After nearly 150 years of ministering in St. Louis, the Little Sisters of the Poor will stop operating its residence for low-income elderly individuals in the city’s St. Louis Place neighborhood.
The Catholic women religious order cites a lack of "sufficient vocations" to continue to staff their long-time St. Louis Residence facility at 3225 North Florissant Ave., which currently houses 88 people. It is run by eight Little Sisters and nearly 125 lay staff.
“We must acknowledge our limitations,” said Mother Maria Christine Lynch, the provincial superior out of the order’s Chicago province. “The decision is due to a diminishing number of vocations and less active Little Sisters. The residents deserve the best that each of us can give them. With the present number of Little Sisters available for ministry, we are not able to maintain all of our commitments.”
Lynch said the decision was made with “very heavy hearts” after prayer and consultation.
“I can just tell you we have cried a bucket of tears,” she said, “and there’s more buckets to come.”
Still, the nuns hope that “someone else can pick up the banner in another form,” according to a statement from the Archdiocese of St. Louis. The Little Sisters have already hired an acquisition firm, Clayton Capital Partners, to help them find new owners and managers for the property and perhaps even expand services. But no exact timetable has been set on when the Sisters will depart or when any transition for the facility may begin.
“They are working to help us find a proper sponsor, but we can foresee nothing happening in the near future, not until the early new year,” said Mother Gonzague Castro, local superior. “We don’t have any immediate concern, because we feel things are going to continue just as they are right now. So the residents all have a stable home.”
Many residents were caught by surprise and overwhelmed by the announcement, Castro said. Some had concerns about losing the “unique” atmosphere and religious aspects of life at the Little Sisters’ home.
“We treat them as our family, like you would want your mom and dad to be cared for,” she said. “We have what we call the family spirit. That’s a special something to our homes. It’s that vow of hospitality and giving ourselves to the elderly poor.”
Castro said residents who want to continue to live in Little Sisters’ facilities have the option of moving to one of the order’s 26 other homes around the United States, including one in Kansas City. The Little Sisters will also help residents move to other Catholic institutions if they wish.
“Already at the meeting, one of the residents came right to me and she says, ‘I want to go to California. I know you have two homes there … I know right now I want to go to California,’” Castro said, with a laugh.
Charles Markus, an 82-year-old, lifelong St. Louisan and military veteran, said he thought putting his name on the list to go to the Little Sister's home in Delaware where he has a sister. But he said, even though he has no family around, he wants to stay in St. Louis.
He said he’s not worried about who might take over next, though he has enjoyed living with the Little Sisters.
“I love it, every bit of it,” he said, noting earlier in life he lived on the streets. “I’ve got a room by myself, a shower, private bathroom. I’m what they call an independent. (The Sisters) are beautiful. They take care of us in all kinds of ways: if we need help, they’ll discuss things with us. They take care of us, really.”
Sisters to go where needed
As for the sisters themselves, they may be reassigned to the order’s other homes to make up for shortfalls elsewhere. Lynch said some of the order's nuns are no longer healthy enough to minister and in the last year only four women took vows in the United States. That’s left the active women religious with more responsibilities at each of the orders’ homes and less time for prayer and community- and faith-building.
“It’s never enough to balance off the need of the Little Sisters that must be there today,” she said. “We have many more homes than we have sisters to staff and we need to bring that together.”
Other factors that contributed to the decision to close the St. Louis facility include whether the current buildings can serve future needs and the increased medical needs of residents.
“Fifty some years ago, they were active,” she said. “They were more a part of actually keeping up the home and being involved in it. Now, naturally people come when they need care. So there’s the expectations and need for physical care, less active, even, residents. So your activity program, so your social service program, everything takes a change.”
Lynch said the residence’s senior center day program, which serves about 20 people, on average, with transportation, meals and social events through an agreement with the city's Office of Aging, will continue.
"The Little Sisters of the Poor here in St. Louis have, for nearly 150 years, lived their order's mission, offering the neediest elderly of every race and religion a home where they will be welcomed as Christ, cared for as family and accompanied with dignity until God calls them to himself," said Archbishop Robert Carlson, in a statement. "They will be missed in our archdiocese as well as in our community and we pray for their mission as well as for vocations to the order."
A Mass of Thanksgiving will be held in the future to celebrate the Little Sisters and their many years of service, according to a news release.
Sisters' history in St. Louis
Worldwide, the Little Sisters serve people in 181 homes in more than 30 countries. The order first came to the St. Louis archdiocese from France, where the order was founded, in 1869.
After a temporary downtown residence, the sisters’ new foundation purchased property at North Florissant Avenue and Hebert Street to house elderly residents in need, which was later expanded. A second home was opened on the city's south side in 1906 and combined with the north side facility in 1974.
By 1969, the Sisters broke ground on a new building at the north St. Louis site, and later that year celebrated the 100th anniversary of their arrival in St. Louis. They moved into the new home in June 1971, something local Superior Castro remembers.
“I have a long association with this home in St. Louis; I was at the beginning of construction,” she said. “I have mixed emotions, it is sad for me. It is very difficult for me. I know this is what God is asking of the Little Sisters of the Poor at this time. The work is in his hands and it will continue in one way or the next.”
The order remodeled the building in 1993 to modernize its dining hall spaces and create a "mini-mall" area with stores, a library and an ice cream parlor. Fifteen apartments were added in 1994. Today the facility has 67 beds for intermediate nursing care, 36 single rooms for independent individuals, and 15 independent living apartments.
In its 147 years, Lynch said the St. Louis operations have served more than 12,000 people.
“We love St. Louis, we love the people of St. Louis and today we ask for your prayers for our residents, for us, for the Little Sisters, and for everyone associated with St. Louis Residence.”