Quantcast

Sisters act to save home

Nuns rally support to block sale of historic St. Emma’s, St. Francis property

Jeremy Lazarus | 5/13/2016, 6:22 a.m.
Defying their superiors, four nuns are fighting to save the historic 2,265-acre property in Powhatan County that was once home ...
Sister Maureen Carroll, left, is seeking to rally public support to prevent the sale of a historic Powhatan property with help from volunteers like Joyce Johnson. The women talked about their plans in front of Belmead, the mansion that was once home to St. Emma Military Academy for Boys and has been headquarters for the nonprofit FrancisEmma Inc. that has sought to preserve and protect the property and its history. Photo by Sandra Sellars

Defying their superiors, four nuns are fighting to save the historic 2,265-acre property in Powhatan County that was once home to two Catholic boarding schools for African-American youths.

The nuns, who manage the property, are mounting a campaign to reverse the decision by the leaders of their order, Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, to sell the land — although the prospects for upending the decision appear extremely slim for the nuns who are losing their authority to impact events.

A view of the chapel inside Belmead where the nuns of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament pray

A view of the chapel inside Belmead where the nuns of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament pray

The Free Press broke the story last week that the SBS, the religious order of nuns who ran the historic, but long-closed St. Francis de Sales School for Girls and St. Emma Military Academy for Boys, was putting the property on the market after 117 years of ownership.

The move shocked and surprised the order’s four nuns who live and work on the property, as well as the board of FrancisEmma Inc., the 12-year-old nonprofit that has worked to restore the property.

“We were blindsided,” said Sister Maureen Carroll, whom the SBS removed Tuesday as executive director of the nonprofit.

In response to the SBS’s sale decision, Sister Carroll said she and the three sisters have begun a petition campaign on Change.org and are using Facebook and sending email blasts to generate “an outpouring of support” to overturn the sale.

“This is very significant African-American history, and we need a big community response to help preserve it,” said Sister Carroll, who announced Wednesday that the nuns also would hold a rally 2 to 3 p.m. Saturday, May 14, at the property at 5004 Cartersville Road that overlooks the James River.

She believes popular support represents the only chance to get SBS leaders to reconsider disposing of the property that the order has long considered “sacred land.”

This cemetery is the burial ground for slaves who worked on the property decades before it was used for the education of African-American youths.

This cemetery is the burial ground for slaves who worked on the property decades before it was used for the education of African-American youths.

Opened in the 1890s, the two schools together educated and trained in practical skills at least 12,000 African-American students before both closed by 1972, Sister Carroll said.

“FrancisEmma wants to become independent and to buy the property, and we just need (the SBS leadership) to give us three to five years to come up with the money,” Sister Carroll said. “I know we could raise it.”

Still, she acknowledged that the public campaign is a long shot. Last week, she said, the order’s top leadership, including the president, Sister Donna Breslin, attended a meeting of the FrancisEmma Inc. board to inform members of the sale and to notify them that they no longer would play a role in decisions about the property.

“They said the board was dissolved,” Sister Carroll said, meaning current members essentially are to be replaced by people who would vote to sell. The four top leaders actually control FrancisEmma Inc. and appoint the board, she said, leaving displaced members few means to protest, she said.

Although removed as executive director, Sister Carroll has not received a reassignment order. Nor have the three other SBS nuns. Sister Carroll said that could be the next step. “Then each of us would have a decision to make about whether to accept reassignment,” she said. The other nuns are Sisters Elena Henderson, Beulah Martin and Jean Ryan.