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Nuns ponder the future of their landmark monastery in Jamaica Plain

Sister Jean Marie Toman returned to her seat after giving a reading as the sisters prayed together inside the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Clare in Jamaica Plain.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Since it opened in 1934, the Franciscan Monastery of St. Clare has been a well-known landmark in Jamaica Plain. Nestled between the beautiful Arnold Arboretum and busy Arborway rotary, the handsome brick building is home to 10 cloistered nuns who hardly ever leave the property.

For decades the nuns quietly lived in seclusion, spending their days in contemplative prayer and doing chores, from cooking to cleaning to making their own clothes. They also run a gift shop, sew vestments for priests, and supply communion wafers to about 100 parishes in the Archdiocese of Boston.

It wasn’t until earlier this year, when the nuns unveiled their plans to demolish the monastery and sell the land to a developer, that they faced a major backlash and found themselves on the receiving end of a “torrent of criticism,” according to their attorney, Marc LaCasse.


The Poor Clare nuns have since scrapped their plans to raze the building. But they still intend to sell the monastery and use the proceeds to move to a smaller place, possibly this fall. Alternative plans to redevelop the property — without tearing down the whole building — are in the process of being drafted, LaCasse said.

“They decided to go back to the drawing board,” LaCasse said.

Sister Mary Francis Hone wiped down the mats that were used to clean dishes.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

Kathy Kottaridis, the executive director of Historic Boston Inc., said the monastery appears to be the oldest remaining purpose-built women’s monastery in New England. Many in the community want the building to be preserved.

“I’m glad they’re moving in that direction,” she said. “It has such an institutional presence right there, and it has an interesting history.”

Sister Clare Frances McAvoy, the abbess of the monastery, said although the demolition plans are “off the table,” the sisters are moving forward with their plans of vacating the property.

“We do need to move,” she said. “This building is too big. And it’s too expensive.”


For McAvoy and the remaining sisters, it will be a major change. Over the years, they have “witnessed the joys and sorrows of some of over one hundred other women who came here with their dreams and faithfully walked this way, and of some of a hundred others who tried,” McAvoy said. “But these walls know every one of these women and every moment of their lives, as well as mine. This is sacred and holy ground.”

Sister Mary Joseph Aspell walked down the long corridor inside the Franciscan Monastery of St. Clare. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The three-story monastery building sits on 2.8 acres of land and was made to house 50 nuns. At one point in the 1950s, there were 64 sisters living there, and they were running out of space.

Today, they have the opposite problem. The 10 sisters range in age from 60 to 91 years old, and with more than 54,700 square feet of living space, they are in charge of maintaining a massive building that is in need of repairs that they can’t afford. The Poor Clare nuns said they were told it would cost millions to bring the building up to code.

“There’s a lot of work needed to save the building,” LaCasse said. “It’s in rough shape.”

The roof is leaking. The gigantic boilers need to be replaced with a new heating system. Asbestos needs to be removed. The building is in need of new plumbing and electric wiring. The brick exterior needs repairs.

“It costs a fortune to heat in the winter,” LaCasse said.


Sister Mary Rigodon wore ear protection as she rang the bell to call her sisters to dinner.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The building was made specifically to suit the lifestyle of these cloistered nuns.

Everything they needed was right there at the monastery, according to Sister Lorraine DeMers.

“When I came here, I felt like I was entering a little city on its own,” she said. “All of our necessities were met. ... To me, it was a little island.”

In addition to the spacious kitchen and dining room, there’s a library, sewing rooms, a laundry room, a chapel, and a burial crypt, which up until recently held the remains of deceased sisters. (In anticipation of their upcoming move, the sisters relocated the 39 bodies that once occupied the space to Mount Benedict Cemetery in West Roxbury in the fall of 2021. They now use the crypt as a storage room.)

A prayer card with an image of Jesus marked the pages of Sister Clare Francis McAvoy’s Missal as she prayed inside the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Clare. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

To this day, the sisters only leave the property when necessary, such as for medical and dental appointments. Three of the sisters have driver’s licenses, and Sister Mary Veronica does most of the food shopping and makes regular trips to Costco and BJs to stock up on food and household supplies.

Each sister plays a role in their little tight-knit community. The sisters refer to McAvoy, the abbess, as “The Boss.” Sister John Paul Tenneson oversees the distribution of altar breads to parishes across the archdiocese. Sister Mary Rigodon sews vestments for priests. Sister Mary Francis Hone is the scholar and resident historian. She also serves as the webmaster, updating the website and blog. Sister Mary Joseph Aspell, the jokester of the group (”I’m a tap dancer,” she quipped), greets visitors who come into the lobby of the monastery, where the sisters run a small gift shop that sells rosary beads, baptismal candles, greeting cards, and mugs emblazoned with slogans like “Choose Joy.”


They even have a monastery mascot of sorts: a 15-pound striped cat named Baby, who has his own room stocked with cans of Fancy Feast and a variety of cat toys.

Left to right, Sister Mary Joseph Aspell laughed as she joked with Sister Jean Marie Toman and Sister Clare Francis McAvoy as they share dinner together.Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

The sisters have a purchase-and-sale agreement in place with Boston-based Holland Properties. The plan was for Holland to build 26 townhouses on the site after the monastery was torn down. But once word got out about the plans for demolition, the sisters became the targets of intense criticism.

“Wasteful. Shame on your poor clares!” one angry commenter wrote on the Jamaica Plain Historical Society’s Facebook page. “The ‘poor’ sisters and their order are scoundrels,” quipped another.

“It sounds liked they’ve been alone for too long and decided that they’re unbelievably special,” another Facebook user wrote. “So special that their building is as holy as they think they are.”

After the nuns’ application to raze the building was filed with the Boston Landmarks Commission in February, a public hearing was scheduled for April, but it was never held.

The Poor Clare nuns have been looking to downsize for about 20 years, and have found a property not far away that is smaller than the monastery but is large enough to accommodate them. They wouldn’t specify the location, but said it is located within the archdiocese.


Sister Clare Frances McAvoy made her way up the steps of the Franciscan Monastery of Saint Clare. Jessica Rinaldi/Globe Staff

“The house has enough rooms for each of us to move right into,” the sisters’ website states. “Praise God! Depending totally upon God’s guidance and Providence, so graciously expressed in the continued friendship and kindness of our neighbors, we need to move to this smaller place. Our need to take this step is urgent. We depend upon the sale of this property in order to purchase the new place we so badly need.”

Their attorney said the alternative plans to redevelop the current property — without tearing down the monastery — should be ready in the “next few months,” LaCasse said.

“The whole thing is being reimagined,” he said.

McAvoy said they hope to move out of the monastery by September or October of this year.

Emily Sweeney can be reached at emily.sweeney@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @emilysweeney and on Instagram @emilysweeney22.