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Archdiocese drops $1.25 million on Downtown Eastside complex

Mother Teresa's incoming nuns replace outgoing Franciscan Sisters

The Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Vancouver has paid the New York-based Franciscan Sisters of the Atonement $1.25 million for the historic Downtown Eastside Mission complex. Documents from the New Westminster Land Title Office show an Aug. 26 sale execution date.

News of the pending sale attracted national attention last May when the previous complex owner, the Franciscan Sisters, announced they were leaving the city after more than 80 years of service. (The Courier published a cover story on the nuns July 29.)

The sale of the property has not been confirmed by either party. A message left for Sister Elizabeth Kelliher of the Franciscan Sisters at her temporary Edmonton residence was not returned and archdiocese communications director Paul Schratz said he had no information concerning the purchase in a Sept. 20 telephone interview, suggesting it was news to him. He declined to comment further.

The complex, encompassing two city lots, also includes the citys oldest home, which was built in 1886 on the northwest corner of East Cordova and Dunlevy Street. The house was the former home of Thomas Dunn, one of the citys first aldermen and a pioneer hardware merchant, says Vancouver house historian James Johnstone.

In a church service last week welcoming the four nuns from the Missionaries of Charity into the convent space vacated by the Franciscan Sisters, Archbishop J. Michael Miller encouraged the order to make prayer its priority, quoting Mother Teresa, founder of the order. We are not social workers; we are first and foremost contemplatives, the Bishop is quoted as saying in the B.C. Catholic newspaper.

Meanwhile, the change in ownership continues to worry area homeless advocates who believe the archdiocese reneged on a promise to carry on the Sisters community services including a daily meal serving hundreds of area residents.

Sister Rochelle Chemmarappillil, the regional Superior of the new Missionaries convent tenants, told the Courier Sept. 19 that the Archbishop did not mention food services when he invited the order to move into the convent. The Missionaries of Charity, previously residing at Vancouvers Corpus Christi Church, have handed out hot dogs, cake and fruit for the past nine years at Oppenheimer Park across from their new home at the complex. Chemmarappillil, referring to the orders food service as a hot dog Ministry, said in a telephone interview from the Motherhouse in New Mexico that the four missionaries now living in the complex are exploring adding services. But Chemmarappillil said the missionaries are already busy visiting shut-ins, teaching catechism at two other city parishes and praying four hours each day for the poor. The convent section of the complex occupied by the Missionaries of Charity represents less than half of the building space, explained Sister Rochelle. She said the order does not have access to the soup kitchen, meeting offices and halls used by the Franciscan Sisters.

Twenty-year mission volunteer Lynne Shepard surmises the archdiocese didnt understand the depth of the Franciscan Sisters contribution to the community. It was not just the food, said Shepard in a recent interview. They were part of the neighbourhood, tireless workers.

An archdiocese news release last May quoted the archbishop as promising to carry on the work of the departing Sisters. Since then, the Sisters services were terminated including the legendary meal program, acclaimed for its personal touches, nutritional value and take-out style accommodating those with anxiety disorders.

Schratz told the Courier Wednesday that the closure of the Franciscan Sisters food services has not caused any hardship. He said food needs are being met by the ongoing services of another Catholic agency next door and other charitable meal services in the area.

In an online question and answer document produced by the archdiocese to ease public concerns, Schratz wrote, duplicating the work of the Sisters might not be the best way we can serve the neighbourhood.

Schratz said the diocese is taking the opportunity to explore how to best utilize its increased presence in the Downtown Eastside. He said the Franciscan Sisters legacy would continue though no plan has yet been finalized.