In the Summer of 1999 when the stewards of Marian Woods, Inc. blessed ground in Hartsdale, NY for their new adult care facility, they mixed water and soil from each of the five congregations of women religious who had formed this unique collaboration. At that moment Marian Woods became a public model for other congregations facing long-term healthcare needs. All the roadblocks that the sisters once believed could end their dream were themselves buried in the soil. The construction of Marian Woods was ready to begin.
This 50-bed adult care facility for women religious, licensed by the State of New York, opened in July, 2001. It is a unique facility within and outside its region because:
- The planners saw the practicality and value of joining forces to provide quality healthcare for their senior members.
- The collaboration addressed long-term healthcare needs by focusing on wellness and the sisters’ physical, emotional, and spiritual needs.
- The Board successfully engaged the support of diverse institutions, each of which needed to play an enabling role: their own communities, the Archdiocese of New York, the Town of Hartsdale, lending institutions, and the philanthropic community.
- In the spirit of collaboration, the Board agreed to open its facility to members of other religious congregations whenever possible.
- Marian Woods will encourage other collaborations among its founders that will enhance their ministries and community outreach.
- Marian Woods will serve as a model in senior care for the New York metropolitan region which itself anticipates significant needs for its aging.
The vision of Marian Woods
Marian Woods represents the vision of five congregations of sisters who had nearly identical needs for current and long-term care but limited resources with which to meet them. The impetus to form a collaboration came from Sr. Patricia Wolf, RSM, at the time, the President of the Sisters of Mercy, Regional Community of New York. When her community sold its historic but antiquated Mount Mercy Motherhouse in Dobbs Ferry in 1995, the sisters no longer had a central facility which allowed them to care for their elderly. They also had fewer sisters available to provide care.
Seeking a solution, Sr. Patricia sent a letter to more than two dozen communities of religious women in the area, inviting their views on collaborative healthcare. Her invitation to dialogue revealed a similar interest and need. Seventeen congregations responded to Sr. Patricia’s initial invitation. Ten committed the required money to conduct a professional feasibility study. Eventually, five formed a limited partnership that became Marian Woods, Inc.:
- The Franciscan Sisters of the Peace
- The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament
- The Sisters of St. Dominic, Blauvelt, NY
- The Society of the Holy Child Jesus
- The Sisters of Mercy, New York Regional Community (now the Mid-Atlantic Community)
With the five founding members in place, a Board of Directors and working committees were formed. At the same time, the sisters had determined that the model they wanted to develop would focus on wellness rather than illness. Their vision was a place where sisters would come to live, not die; where their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs would be met; and where those who could still contribute to their communities would be able to do so in constructive ways.
The sisters received a grant from the National Religious Retirement Office (NRRO) to underwrite a feasibility study. The study identified immediate, intermediate, and long-term care needs for each of the congregations, and set forth patterns of aging through the year 2018 when less than 10% of the members will be below age 70. Research made it clear to the sisters that a State-licensed facility, eligible for Medicaid and SSI benefits would provide dignified, efficient care while conserving resources. The findings also confirmed that none of the congregations could provide this level of care on its own. Collaboration was the only practical answer.
Finding a location
Finding the right location was paramount. Almost immediately, a tract of undeveloped land in Hartsdale, NY captured the Board’s interest. The 130+-acre property had a unique history: The land was owned by the Archdiocese of New York and adjoined a building that the Archdiocese had leased in 1995 to the New York Mercy Sisters for their new offices and a convent. The congregations agreed that a parcel of the Hartsdale site was best suited to everyone’s needs for transportation, proximity to various motherhouses and convents, and access to a stable labor pool within an active local community.
Consequently, the Board expressed its interest with the Archdiocese of New York. True to their spirit of collaboration, at least one member from every congregation participated in these discussions whenever possible.
From the beginning, John Cardinal O’Connor was keenly interested in the Marian Woods proposal and applauded the five communities for their vision and collaboration. The Cardinal’s emphatic concern was that the project not exclude any religious. The Board assured the Cardinal that if beds became available at Marian Woods, members of other congregations of women religious would be welcome to reside there.
On July 29, 1999, the Board acquired an 11.2 acre tract of land from the Archdiocese of New York for a price less than market value. The remaining 120-acre parcel was sold to the Town of Hartsdale, fulfilling that community’s requirement for protected passive park land.
Cooperation and prayer
What made the Marian Woods experience unique for its Board is that the five partners did not make just one commitment to each other. They renewed their commitment repeatedly, never accepting a setback, but using it instead as an opportunity to regroup and try again. Whenever an impasse threatened to end their plan, the sisters sought comfort in each other, the advice of professionals, and prayer.
The construction phase
Once the land was secured, the five congregations had to guarantee the construction loan. With little delay the Board developed a working budget for Marian Woods, identified staffing patterns, and developed an admissions policy and procedures manual. Other important victories occurred during this period as well. Through the efforts of Marian Woods’ professional fundraising counsel, noted author Mary Higgins Clark agreed to serve as Honorary Chair of the Marian Woods Capital Campaign. Major donors were identified, and by the Spring of 2000, the campaign had exceeded its goal up to that point of raising $2.8 million. At this time, the largest major gift of $1 million was pledged over a five (5) year period by the Ladies of Charity of the Archdiocese of New York.
A model of collaboration
In January 2000, just a few months before his death, Cardinal O’Connor wrote a message of congratulations to the Board. “I applaud all five communities for their vision and collaboration to make Marian Woods a reality,” said the Cardinal. “This unique home for our senior religious will be quite unlike anything in the Archdiocese, and represents…a unique opportunity to help those who have cared for so many for so long.”