"The greater the work the more
important it is to establish it on
a solid foundation. Thus it will
not only be more perfect; it
will also be more lasting.”

St. Louise de Marillac

“Be diligent in serving
the poor. Love the poor,
honor them, my children,
as you would honor
Christ Himself.”

St. Louise de Marillac

 

Re-Imagining a Motherhouse

By S. Dorothy Ann Blatnica

The stained-glass windows in the chapel of the present community room of Villa San Bernardo remain due to their historical designation.

When five Vincentian Sisters of Charity of Pittsburgh arrived on Sept. 4, 1928 on the Bedford, Ohio property donated to them by Cleveland’s Bishop Joseph Schrembs, little did they realize how that property would evolve in the coming years. In not quite a century, the mansion they greeted would one day become a modern apartment complex. 

At the time their minds were fixed on turning the empty and some-what neglected mansion into a suitable convent in order to begin their new teaching ministry in the Diocese of Cleveland. On Sept. 10 Bishop Schrembs blessed the property and named it Villa San Bernardo to honor Bernard Schatzinger and his family who had donated the 20-plus acre estate to the diocese. Within several weeks three young women joined the Sisters as their newest members. By February 1931, the cornerstone of a new convent addition was blessed, and in February 1939, the Vincentian Sisters of Charity in Bedford received approval from Rome to be a diocesan congregation of women religious. The convent which housed them became their official headquarters or “Motherhouse” and would remain so for the next 65 years. 

During those next six decades physical changes were made to the Motherhouse building to make it compatible with the growing numbers of Sisters. Porches were added to the exterior of the building, rooms were added to the interior, and a chapel was designed as the central focus of the entrance. Sisters experienced their initial formation within its walls and were sent to various ministry assignments throughout the Cleveland diocese. The congregation’s administrative offices were housed within these walls as well.       

In time, however, the oldest section of the Motherhouse – the “mansion” – began to show its age in a way that called for decisive action. From 1977 to 1979, the mansion was completely razed and in its place a modern extension of the 1931 wing of the Motherhouse was built. It housed a modern kitchen and food service area, a dining room in-the-round, administrative offices, bedrooms, conference room and a chapel, also in-the-round. The exterior focal point was its bell tower with authentic cast iron bells purchased from a parish church in Maryland. Those bells announced the daily and special events of the life of the Sisters from the noon and six o’clock ringing of the Angelus to celebrations and funerals. It would peal and toll as the situation required. As Sisters retired and returned to live at the Motherhouse, the bells continued to remind their Bedford neighbors that their needs were held in prayer by the Sisters. Those neighbors took saddened notice when the bells rang for the last time in 2010 when the last group of Sisters moved from the Motherhouse.

Villa San Bernardo, the former Motherhouse of the Vincentian Sisters of Charity, is now home to 59 affordable, independent housing units for lower income seniors age 55 and older.

During the decades of the 1980s and 1990s, changes in the Church and in American life precipitated changes in the membership of American Catholic religious life. Fewer new members and aging older members demanded new visions for the ongoing life of Catholic women religious. The Vincentian Sisters took this challenge seriously and entered into a process of discernment regarding their future as a congregation of 50 members. This process of research and reflection led to a unanimous decision that they needed to seek membership with another congregation of Sisters if their mission and charism were to continue into the future. They became members of the Sisters of Charity of Cincinnati who welcomed their new Sisters with warmth and friendship in 2004.

Villa San Bernardo offers a clean, safe, welcoming environment to its diverse population of residents.

This decision created what would become a major change for Villa San Bernardo. No longer a Motherhouse or administrative headquarters, the property became a retirement home for the Sisters living there. In time these Sisters moved to the Motherhouse in Cincinnati and the decision was made to sell the Bedford property. The sale proved to be challenging because of the structure of the hilly landscape and large buildings which did not easily support a parceling of the property. To sell meant to let go of control over what a buyer might choose to do with the property. The legacy of spirituality, education and charitable works could potentially be forgotten and lost forever. The heavenly housed Vincentian Sisters were barraged with prayers that a new owner would be found who would value the Vincentian legacy as well as the property itself.

In March 2014, the Testa Companies of Cuyahoga Falls, Ohio came to view the property. The history and legacy of the property and the Sisters were shared and a thorough inspection of the buildings was conducted. Initially Testa said they only wanted the Motherhouse building, but after more consideration of the possibilities a purchase agreement was made with the Sisters of Charity. During the ensuing months the original property of 23 acres was placed on the National Registry of Historic Places as a “historic district” in honor of the educational and spiritual endeavors of the Vincentians and their ministry to the Slovak Catholics of the Cleveland Diocese through the Shrine of Our Lady of Levocha. Ultimately the entire property of Villa San Bernardo was purchased by the Testa Companies in 2016. When asked what the property would be named, their answer was immediate: “The property has a name – Villa San Bernardo.”

Testa’s vision for the property was to create new, affordable, independent housing for lower income seniors age 55 and older. Fifty-nine modern one- to two-bedroom apartments were designed for the total retrofitting of both the Motherhouse and Retreat House buildings. Not surprisingly those two names were also retained for these buildings. Because of the historic designation, certain areas of these buildings could not be changed: the long hallway at the Retreat House, the hallway and former chaplain’s quarters at the Motherhouse, and certain features such as leaded glass windows, chandeliers and the chapel ceiling and stained glass windows.

The inside of the newly remodeled apartments at Villa San Bernardo in Bedford, Ohio.

Most importantly, the new residents fulfill the mission and charism of the earlier Sister-residents. Though they are a diverse population they share the experience of aging on limited incomes, lack of housing choices, failing neighborhoods, and unsuitable living conditions. They delight in their independence and in setting up house in a clean, safe and quiet environment. Though no longer religiously identified, Villa San Bernardo bestows a sense of peace on so many of the residents that they feel compelled to express it. Catholic or not, many are appreciative of the Sisters who lived and worked on this property and feel honored to live here. Signs of the former residents still dot the property and are gentle reminders of the love that nurtured a long-lasting identity still to be continued.

Vincentian Pathways was created in 2017 to honor the Sisters who developed this property. Eight acres of woods and green space which wrap around the west side of Villa San Bernardo will provide the apartment residents a quiet place to enjoy the outdoors. As a nonprofit, Vincentian Pathways will always maintain this gem of natural beauty. 

 

 

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