Affordable housing fight disrupts sisters' quiet life of prayer
Published 6:16 pm, Friday, February 9, 2018
GREENBURGH, N.Y. - The sisters sat in silence in their chapel, their day adhering to a routine that has defined their lives for decades.
Soon, they would break from prayer to their 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."
But their existence, based on their vows as Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, is centered on a life of prayer.
"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 conflict in the wealthy suburbs of Westchester County: a 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 their tranquility would be endangered.
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 2-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 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 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.
Before moving to Greenburgh in 1998, the order had a convent in a congested Yonkers neighborhood where they would have to pause their prayers for passing sirens. Their 7-acre Greenburgh property includes a large home that was expanded to include the chapel and a cottage for visitors.
The fight has pushed the sisters into an undesired spotlight. But to them, the dispute is not just over zoning. They believe they are mounting a defense of their "oasis," and with it, their way of life. They fear the development will disrupt the quiet they view as essential to carrying out their calling.
"That's the way you hear God," Sister Mary Angela said.