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Good Neighbors

Sisters of St. Joseph Break Ground on Elderly Apartments
Jill Keough and Sr. Denise Granger

Jill Keough and Sr. Denise Granger say the 49-unit development will meet demonstrated needs within their congregation and in Greater Holyoke.

The Sisters of St. Joseph of Springfield are committed to taking care of their own — and others as well. That’s why they say a new elderly-housing complex in Holyoke makes sense.

The SSJ — whose sprawling, 52-acre campus off Lower Westfield Road already encompasses a 300-member congregation of women, a skilled nursing home, and a child-care center — broke ground last month on 49 units of low-income housing for the elderly, which is being converted from the former Mont Marie Conference Center, which had fallen into disuse.

The apartments, which will be available to women and men age 62 and older who earn less than 50% of the area’s median income, are scheduled to open in July 2008.

“Responding to the emerging needs of our community is always at the heart of who we are as Sisters of St. Joseph,” said Sr. Mary Quinn, the congregation’s president. “We’re responding to this need for affordable housing, and we look forward to welcoming new neighbors to Mont Marie.”

At the same time, however, discussions about senior housing at the site — which began four years ago — centered around the needs of the congregation’s senior sisters, said Sr. Denise Granger, a member of the leadership team overseeing the project.

“The retired sisters live upstairs, and their accommodations are not elder-friendly to say the least,” added Jill Keough, director of operations at the Sisters of St. Joseph. “We want to provide better housing for them, but also be consistent with our mission of working side-by-side with our neighbors and the marginalized in the community. This seemed to be a good fit, something that would be open to sisters but also people from the greater community.”

Closed for Meetings

The other trend that made the $8.9 million project feasible was the flagging nature of the community’s conference business. “It wasn’t cost-effective for the congregation to keep operating that center,” Keough said, with bookings dropping about 65% in recent years. Granger said many of the groups — traditionally non-profit and religious organizations — that had used the center on a regular basis had seen funds for their seminars and workshops dry up over the years.

Meanwhile, the need for affordable elderly housing has only increased, particularly at a time when the average age of the population is on the rise, and with the relatively high numbers of economically poor residents in Holyoke and Springfield.

“The need for affordable housing, and in particular affordable senior housing, is well-documented,” said Paul Stelzer, president of Appleton Corp. in Holyoke, which will manage the property. Appleton manages several such buildings in Holyoke and surrounding cities, all with extensive waiting lists.

“This development is a thoughtful and practical use of the congregation’s physical assets and demonstrates their passion for working with those in need in our communities,” Stelzer added.

The one-bedroom, 540-square-foot units have been designed specifically for the elderly, with features such as grab bars in the bathtubs, emergency pull cords, and countertops at manageable heights. Any apartment can be fitted with handicapped-accessible features whenever a resident needs them.

Keough said the congregation has worked closely with Mercy Housing, a national provider of affordable housing with 18,000 units nationwide, to get the necessary details right. The architect for the project, Studio One Inc. of Springfield, has worked on numerous HUD projects throughout the state, while Appleton Corp. of Holyoke was chosen to manage the property, partly because of its extensive experience with affordable elderly housing in Holyoke.

“There are lots of other amenities within the building, like an interior courtyard where residents can sit and enjoy the outdoors,” Keough said. “We’re hoping to have raised gardening beds, an exercise room, a community room, and a meditation room. One of the nice things is how much community space will be available; we’ll have a community kitchen and a large dining area as well.” The building will also feature a library with computers Internet access.

The project, which is being built by Western Builders of Granby, was funded in part by a $6.2 million capital advance from the federal Section 202 Supportive Housing for the Elderly program, an arm of the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), which is also providing rental assistance for five years. The SSJ has also secured funding from local, state, and federal affordable-housing agencies, as well as the National Religious Retirement Office and the Holyoke Gas & Electric Co.

The Next Phase

The congregation isn’t taking applications for the 49 units yet, but are accepting letters of interest. And once the units are filled, the SSJ will set its sights on another phase of development on the property, this one encompassing 30 units for residents who need a higher level of service — not unlike assisted living, although the complex will not be officially categorized as such.

“Our overall goal is to create a continuum of care so that people can age in place, whether in their apartment or somewhere on the campus,” said Keough, who envisions the 30-unit center as a bridge between the 49 independent-living apartments and the skilled nursing facility, the Mont Marie Health Care Center.

“Our next piece will be smaller units, but more service-enriched for people who need daily living help,” with tasks such as bathing, grooming, and medication monitoring, she explained. “Some people may qualify for housekeeping or laundry service as well.”

It all comes back to meeting needs, said Granger, who said the community recognized the need for affordable senior housing in Holyoke and strongly supports the project.

“The congregation has historically worked to meet the needs of our neighbors,” she said, noting that the SSJ uses the term “dear neighbor” to refer not only to people in Greater Holyoke, but also those whom have been impacted by the sisters’ ministry in places as far away as Louisiana and Africa.

“Along with our own need to take care of the sisters, we’re looking beyond ourselves to see if we can help with other people’s needs,” Granger concluded. “It’s a dual motivation.”

And one that’s creating a larger extended family at Mont Marie than ever before.

Joseph Bednar can be reached at[email protected]