Pulte developers honor legacy of nuns at former Wheaton convent
Sister Betty Crotty wiped away tears at the familiar sound as she tried to let go of a now unfamiliar place.
At the close of the ceremony, the gathering of nuns began singing a Marian hymn on cue, their gentle voices competing with the din of construction of new homes on the grounds of the former convent they left a year ago.
"When we bury a sister and give her back to God, that's the song we sing," Crotty said. "So I was giving this back to God, giving it to the next generation, whoever they be. That's why I teared up. It's a very special kind of thing. Whenever we have a funeral, that's the last thing we do."
So the Catholic nuns carried on the tradition at the end of the ceremony hosted by Pulte Homes developers to unveil a plaque memorializing the 70 years of religious life on the quiet campus in Wheaton.
"It brings back all the memories. It's beautiful," said Sister Arlene Ashack, who helped design the plaque. "I am so thrilled that they've captured the beauty of the place and that it will go on and inspire everybody else the way it inspired us."
There are still lasting reminders of the Loretto Convent on the property at the end of Somerset Lane.
A Wheaton husband and wife last summer saved the historic House of Seven Gables from the wrecking ball by moving the 19th-century mansion from the center of the convent site to its southern edge. The home now rests on a newly built foundation as the couple prepares for interior renovations.
Pulte Homes also named the new subdivision of nearly 50 homes Loretto Club in recognition of the property's history.
But the plaque pays tribute to the legacy of the Loretto sisters, who belong to the Institute of the Blessed Virgin Mary, a community with nearly a dozen provinces around the world.
"Every day, I remind myself when I wake up that this has been hallowed ground for all of us for 70 years, and now it will be hallowed ground for many other people," said Sister Judy Illig, the institute's U.S. province leader.
The panel shows a list of their ministries, a three-dimensional recreation of the institute's crest and pictures of the House of Seven Gables and a 1950s-era chapel that was demolished.
"In gratitude for all that has occurred in this sacred space and for all who have gifted us through the years," it reads.
Rob Getz, Pulte's vice president of land acquisition, recognized that sanctity when he visited the site of the plaque last week near a pond off a new, well-traveled trail that connects the neighborhood with Seven Gables Park.
"It was so peaceful. You heard the birds and you looked at the park and the water, and I got this sense of peace that came over myself, and I said, 'this has to have something to do with what happened here over the past 70 years,'" he told the gathering. "Hopefully that peace, that sense of well-being will carry forward to the new residents here, to the folks that are building their houses and moving their lives to this location and the next stage of the property."
In its heyday, the property was once home to a popular preschool that closed in 2014, a retreat center, the institute's provincial offices and a transitional home for women recovering from addiction and homelessness.
As their community was aging, the sisters spent more than a decade looking for a buyer of their 16 acres of land until they reached a deal in 2016 to sell the property to Pulte. The sale provided the funds for the retirement and health care of the remaining Loretto nuns, who have moved to senior living communities across the suburbs.
"Anyone of our sisters who I know who says they're retired are busier than ever," Illig said.
Indeed, the Loretto sisters continue to serve students of the Mary Ward Center's ESL, computer and citizenship classes on Chicago's South Side. The U.S. provincial offices and Loretto archives moved to the Wheaton Franciscan Sisters campus they share with Marianjoy Rehabilitation Hospital. The sisters even have launched a new website.
But what of the community's future? There are now 53 nuns in the U.S. province, most of whom live in the Chicago area.
"It's really hard to tell, but I have great hopes since we are an international community," said Illig, who moved to Carol Stream. "There's always the possibility that sisters from other parts of the world might come.
"Our charism, Mary Ward's charism of love of the poor and education, in some ways that's going to go on, and our associates and other friends, our volunteers, they're going to carry on that spirit," said Illig referring to the institute's founder.
But the community she joined 60 years ago this September is a resilient one that's "moving forward every day," Illig said, even as they let go of the past.
"Its certainly a lot of mixed emotions," she said. "I think our sisters have acknowledged and embraced those emotions very well."