters say they fear that their treasured tranquillity, the reason they bought the property after leaving their old convent in Yonkers, would be endangered.

Being cloistered once meant seclusion enforced by high walls and a metal grille separating the sisters from outsiders, even their own families. The barriers now have evolved into something more figurative. For 20 years, the sisters have lived in a convent isolated from a bustling corridor of shopping centers, offices and restaurants by a blanket of trees and a serpentine asphalt road.

“It’s so quiet and peaceful,” Sister Marie Aimée said. “It’s like you’re in the country.”

But the sisters’ opposition has also made them targets and they have been named as defendants, along with the town, in a $26 million federal lawsuit brought by the developer.

At the center of the dispute is a two-acre site in Edgemont, an upscale hamlet of 7,500 in Greenburgh, not too far north of New York City. The site was zoned as part of a nearby commercial district in which multifamily housing could be built, but opponents have argued that the classification was the result of a clerical error, and it was intended for single-family homes. The sisters, in a counterclaim, are attempting to enforce a century-old residential covenant to thwart construction.

The developer, S & R Development Estates, had initially planned a four-story building with market-rate apartments after buying the property in 2006, according to court records. But later, as the dispute stretched over several years, the company shifted its plans to consist entirely of affordable housing units.

In its lawsuit, the company argues that the town and its residents conspired to keep out poorer and minority families — raising a thorny accusation in Westchester, which has had an especially difficult history of not-in-my-backyard fights over low-income housing. In 2009, the county reached a landmark desegregation agreement forcing it to develop hundreds of affordable housing units under the oversight of a federal monitor. (Town officials and others deny the accusation, arguing that the site is simply unsuitable for multifamily housing.)

The company, in a statement, described the development as having the potential to “become a model for affordable housing.” The company also contends that it would have minimal impact on its neighbors, with 255 feet between the 45-unit development and the convent and plans to include 41 trees and 183 shrubs as a buffer. Construction is on hold, pending the litigation.

“The tree-lined development,” the company said, “is designed to be consistent with the surrounding neighborhood, and the development will feature areas for social, educational and recreational opportunities that are perfect for families.”

The property sits on Dromore Road, a short roadway slithering uphill to the convent and a nature center. Dromore splinters off a busy thoroughfare, but all the commotion is hidden by a shroud of nature. The sisters regularly spot foxes and hawks, and turkeys have waddled up to their back door.

“Basically, it’s the closest thing to heaven,” said Paul J. Feiner, the Greenburgh town supervisor for more than 25 years.

As a cloistered order, aside from doctor visits and an occasional errand, the sisters’ lives are confined to the convent. The level of the order’s isolation was relaxed in the 1960s after the Second Vatican Council, a sweeping set of reforms in the Roman Catholic Church known as Vatican II. Sister Marie Aimée remembered the grille being brought down by a sister wielding an electric saw. “I said, Holy Toledo!” she recalled.

But even without the physical barriers, a peaceful cocoon to pray in solitude was no less important.

Before moving to Greenburgh in 1998, the order had a convent in an increasingly congested Yonkers neighborhood where they would have to pause their prayers for passing sirens. After a lengthy search, the sisters found the seven-acre property. The convent includes a large home that was expanded to include the chapel and a cottage for visitors.

In the United States, most sisters are considered part of “active” orders, meaning their vows are defined by service — historically, that has meant as teachers and nurses, but has expanded over time, into providing social services and even protesting the death penalty. “Many sisters have positioned themselves on the edge of society,” said Kathleen Sprows Cummings, director of the Cushwa Center for the Study of American Catholicism at the University of Notre Dame.

But these sisters felt called to pursue a contemplative life, where their service came in the form of their prayers. In an active order, a sister can see the sick convalesce or students learn. For these sisters, the influence of their anonymous intercessions might be more difficult to discern.

“We leave that to God,” Sister Mary Angela said. “He’s the one keeping account. We’re just doing what we’re supposed to do — joyously, confidently. The rest is up to him.”

“We’ll never know until we reach the other side,” Sister Mary Francis said.

Sister Mary Francis followed an older cousin into the order. Her family doubted her commitment. “She’ll be out in about a year, don’t worry about it,” she recalled relatives saying. “I entered when I was 19,” more than 57 years ago.

Sister Mary Angela first felt called as an 8-year-old in Panama. Sister Marie Aimée, who grew up in Riverdale in the Bronx, attended a school the order once ran — “the seed was planted at that time,” she said. Sister Mary Linda, the most recent addition, joining in 1980, had been part of another order for nine years where the sisters cared for developmentally disabled children and taught religion, but decided to change to a contemplative order: “I liked the adoration, the prayer life, the silence.”

The fight over the housing development has pushed the sisters into an undesired spotlight. But to them, the dispute is not just over municipal zoning. They believe they are mounting a defense of their “oasis,” and with it, their way of life. They fear the development stands to disrupt the space and quiet that they view as essential to carrying out their calling. “That’s the way you hear God,” Sister Mary Angela said.

On a recent morning, as the nearby avenue clogged with traffic, the four sisters gathered for Mass in their chapel, with its vaulted wooden ceiling and walls of windows offering unblemished views of trees and a rolling dew-covered yard. Sister Mary Angela stood behind a keyboard and led the sisters in song. Sister Mary Francis went to the lectern and read from the Bible.

But as soon as the Mass was finished, the sisters sat with their eyes closed and their hands clasped in their lap. The only audible sound was that of a visiting priest shuffling outside and starting his car, leaving the sisters alone to pray in peace.

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