By Jay Tokasz
The Buffalo News
Read article on Buffalo News

The sisters are back.

After waiting 18 months for their new residence to be built, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur are returning en masse to Buffalo’s West Side.  The residence, located on Lafayette Avenue between an old convent and a newer administrative building, primarily will house retired sisters. They began moving in this week.

The work also included an overhaul of the convent, where sisters who are still working will live. Together, the buildings will accommodate about 25 women, a third of the entire order.  The Catholic order of women religious has deep roots in Western New York. 

The sisters were badly in need of better living space, especially for the elderly and infirm among them.  It’s the largest concentration of St. Mary of Namur nuns to live in a single location in many years.  But the order’s leaders said the new facilities weren’t built solely for their comfort.

They chose to stay on the West Side to make a difference, especially among a population of new immigrants who need help learning English and understanding American culture.

“We want to be at the heart of where there’s still outreach,” said Sister Judith Carroll, provincial superior. “If we had gone to a place out farther, it wouldn’t have, I don’t think for us, that possibility of continuing the mission. Even as reduced as it may be, that’s part of who we are.”

The West Side is teeming with immigrants, from places like the former Burma, Congo and Burundi. The Sisters of St. Mary of Namur, who historically ventured abroad to minister in faraway countries, feel at home assisting immigrants. For sisters whose age has slowed their mobility, but not their minds, the new facility will allow people in need of help to come right to them.

“One of the main thrusts in building this, hopefully, is that the buildings be open for the people,” Carroll said.

The sisters included a large reception area in the front of the new two-story building, as well as two parlor rooms where sisters can meet with people.

The construction and renovations cost about $6 million, and the sisters are still trying to raise money to help cover the expenses. They view the buildings as a long-term investment in both their future and in the future of the Lafayette and Grant Street neighborhood, where they’ve had a presence since 1887. The sisters built St. Mary Center, their administrative headquarters, on Lafayette Avenue more than a decade ago.

Like other orders, the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur are aging and shrinking in numbers, with little prospects for new members. About 50 sisters will continue for the time being to live in other areas, including a half dozen in South Carolina and Georgia. Eventually, most, if not all, sisters will end up living in either the renovated convent or the new facility, both of which are located across the street from Our Lady of Hope parish.

Longtime residents in the neighborhood said they are happy to see the sisters stay.

“They’re invested in the neighborhood,” said Dick Martin, who lives on nearby Greenwood Terrace and has been a West Side resident his entire life. “They will tell you that even though they’re older, they still have something to offer, whether it’s helping refugee kids, or whatever they can do. They still want to provide.”

Martin and his wife, Diane, see the impact the sisters can have in their parish, Our Lady of Hope, which has a heavy population of Burmese immigrants, many of whom struggle with English.

“Even in our church, language is the big barrier. The more language learning available to people, the more they’ll be able to fit in,” Diane Martin said.

Our Lady of Hope parish formed in 2008 at Annunciation Church, following the merger of Annunciation, Our Lady of Loretto and Nativity parishes. The parish has become one of the most vibrant Catholic churches in the city, drawing many of its members from the immediate neighborhood. The Martins and others credit the Sisters of St. Mary of Namur with helping build up the new parish through their work with immigrants.

“I don’t know if they would have found that church without the nuns,” Dick Martin said. “What’s happening now at Our Lady of Hope would not have happened without the nuns.”

The sisters quietly have established strong relationships with a variety of ethnic groups on the West Side in an effort to help people enculturate themselves, said Ronald Thaler, pastoral associate at Our Lady of Hope parish.

Some sisters visit elderly immigrants who are shut-ins and have difficulty with English. Others teach religion to youngsters.

“The fact that they are here at this time in the history of the West Side of Buffalo is significant,” Thaler said. “They are needed now more than they ever were.”

For the sisters, there is a sense of relief and jubilation that construction is finally complete. Back-to-back brutal winters delayed the finish date by about six months. St. Mary Center had to be used as storage space, which meant the sisters couldn’t hold their congregation-wide get-togethers. The new facility replaced a smaller, one-story residence that was torn down, so eight elderly sisters had to be moved to Mercy Center, home of the Sisters of Mercy, on Abbott Road. They are now in the process of returning. Other sisters who lived in apartments in other areas of Western New York also will be returning to the West Side or moving there for the first time.

“Having these sisters back with us will make it home,” Carroll said.