POWHATAN – The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament announced on Tuesday, May 3 that the order intends to sell FrancisEmma Inc., the historic 2,200 plus acre property in Powhatan County that has gone through incarnations as a plantation, home to two schools for black children and, more recently, has been building a reputation for its conservation and preservation efforts.
The religious order’s leadership team informed the FrancisEmma board of directors and the sisters residing at Belmead on the James on Saturday, April 30 of the sale and dissolved the board the same day, according to Sister Sandra Schmidt, one of the counselors on the leadership team and general treasurer for the order.
The religious order also announced May 3 it will sell its 44-acre Motherhouse property in Bensalem, Pennsylvania, where more than half of the 104 nuns in the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament currently reside, Schmidt said.
“They are both wonderful places filled with lots of wonderful things, but looking at it as wise stewards and the finances and human resources moving into the future, we just decided that we need to sell these properties,” Schmidt said. “Then we look at the money that comes from these to be used for new ministries, new missions for fulfillment of our mission.”
As the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament will celebrate its 125th anniversary in July, the order is rededicating its resources to its mission to serve some of the most vulnerable people in the United States, Haiti and Jamaica, Sister Donna Breslin, president of the order, said.
“We also will use proceeds from the sales to challenge, in new ways, all forms of racism as well as the other deeply rooted injustices in the world. A portion of the proceeds will support the care of our retired sisters,” Breslin said.
At one time, there were more than 600 members of the sisters of the Blessed Sacrament; today, there are 104 sisters and more than half are retired.
The sale of the 2,265 acres that make up FrancisEmma will not happen overnight and will not be a typical free market sale because “the property has a history with us and we cherish that and don’t want to forget that,” Schmidt said.
The congregation has retained Plante Moran Real Estate Investment Advisors as its exclusive real estate asset investment advisor to manage the sale of both properties using a request for proposal (RFP) process, she said. People and companies will be invited to submit a proposal with certain criteria that will be set out, and a committee will decide if any of them may be the right choice and should be brought in for more discussion.
“It is not going to be something that is just put on the website for any developer to come and say we are interested in your property,” Schmidt said. “We will only talk to those or respond to those that are fulfilling what we want them to fulfill by submitting a proposal to us.”
Schmidt did not know if or when the asking price for either property would be made public.
“We are not looking for the biggest dollar. We are looking for what really is meaningful to us as far as our mission goes,” she said.
The religious order has informed the employees and residents at the Motherhouse property that they do not anticipate changes before spring 2017 and that the National Shrine of Saint Katharine Drexel and the mission center will stay open through 2017, with the possibility of matters of the sale taking as long as 2018.
Schmidt said she would anticipate a similar situation and timeline for FrancisEmma, but the schedule has not been discussed in detail yet. However, that does not mean all changes will take that long to come, she said.
FrancisEmma Inc. will be dissolved, a process that started April 30 with the dissolution of the board of directors and the transfer of their authority and power to a financial manager, Schmidt said. The corporation itself will continue until all of the liabilities and assets are handled.
The FrancisEmma Preschool that the sisters at Belmead have been trying diligently to grow will close at the end of the school year, Schmidt said. Because of its small enrollment and financial status, leadership team members felt “this is a good time to find a different place if they want to continue.”
The sisters and board had been working hard on fundraising and applying for grants, Sister Maureen Carroll, executive director of FrancisEmma Inc., said.
“We are right in the middle of a $7 million capital campaign that is, to this point, very successful. So coming in the middle of this campaign is certainly very distressing,” she said.
Schmidt said that organizations that awarded FrancisEmma Inc. matching grants that are currently in the works will be notified that they can’t be accepted because they were for purposes that will not be able to be fulfilled, at least not by the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament or Francis-Emma Inc.
She said she could not speak about the museum that was dedicated on March 5 at Belmead Mansion because she didn’t have enough information on it.
The FrancisEmma property does have leases in place, and the sisters will be working with the people involved to come to an understanding of what is best for them in light of the sale while respecting any commitments that have been made, Schmidt said.
Plante Moran will also have to make any potential buyers aware of certain facts regarding the FrancisEmma property, Schmidt said.
On December 17, 2006, a conservation easement was placed on 1,000 acres of the land, according to FrancisEmma’s website. The Conservation Easement is a legal agreement between the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and the co-holders of the easement—the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the James River Association.
A new owner would also have to be mindful of the fact that Belmead is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, she said. It was added in 1969.
“We would be letting whomever is interested in the property know what designations are there and know what those designations mean. That would be something Plante Moran would do,” she said.
Another aspect of the sale, although not local will regard the remains of Saint Katharine Drexel, which are buried on the Pennsylvania property. Archbishop of the Archdiocese of Philadelphia Charles J. Chaput has confirmed her remains will be moved, when the time is right, to the Cathedral Basilica of Saints Peter and Paul, and placed near the altar already honoring her. She is the second American-born person ever to be canonized.
“You can’t leave the body of a saint on a property that is not going to be archdiocesan or church oriented, so it is definite we are going to need to move the body. But we will not move the body before we find the appropriate time to do that,” Schmidt said.
Looking after their own
The biggest change will be for the sisters who live and work at FrancisEmma and the community members who have rallied around the property to help preserve its history and natural assets.
Some of the leadership team members will be talking to the sisters currently residing at Belmead Mansion about “how this will unfold best for them, best for the property and best for the congregation,” Schmidt said.
“It is the common good that we are responsible for as the leadership team. Our sisters are part of us, so they are very much part of our planning and we want to make sure they are as cared for as any of our other sisters,” she said. “It will take some conversation that has not happened yet because it has been too soon. The way our organization is set up is each sister has a leadership team contact. The contact and sometimes others will assist them with what they are going to do moving forward.”
In Bensalem, an organization is aiding the sisters in finding a place to relocate their offices and the members of the order who live at the Motherhouse, she said.
It is not that the religious order doesn’t have the people to take care of the buildings; the buildings are just too big for them, Schmidt said. For instance, the Motherhouse land has a total of 10 buildings, more than half constructed between 1891 and 1933, containing close to 229,000 square feet of living and working space. Many currently no longer serve their intended purpose or have not been adequately used for as many as eight years.
“These buildings were built for having a large group of sisters. As time goes on, we looked at all the space that is not used, underused or just totally vacant and that is a big player in our decision,” she said.
Added to that, they are old buildings that take a great deal of maintenance, she said. The order’s goal is to “have money go into people, not keeping up old buildings.”
Many religious communities have already done this because it makes sense with numbers down, she said. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have not had a vocation, or a new woman taking the vow to become a nun, in the last 10 years, she added.
“When you look at going forward, we want to be hope filled and we want to put our resources that we do have – our sister resources and our financial resources – in our mission and be able to continue it,” Schmidt said. “We don’t want to have sisters have to worry about old buildings and keeping them up. Even though we value them, it is just not something for us to continue to do.”
Schmidt said the order appreciates everything the sisters at Belmead and other community members and alumni of St. Francis De Sales and St. Emma, the schools once housed there, have done to preserve the buildings and property, Schmidt said.
Telling the local sisters and the board the news on Saturday was difficult for everyone, Schmidt said. People have poured their passion regarding the environment, history and many other subjects into FrancisEmma, and it is difficult knowing it won’t continue, she added.
Just how big is a 2,200-acre piece of land?
Just how big is a 2,200-acre piece of property? Here are some landmarks to help put the size of FrancisEmma into perspective.
Laura McFarland may be reached at Lmcfarland@powhatantoday.com.