The Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities have lived on a hill in Millvale for more than 100 years: they started a hospital and a high school and taught generations of children.
But over the years their numbers have dwindled, and the order has decided to sell its 25-acre campus, Mount Alvernia.
“It’s such a massive structure that sometimes people even call it the castle on the hill,” said congregational historian Sister Lorraine Wesolowski.
Picking up her notes, she read a quote from an 1897 edition of The Pittsburgh Dispatch about Mount Alvernia’s construction.
“‘This building, ... when completed, will be one of the most modern and magnificent structures of its kind in the country.’ Now can you imagine that?” she said, grinning.
More than 300 sisters lived at Mount Alvernia when Wesolowski joined the congregation 57 years ago.
During the summers, the grounds were full of alumnae taking extension courses or visiting. Now, just 68 sisters live in Millvale. Fewer women join religious life these days, said Wesolowski, so the sale didn’t come as a surprise.
“We knew this was going to happen, but it’s become a little bit more immediate,” she said. “The No. 1 concern is the sisters’ needs. Care of the sisters will be the priority [in] all of this.”
While the order searches for a new home, David Massaro and his company, Massaro Properties, will search for a buyer. It’s going to take some creativity, he said.
“It’s unique and beautiful architecture, but it was built for a single purpose,” Massaro said. “Which was to house, feed and have a place for the sisters to gather.”
They’re in the midst of preparing marketing materials, and Massaro expects the property to generate national interest. But this isn’t just another listing to the firm, said associate broker Martha Graham.
“We hope to be able to find someone who can use the property in a way that will make them proud,” she said.
Six buildings dot Mount Alvernia’s 25 acres. The mother house, where sisters live and worship, comprises 333 rooms and a soaring chapel that comfortably accommodates 300.
“At one time, we could sit close to 400 people, because they used to put little side carts along the aisles,” said Wesolowski.
Dressed in a red t-shirt and slacks, she said times are certainly different. In archives hall, Wesolowski pointed to pictures of sisters wearing full veils and headband.
“I was so glad when we could give up all this," she said. "In 90 degree heat?” She flapped her hand in mock horror.
Wesolowski paused in front of an aerial photograph of Mount Alvernia, taken before the trees had grown up and shaded its arches. A long, winding brick road leads up to the mother house, flanked by hills instead of present-day parking lots.
“In our early days ... when the snow filled that, we’d get on toboggans and slide down, hoping that we wouldn’t get into Millvale, that we would stop before we got to the bottom of the hill,” she said. “It was a lot of fun.”
The sisters have yet to find their next home, but will hope to remain in the Millvale area.