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May 23, 2016 | Volume 91 Number 15


Sisters to sell historic Powhatan property

T he Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the congregation founded by St. Katharine Drexel, is selling its property in Powhatan which once was the site of two Catholic schools which served black students in the days of segregation.

The religious community owns 2,265 acres of wooded land which includes a permanent conservation easement of 1,000 acres.

The property includes a large Neo-Gothic mansion known as Belmead, which was built as the home of Philip St. George Cocke before the Civil War.

The home has more recently been used by FrancisEmma, a non-profit corporation established by the sisters “which calls the human community to ‘witness to both Earth justice and social justice (human justice),’” according to its website. FrancisEmma had leased the property from the religious community.

Sister Maureen Carroll is the director and lives in Belmead along with three other Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and two Sisters for Christian Community.

“We had heard on April 30 that the lease was not going to be renewed in December,” Sister Maureen told The Catholic Virginian. They learned only two days later on May 2 that superiors of the religious congregation announced plans to sell the property. The sisters also announced that the FrancisEmma board would be dissolved.

Less than a month earlier FrancisEmma, named after the two former Catholic schools on the property, held the opening of a museum established to preserve the history of Belmead and its period of enslavement of African Americans up to the present work of promoting protection of the environment and natural habitat.

Jennie Shuklis, chair of the Francis Emmaboard, said she had learned by email message on April 28 that four sisters of the congregation’s leadership team had requested to speak in executive session at the regular annual board meeting on April 30. Their surprise announcement of dissolving the board and not renewing the board’s lease on the property was “heartbreaking,” Ms. Shuklis said.

“It was also insulting, not only to the professionalism of the board, but to the sisters who have worked on the property for the past 10 years,” she said.

Sister Donna Breslin, president of the congregation, claims that the board had been asked more than a year ago to come up with a sustainable plan of operation for Belmead, but was unable to do so.

Belmead was also used as the site of Blessed Sacrament Academy (now known as Blessed Sacrament Huguenot Catholic School) when it first opened in the 1980s as a private Catholic school. It was started by Dr. Lou Ross (Candy) Hopewell, who had stepped down as principal of what is now St. Edward-Epiphany School in Richmond.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament also plan to sell its historic motherhouse in Bensalem, Pa. The 44-acre property, northeast of Philadelphia, also contains the National Shrine of St. Katharine Drexel and her tomb.

At a future date, St. Katharine’s tomb will be moved to the Cathedral Basilica of SS. Peter and Paul in Philadelphia.

Sister Donna said in a statement that a portion of the proceeds from the sales will support the care of retired sisters.

There are about 50 sisters who still live in the motherhouse, many of them in their 80s and 90s who are in nursing care. At one time the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament had about 600 sisters.

The remaining sisters will move to other religious houses upon the sale of the mother house.

Proceeds from the sale of the properties will also be used “to challenge, in new ways, all forms of racism as well as the deeply rooted injustices in the world,” Sister Donna said.

The property in Powhatan was the site of St. Francis de Sales School, a residential school for African-American girls founded by St. Katharine, and St. Emma’s Academy, a military school for African-American boys founded by Louise and Edward Morrell, sister and brother-in-law of St. Katharine Drexel. The Morrells had purchased the property in Virginia in 1893.

Members of the FrancisEmma board include graduates of the two former schools.

Both schools, which opened in 1895, were closed in the early 1970s. At that time they had provided education to approximately 15,000 students. The building for the boys’ school has long been razed, but the girls’ school still stands.

St. Katharine Drexel, the second American-born saint, was from a wealthy Catholic family in Philadelphia. She used her $20 million inheritance to estalish the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and open schools for black children.

Asked what would likely happen to the Powhatan property, Ms. Shuklis replied, “I have no idea.”

“We’re holding our prayers that all of this is happening for the highest good for all concerned,” she said.

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