Down to One Resident in 15,600 Square Feet, a Missionary Sisterhood’s Home Is for Sale
JUNE 6, 2016
By MATT A.V. CHABAN
The Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have served others across the world for more than a century. They have salved wounds in the slums of India, prayed with prisoners in Brazil, built schools in Cameroon and provided aid to a shaken Haiti.
Hundreds of the sisters of the Immaculati Cordis Mariae have also passed through the brownstone-framed doors of 236 and 238 East 15th Street. Since 1948, the sisterhood, begun in Belgium, has resided here on Stuyvesant Square.
For all their globe-trotting, many of the sisters still consider Manhattan their spiritual home.
“I remember seeing the park, and being so excited to have some greenery,” Sister Rosemary Cicchitti said last week during a tour of the house. She arrived in the summer 1953, before departing for Antigua. “When I was away, I would think of the park. And when I moved back, it was so nice to have it outside my window again.”
Sister Rita Cavaretta, who came to the house the same year, said: “It was so beautiful. The only problem was there was no air-conditioning then, and the drunkards would gather in the park and keep us up at night, so we had to yell at them to be quiet.”
And though she arrived here permanently only nine years ago, to serve as something of a caretaker, Sister Kathryn Vercelline always felt a connection when she passed through between one mission and the next.
“Seeing all the sisters, and seeing all the souvenirs from their travels, it was a reminder of the work we do,” said Sister Vercelline, who has served in Brazil and Rome.
Those memories are fading too, along with the sisterhood. By the 1960s, its ranks had dwindled to such an extent that the order began to rent some of its 25 bedrooms to other congregations and even to other young women. But even the boarders, and a top-to-bottom renovation in the last decade, were not enough to keep the Missionary Sisters at the site. Last spring, eight of those remaining relocated to the Bronx, to a Jewish nursing home, of all places, which has become something of a sanctuary for retired nuns. Three different orders call it home, and they quite enjoy the kosher meals, too.
By the 1980s, the sisterhood’s ranks had dwindled to such an extent that the order began to rent some of its 25 rooms to young women. KARSTEN MORAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
Sister Vercelline was the only one to remain on East 15th Street, amid the African, Indian and Mongolian tapestries; the carved elephants from the Philippines and palm trees from Haiti; the crucifixes and icons from all over; and the occasional prayer group or guest to keep her company in the 15,600-square-foot residence.
“I saw the wisdom in it,” said Sister Cavaretta, who returned here in 2000, following a volcanic eruption at her final mission, in Montserrat. “For me, personally, happiness isn’t attached to buildings, it’s attached to people.”
With the sale, the order will have only one home in the United States, just outside Brownsville, Tex. It once occupied properties in Albany; East Los Angeles; Philadelphia; Wilson, N.C.; and Yonkers, among others.
The proceeds will be distributed to missions around the world, after enough is set aside for the sisters to live out their days in the Bronx.
“It can help, especially since in Belgium there are over 300 sisters, but the majority of them are over 80,” Sister Vercelline said. “I think the youngest just turned 50.”
At 64, she is the youngest, and likely last, of the Immaculati in the United States.
After putting up the “For Sale” signs two weeks ago, the brokers, Lisa Kobiolke and Leonard Steinberg of the brokerage Compass, have received more than two dozen inquiries. They have shown the homes three times, including to an art dealer couple who would like to use one building as a gallery.
“I remember seeing the park, and being so excited to have some greenery,” Sister Rosemary Cicchitti said last week. She arrived in 1958, two years after taking her vows. KARSTEN MORAN FOR THE NEW YORK TIMES
“We thought we’d have a lot of interest in dividing the homes in two, but so far, most everyone seems to want both,” Ms. Kobiolke said. (Such combos are becoming quite common in Manhattan; Sarah Jessica Parker and Matthew Broderick recently bought two townhouses on 11th Street for $34 million, while Madonna has a $40 million, triple-wide spread on East 81st Street. And there is former Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg’s continuing project, an East 78th Street combination).
Such a sale would arguably bring the 1850s Greek Revival-style homes full circle. According to research by the Landmarks Preservation Commission (both properties lie within the Stuyvesant Square Historic District), No. 236 was first occupied by Mahlon Day, an early children’s book publisher, while No. 238 was home to a ship chandler. The neighbors included a lime merchant and a tea dealer.
Before the sisterhood arrived, No. 236 had been home to the St. Elizabeth’s Industrial School for Girls since the 1920s. The family of George Bird Grinnell, the naturalist and founder of the Audubon Society, owned No. 238, followed by a dentist, who sold it to the nuns.
The Missionary Sisters of the Immaculate Heart of Mary was established in New York almost by accident. It was founded in 1897 by Mother Marie Louise De Meester, who was visiting during World War I following a missionary trip to St. Croix. During her stay, she realized a residence in the city might not only ease the order’s work in the Western Hemisphere, but also improve recruitment.
A house at 437 West 47th Street became the order’s first outpost in the United States. Faced with condemnation there for an urban renewal project, the sisterhood moved to 236 East 15th Street in 1948, then home to the St. Joseph’s Residence for Working Girls.
“The lights in the girls’ rooms used to be set to a master switch,” Sister Cavaretta recalled, “and we slept with our lights switched on. That way, if the girls tried to turn on the light, it would wake us up, too, and we could get them back to bed.”
In 1952, the order bought No. 238 and combined the two townhouses through a doorway on each floor.
“It’s the perfect story of international ownership in New York — people who live here don’t just live here,” Mr. Steinberg, the Compass broker, said. “And think of all the amazing work this real estate facilitated. If you rented, this never would have been possible.”
Nor will it be.
“Ideally it would have gone to one of the congregations, but none of them could afford it,” Sister Vercelline said. “If it’s a family that can find joy here like we did, that’s fine,” she continued. “We have our preferences, and God has his.”