Where Have All the Convents Gone?
This is the fourth in a series about how former convents are being used in Brooklyn and Queens.
Bushwick today is considered an up- and-coming neighborhood, more affordable to single young people than to families. It’s no stranger to shifting demographics and changing priorities.
In the 1970s, Catholics were moving out. One local pastor, refused to see this necessarily as a bad thing.
Msgr. James Kelly, then-pastor of St. Brigid, saw opportunities in the changes, when it was decided there weren’t enough sisters to keep the convent open.
He wanted to make sure the Church adapted to people’s needs. Therefore, he partnered up with a company to provide an alternative on how the convent building could be used. “We were certainly looking for a responsible institution that would provide services,” he said.
At first, plans were to convert the convent into a home for senior citizens, but those plans fell through.
Msgr. Kelly connected with John Sabatos from the NY Health Department. The parish and the state eventually agreed that the best use would be to provide a loving home for people with developmental disabilities who were being moved out of Willowbrook State School.
The now infamous Willowbrook was a state institution in Staten Island that once housed more than 6,000 people with developmental disabilities. It was exposed to have treated residents inhumanely, including through extreme overcrowding, neglect, malnutrition and medical experimentation.
The institution began to close and the patients needed new homes. New laws required smaller housing, an education meant to help residents be as much part of the community and as independent as possible, and accountability on health and nutrition.
BIRCH Family Services was among the many institutions that took in patients from Willowbrook. Working with city, state and federal agencies, BIRCH leased the convent at St. Brigid with the permission of the Diocese of Brooklyn.
Denis Rosenburg, current director of facilities for BIRCH, remembers the days before the residents moved in. There were renovations that BIRCH needed to do before they could open in 1983, but it wasn’t anything overwhelming, he said. That is until the roof caved in, pushing the opening to the following year. After the roof was fixed and maintenance work was complete, 20 adults moved into the former convent. All but one came from either Willowbrook or Brooklyn Developmental Center.
Bushwick residents welcomed the program into their community, Rosenburg said. The lack of resistance from neighbors that was common when such programs opened in other parts of the city was in large part thanks to Msgr. Kelly, the director said. The pastor went to neighborhood council meetings and spoke with the people directly explaining the importance of the work.
“We were providing services for Bushwick that were desperately needed,” Msgr. Kelly said. “This is what we are supposed to do as a Church.”
The new residents all required extensive assistance for even the most basic of tasks and BIRCH hoped to teach them skills such as toilet training and brushing teeth. In accordance with new regulations, BIRCH aimed to help these individuals become more independent by teaching them life skills and integrating them into the community with visits to movie theaters, restaurants and shops.
Rosenburg said the convent was a good fit to house these individuals. They were coming out of big institutions and the convent was set up in a dorm-style setting. The building had some semblance to what the residents were used to, but was small enough for individual care and attention.
Soon however, the state wanted to downsize group homes even further. Gov. George Pataki and the NYCCares campaign pushed for more community inclusion and home-style settings. Therefore, residents had to move once again. The last resident moved out of St. Brigid’s convent in 2007, leaving the building vacant.
The parish and diocese let BIRCH amend its lease to keep the property while they transitioned into a new structure. To comply with new regulations, BIRCH proposed to the New York State Office for People With Developmental Disabilities that the former convent be restructured to accommodate two separate residency programs for teenage boys. Rosenburg said the proposal was met with enthusiasm and the planning began, but the global financial crisis in 2009 put all plans on hold.
Despite the setback, two programs – St. Nick’s and Wyckoff – opened in 2012. Each program houses six teens full-time. The convent is split in half, with each program occupying a floor and a half. Each resident has a bedroom to himself, along with communal space. BIRCH uses the basement for storage and for training.
The programs run independently of each other, just as they would if they were in different buildings. Each has its own staff, van, supplies and budget.
Wilfred Young, the manager of the St. Nick program, said having such a close neighboring program is helpful on many fronts. He works closely with his counterpart in Wyckoff. They alternate days off so that at least one of them is in the building everyday. They also share floater staff if need be.
Tom Forester, director of community services for BIRCH, said the collaboration between the two programs is exemplary and beneficial to the young people.
He explained that participants may enter at 14 years of age and usually stay until they are 21. When they age out, they may go to a program for adults, a less restrictive environment or back home to live with their families. The role of the youth housing program is to prepare them for as much of an independent life as possible during adulthood.
The program is able to provide intensive 24/7 care for the residents, surrounding them with professionals and resources. Rosenberg said parents who send them to these programs are unable to provide them with this level of care at home and need help caring for their children with special needs.
During the day, the boys go to the Phil S. Sauer School of Exceptional Children. When they return to the program by school bus, they focus on life and socialization skills. The school and home program are integrated to maximize effectiveness.
Edna Alvardo has been cooking for the boys of both programs since they started. She said she enjoys speaking to them in the mornings and getting to know each of them. This way she can cook things the way they like within the parameters of their meal program. She also packs their lunch and prepares dinner.
Father Jorge Ortiz, the current pastor of St. Brigid, said he is happy to have BIRCH operating in the parish’s former convent building. He said the two have a good relationship that benefits both parties. The parish gets some extra financial help to run its day-to-day operations and BIRCH is able to provide services for some of the most vulnerable members of society.
Although Rosenburg said the relationship with the parish and the diocese is a good fit for BIRCH, and the convent building suits the needs of the youth well, the organization will not be leasing any more former convents in the foreseeable future.
The NYS Office for People With Developmental Disabilities is now pushing for people with developmental disabilities to stay at home or to have smaller programs. And Rosenburg said BIRCH will continue to service the programs and houses it already has set up, accepting applicants as spaces become available, but it will not start new programs.