Diocesan News

Religious Sisters Offer Affordable Housing to Students

Residents of Christus Vivit Community invited friends over to make blankets for the residents of Ozanam Hall, a nursing home.
(Photo: Courtesy of Sister Marie Mackey

JAMAICA ESTATES — Rhema Khairnar isn’t a nun, but she does live in a convent. 

Khairnar, who is studying for her PhD in pharmacology at St. John’s University, is one of a handful of young people living in Immaculate Conception Convent in Jamaica Estates as part of a program sponsored by the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood to provide affordable housing for students and young professionals. 

The sisters have opened Christus Vivit Community (Latin for “Christ is Alive”) at the convent and are currently housing nine young adults — mostly international students studying at schools like St. John’s University and Fordham University — who live under the care and guidance of Sister Marie Mackey, CSJ. 

“I love it here. It’s like a family. We have each other’s backs,” said Khairnar, who is originally from India. 

The residents pay rent each month — usually no more than $1,200 — and pitch in with household chores like setting the table and washing the dishes. The Sisters of St. Joseph do not own the convent building; it’s owned by Immaculate Conception Parish, which is located down the block, and the congregation pays rent to the parish. 

Christus Vivit Community opened in 2021 and can house up to 12 residents at a time. Sister Marie, who came up with the original idea and got permission from the Sisters of St. Joseph of Brentwood to establish the residence, lives on-site and serves as a combination dorm supervisor, building superintendent, and spiritual guide. 

Sister Marie admitted that she also gets a lot out of the experience. “I’m learning so much from these young people,” she said. “And the international students are great cooks!” 

Khairnar’s specialty is curry. Another resident, Matthieu Langlois, a French-Canadian from Montreal, thrilled everyone by making crepes. 

The idea behind Christus Vivit Community is to give college students and young professionals just getting started in their careers a safe, affordable place to live in New York City, Sister Marie said. 

But more than that, Christus Vivit Community is set up as a peaceful, prayerful place where residents can feel like they’re part of a community. Each of the house’s inhabitants has his or her own room, but everyone eats meals together and prays in the chapel together at night. 

Young people learn of Christus Vivit Community largely through word of mouth. Applicants are carefully screened and go through two rounds of interviews before being invited to live in the house. 

Sister Marie has spent decades around young people, teaching and serving as a campus minister to students at both the high school and university levels. 

But the idea of opening a residence never occurred to her until 2019. That was the year Pope Francis wrote “Christus Vivit,” an apostolic exhortation in which he urged the Church to pay more attention to the needs of young people. 

The Holy Father wrote the document as a result of the 15th Ordinary Assembly of the Synod of Bishops that took place a year earlier in 2018. 

“The pope was asking the Church to do a better job of serving young people,” Sister Marie recalled. “My congregation took that as a challenge, and we were willing to answer that challenge.” 

The first step for the Sisters of St. Joseph was to discern what the needs of young people were. The second step was to develop a plan of action. 

“I have always found that women religious, because they’re in the trenches of everyday life, have played a prophetic role. They can see what the needs are and come up with solutions,” Sister Marie said. 

Living in New York City, Sister Marie said one need was staring her in the face: the shortage of affordable housing. She proposed Christus Vivit Community to her congregation, and her idea was approved. 

As it happened, the last sisters living in the Immaculate Conception Convent had just moved out so the building had plenty of room. The sisters decided not to make it mandatory that the residents be Catholic, but the congregation does make it clear that prayer is a big part of the experience of the house. 

And one of the main goals is to encourage discipleship among the residents, Sister Marie explained. 

The residents also participate in community service projects. They recently filled hundreds of blessing bags to distribute to the homeless and sewed dozens of blankets to give to elderly residents at a nursing home. 

And there are fun-filled, leisure activities like Paint Night, in which residents have friends over and everyone is given a small canvas to spend the evening perfecting their brushstrokes. 

For Langlois, a PhD student studying history at Fordham University, the camaraderie is the best part of living at the house. Prior to coming to Christus Vivit Community, he lived in a dorm on the Fordham campus. 

However, he found that it was not a good fit for him as his dorm mates were mostly younger than he is. 

“As a PhD student, you are under a lot of pressure. It’s nice to be here because you can talk to other PhD students about what you are going through and see that they are going through the same thing,” he explained. 

Khairnar feels the same way. “We are all invested in each other’s lives. It’s so nice to come home and have people ask how your day went,” she said.