Cloistered Greenburgh nuns face $26M legal fight

GREENBURGH – The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament just want to be left alone.

The cloistered Catholic order, down to just four nuns, is housed in an out-of-the-way convent on 6.7 acres of serene land nestled between the Greenburgh Nature Center and Edgemont High School.

The remaining Sacramentine nuns, one of them now 95, are part of a centuries-old contemplative order that spends their days in prayer and worship, and allow their convent to be used as a religious retreat.

Were it not for the $26 million federal lawsuit lodged against them, few would even know they’re there.

They are being sued by S&R Development Estates in a legal battle that has lingered for nearly a decade, and forced the nuns to invoke a 106-year-old covenant that blocks the developer from erecting a 45-unit apartment building at their doorstep.

For the nuns, it‘s a fight to save their way of life.

“We‘re contemplatives, and that‘s what we want, is prayer and the silence,” said Sister Mary Francis, 77. “We have the adoration, and that’s our whole life. It’s very frightening, in a way, that we’re going to lose our peace and our quiet.”

The legal dispute centers on the covenant that dates to 1912, when Gerard Fountain, who owned the property, divided the land into 10 parcels.

The covenant prohibits certain types of uses, including commercial and manufacturing businesses, as well as any “tenement house or flat house.” Any new use of the land also requires approval of owners of all the parcels, including the Sacramentine nuns.

“They’re determined to preserve their way of life and they resent what’s happened to them,” said Bob Bernstein, a longtime Edgemont resident and one of the attorneys representing the nuns. “They didn’t seek to become the center of a battle. These nuns are not fighters. They’re defenders. They’re defending their faith, and they were sued.”

Officials at S&R declined to comment on the case.

In court papers, the developer argued that the property is already “commercialized” and well-trafficked, with developed parcels along Central Park Avenue developments and the nature center, which they said attracts in excess of 100,000 visitors a year.

The developer also said that since 1972, the covenant has been waived for those developments, including another residential complex. They said S&R should therefore be allowed to build their four-story project, which they contend would include sufficient setback and wooded buffers to let the nuns retain their privacy. 

‘Away from the hubbub‘

The 10 parcels on the former Gerard Fountain homestead have six owners today, including the town of Greenburgh, which owns the 33-acre nature center, and the Edgemont School District, which owns several wooded parcels near the convent.

The developed portions along Central Park Avenue contain the 120-unit Scarsdale Woods residential complex and the Scarsdale Park Mall, a small strip mall.

Those structures cannot be seen from the Blessed Sacrament convent, even in winter with the trees bare. In fact, it is impossible to tell from the convent that the property is in a populated suburban hub rather than a rural community.

The convent building was originally a single-family home, and became the Blessed Sacrament Monastery in 1965, when it was purchased by Paulist Fathers, a monastic Catholic order that occupied it until 1996, when it was sold to the sisters.

Dating to 17th century France, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament is one of the oldest religious orders committed to the adoration of the Blessed Sacrament.

Before arriving in Edgemont, the local order of sisters operated a school on Park Avenue in Yonkers for more than 80 years, teaching as many as 340 students through the mid-1970s. As their Yonkers neighborhood became more urban, the sisters closed the school and began seeking a more secluded sanctuary. 

The Paulists‘ retreat in Edgemont seemed ideal.

“It’s really, for us, the main reason why we decided to purchase the property,” said Sister Mary Aimee, 71. “It’s because it was so quiet, secluded and away from the hubbub of the main thoroughfare. With the nature center next door and the school south of us, in the future we knew that it would remain as quiet as it is. It would stay that way.”

Legal battle

S&R purchased the 2.3-acre parcel of land next to the convent in 2006. The land was then occupied by a single-family home that had been empty for two years. For the nuns, it was the first indication that something was changing.

“We were in morning prayer and we heard all this machinery,” Sister Mary Francis said. “So, we decided to go take a look outside, and the house was half down.” 

But it wasn‘t until 2013 that they learned of the larger plan for the site. Their cook‘s daughter learned of a Town Board meeting on the proposal and notified the nuns. Alarmed, they made their first trip to Greenburgh Town Hall.

Unbeknownst to the sisters, S&R was already in a legal battle with the town of Greenburgh over the zoning for the property. The land was intended to be restricted to single-family homes, but an error by the town ultimately allowed larger developments.

In March 2016, the developer filed a new lawsuit in state Supreme Court for the right to develop the land, naming the town, Edgemont schools, and the nuns.

S&R filed a second claim in October 2016 in U.S. District Court. In that suit, the developer is seeking $26 million in damages. The lawsuit claims violations of the Fair Housing Act because their proposal would include affordable units.

One of the law firms hired by S&R is Bleakley, Platt & Schmidt of White Plains, which also represents the Archdiocese of New York.

The Sacramentine nuns have filed counter claims in both lawsuits.

For the remaining four sisters, who only want to pray in peace, it has turned into a fight to preserve their centuries-old way of life.

“I‘ve lived here for 26 years in Edgemont, and I did not know they were even here,” Bernstein said. “But it’s basically holy ground for observant Catholics. It’s a big deal.”

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