NEWARK — For nearly eight decades, the Felician Sisters served the Newark community, first with Our Lady of Grace orphanage and later a kindergarten on approximately 180 acres along Route 4. The sisters left the site in 2014, but five years later they are ready to serve in a different way.
On Oct. 15, about two dozen Felicians returned to Newark for the dedication of Our Lady of Grace Village, a five-building, 60-unit affordable housing project. Sister Aquinas Szott, the chairperson of the Our Lady of Grace Village trustees and master of ceremonies, said the housing fits with the Felicians’ mission, although in a different way than in the past.
The dedication was held in the community building, which sits where the convent once stood. The village, which is part of a larger building project, has been five years in the making and had to overcome some obstacles along the way.
“We’re here because of the indomitable spirit of the Felician Sisters,” Sister Aquinas said.
She noted that the sisters allowed the land to be used for a number of endeavors, such as pumpkin sales, used car sales and even a circus. When the Diocese of Wilmington needed land for a new parish 40 years ago, the order donated 12 acres for Holy Family Parish.
When the kindergarten was no longer viable, the Felicians worked with local government and other agencies to determine the best use for the land. Affordable housing was one of those.
“It’s all about you, the people we partnered with and served,” Sister Aquinas said.
Anas Ben Addi, the director of the Delaware State Housing Authority, outlined the need for affordable housing in the state. There are about 12,000 units of affordable housing, but approximately 40,000 families in Delaware are cost-burdened when it comes to housing. That means they are spending more than 30 percent of their gross income on housing.
“Creating 60 new units, that’s really huge,” he said. “There are families out there who are making it work. But it only takes one sick child to put them out in the street.”
Ben Addi noted the “bumps in the road” in going from mostly vacant land to Our Lady of Grace Village and other housing on the parcel. The original plans called for 282 units – townhomes, duplexes and single-family homes – but that met with fierce resistance from neighboring residents.
The plans also envisioned construction near Todd Estates, one of the adjacent developments, along with homes built near vernal pools, which are temporary wetlands that lack fish, thereby providing an environment for the development of amphibian and insect species that would be threatened by fish. In addition, developers originally proposed through roads from Chestnut Hill Road to some of the existing developments.
Renovated plans reduced the number of units and moved the housing closer to Chestnut Hill Road. There will not be building near the vernal pools, and the proposed through roads were eliminated.
Karen B. Speakman, executive director of the National Council on Agricultural Life and Labor Research Fund Inc. (NCALL), said this was the 59th housing complex her organization had worked on in the Delmarva Peninsula. NCALL promotes affordable housing and provides services to help make that possible. The Felician Sisters were able to sell their tax credits to help raise money for the village.
“It takes a village to create a village,” Speakman said. “It’s just going to be such a blessing for (the residents) not to have that day-to-day struggle.”
Sister Mary Christopher Moore, the Felicians’ provincial minister, was on hand and gave thanks to the Blessed Mother for watching over the project. Bishop Malooly, in his remarks, expressed his gratitude to the Felicians for their continued presence in the diocese.
Sister Aquinas said one sister will be living on site at the start, and as time goes on, the congregation will assess the needs of the village.
One of the Felicians in attendance, Sister Barbara Ann Kemmerer, lived at the convent there for several years while teaching at Immaculate Conception School in Elkton, Md. In fact, her last class at ICS, now eighth-graders, was on hand for the dedication. She said her home and a playground once stood where the community hall is now located. Sister Barbara Ann recalled driving along Chestnut Hill Road one day “and I saw the bulldozer, and I just pulled over and started crying.”
But, she added, the emotions are outweighed by the good that will come from Our Lady of Grace Village.
“It’s always been about helping the unfortunate, and what better way to do it? That will become a reality here, too,” she said.