Religions and Spirituality

Nuns Clash With Neighbors, South Orange Officials Over Marylawn Academy Property

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The Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth want to demolish the home on the Marylawn Academy property. Credits: Charlotte Lewis
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SOUTH ORANGE, N.J. – Maryland of the Oranges Academy, in South Orange, faced a decision increasingly common for private Catholic schools – lack of funding that has left its administration without any other choice but to close the school.

The school will close at the end of the 2012-2013 school year. The decision was made in October, according to Sister Joan Repka of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth, chairwoman of the Marylawn board of trustees.

Marylawn’s woes have been underscored by an ongoing dispute with South Orange over the proposed demolition of one of its buildings, at 425 Montrose Ave., in an effort to sell the property for development. However, the school’s problems highlight the larger issue of economic pressures on small Catholic schools throughout the country. According to the National Catholic Education Association’s 2011-2012 annual report, 167 Catholic primary and secondary schools closed that academic year, and only 34 opened.

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The property in discussion, a house where several of the school’s sisters lived, is owned by Marylawn, a sponsored intuition of the Sisters of Charity of St. Elizabeth run by a board of trustees.

The school has been experiencing financial difficulties, decreased enrollment and a struggle to pay salaries and could no longer maintain the residence, according to Repka.

“(The home) needed too much repair, so it was becoming a safety issue for the sisters to continue living there, and it was decided we would ask them to move out find other housing and try to sell the property,” Repka said. The plan to demolish the old house and sell the parcel of land to a developer has been opposed by village officials and by residents of the Montrose neighborhood.

The permit for demolition was initially held up because of concerns regarding soil removal, according to updates provided to the Board of Trustees by Village Administrator Barry Lewis Jr.

According to Repka, the sisters have been trying to sell the property for three years. Once their plans became known, village officials and members of the Montrose Historical Preservation Society met with representatives of the Sisters of Charity to discuss alternatives to the building’s demolition, but the sisters would not be dissuaded.

The disposal of the property became more complicated when the village created a historic preservation commission in July and designated a number of properties in South Orange as local landmarks in December, including the house the sisters hoped to demolish.

“Then town started to put in roadblocks in telling us we had to apply for different permits that we had to do different soil testing, etcetera, and now with this decision and this ordinance now … we are going to have to be responsible for maintaining and we cannot do it so we put in a permit to demolish the house,” Repka said. “Now with ordinance passing we think they will not give us the final permits.”

Properties designated as historical landmarks cannot be demolished without obtaining a “certificate of appropriateness,” according to the ordinance adopted in July. The commission takes into account the property’s historic, architectural, cultural and/or aesthetic significance; the importance of the property to the Village; the impact on the neighborhood; and the structural soundness.

According to village Trustee Mark Rosner, the Sisters “are responsible for maintaining the property - just like any homeowner, even if the school closes.”

 Repka said, “We feel it’s an injustice because they are preventing us from getting market value for the property and they are subjecting us to do something that we’re not financially able to do.”

Village Trustee Janine Bauer clarified that the ordinance would allow any buyer to modernize the house; it simply prevents demolition unless the sisters or corporation that owns the home get a certificate of appropriateness to demolish after going through the proper hearings.

Repka also said the sisters have “absolutely no documentation” of that fact that the school was designated a historical property and are requesting to see said documentation. “The Sisters of Charity or the school would never have applied for that designation,” she said.

Bauer said, “It had already been designated an historic property by the State Historical Preservation office in Trenton many years ago.”

Rosner said of the designation: “The Sisters were notified before the summer about the ordinance and the status of their property. They claim that is the first they knew about it.”

A second snag in the sisters’ plans for the property came from a claim by the Montrose Historical Preservation Association that a restriction the on deed prevents sale of the land for multi-family use.

Because of its location, the property is a point of interest for the association. According to Naoma Welk, president of the MHPA, the property covenant says the property may only be sold as a “gentleman’s quarter,” which the association interpreted to mean a single-family home. The MPHA paid for the deed search.

However, at the public hearing on the local landmark ordinance on Dec. 10, Repka said the sisters have operated the school since 1935, when “all restrictions about the use and utilization of the property were waived.”

Welk said “It is a gorgeous house, and we want it to stay.” According to Welk, the property is a single-family home built in 1900. At the time it was built, it had the largest ballroom of any single family home in New Jersey.

According to Welk, the MPHA is “strongly opposed” to the demolition of the home. “Our mission is to preserve the historical community,” she said.

Of the village Board of Trustees’ decision to include the home as a local landmark, Bauer said it was made “for the same reasons that we try to preserve all of our significant historical settings and buildings; they are part of our character and help to define who we are and distinguish us from more modern counterpart suburbs whose institutions and housing stock is not so distinct.”

According to Welk, the home is worth about $800,000 but the sisters wanted $3 million for the property from the developer.

According to Bauer, the village Trustees believe that the designation will help attract buyers for the home. “The sisters have so far only tried to fetch commercial buyers and developers; they have not tried to sell the home as an historic or residential property,” Bauer said.

However, Repka said the sisters had a developer who was interested in purchasing to build apartments on the land. She said they were not planning a complex or tall building but a “very attractive complex that would fit in with the arch of the land using the façade of the front of the convent as its principal design.”

Repka said the sale to a developer “would been in (the sisters’) estimation a win-win for the town and for the school” because the school would have sold the property for apartment living, which would “not in any way affect school.” In addition, the apartment building would be subject to municipal property taxes. The nonprofit religious school is exempt from property taxes.

Repka said that the sisters’ motivation for selling the property, in addition to not maintaining it, was “to get money to support the school.”

 “The closing of the school is heartbreaking,” Repka said, explaining that she was educated in Catholic schools for 16 years and her alma mater has since closed due to financial struggles. “(Marylawn) is a school that provides students the services, and 100 percent go on to college. The one thing about Catholic education – it’s expensive. It’s increasingly difficult for the students to meet the tuition and the tuition is half of the cost to educate.

“We’re not there for the money, we’re there for the education of young women, and in today’s world education is paramount,” she added. “You get nowhere without an education. It’s heartbreaking for us not to be able to continue ministry to which our sisters have dedicated blood sweat and tears.”

The reporter is participating in a hyperlocal journalism partnership between The Alternative Press and Seton Hall University's Department of Communication & The Arts.

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