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‘Give the house back to the ladies’: Protesters fight for building owned by Catholic order

Demonstrators from City Life/Vida Urbana gathered Saturday in support of tenants facing eviction from Our Lady's Guild House in the Fenway.
Demonstrators from City Life/Vida Urbana gathered Saturday in support of tenants facing eviction from Our Lady's Guild House in the Fenway.(Josh Reynolds for The Boston Globe)

A group of nearly 50 activists, wearing yellow shirts emblazoned with a rallying cry of “fight the power,” marched in the Fenway Saturday morning, chanting in unison: “Fight the evictions, fight the evictions.”

As they veered into the Symphony Community Park, the protest became increasingly animated and vocal about racial and economic injustice.

“Say no, fight back, what do we do when the nuns attack?” they cried, following by a round of: “Give the house back to the ladies!”

The early morning demonstration was the first of several rallies Saturday in Boston and in New Britain, Conn., as activists attempt to preserve the status quo of Our Lady’s Guild House, a single-room occupancy building in Kenmore Square historically intended for elderly, low-income women. It’s owned by an order of Catholic nuns, the Daughters of Mary of the Immaculate Conception, in New Britain.

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At around 10 a.m., the protesters boarded a coach bus for the roughly 130-mile trip to New Britain, where they staged another rally and speaking program Saturday afternoon.

They had hoped to deliver a petition with more than 1,300 signatures to the head nun, Mother General Mary Jennifer Carroll, but weren’t allowed to enter the Osgood Avenue property, said Colleen Fitzpatrick, an organizer with the Fenway Community Development Corporation.

“We had to basically line up on this skinny sidewalk across the street and do a little chanting,” Fitzpatrick said in a phone interview Saturday afternoon, during the bus’s return trip to Boston. “We would have appreciated the chance to see her and give her a petition.”

In recent years, dozens of residents – some in their 60s, others in their 70s and 80s – have faced eviction notices, with the religious order seeking younger women, typically college-aged, who can afford to pay market rent values and sign yearly leases.

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“Our demand is we want long-term, permanent affordable housing at this site,” said Helen “Homefries” Matthews, the communications coordinator for City Life/Vida Urbana, a grass-roots community organization, during an interview Saturday after the morning rally in Boston. “It’s an essential resource for people in the heart of the city.”

Dozens of protesters sat on benches in the park Saturday morning before boarding the bus, clutching handmade signs that decried what they called misuse of a charitable status and age discrimination by the nuns — a claim that Attorney General Maura Healey’s office said in March that it was investigating. Eviction proceedings have stalled under the investigation, with findings expected in the fall.

A spokesman for Our Lady’s Guild House said that the protesters’ claims were false and that the nuns were trying “to work collaboratively with the tenants.”

“OLGH is and always has been a home for women who are seeking transitional housing. It is important that the mission continues and that the building remains one where women can take advantage of the affordable rent and convenience of living in the heart of Downtown Boston as they look for long-term housing,” said Don Martelli in a statement.

The mission of the house, Martelli said in the statement, “is and always has been to provide short term residential housing to single women.”

Healey’s office could not be reached for comment.

The protesters, many of whom said they have experienced eviction attempts themselves, returned to the Fenway late afternoon.

Siobhan O’Connor , 57, who’s lived in Our Lady’s Guild House for about 15 years, said she did not think the head of the New Britain order would be swayed.

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“She basically thinks she’s the female pope,” O’Connor said.

O’Connor, who wore a gold cross necklace, described herself as a devout Catholic who regularly attends Mass at the House. She said the nuns have forsaken their charitable mission by focusing on profits – instead of helping to find alternative living options for residents with nowhere else to turn.

Some of the single rooms are listed on Airbnb, and previous advertisements explicitly targeted women “between the ages of 18 and 50 years old.”

Marcy Wells, who’s lived in the House for 2½ years, said she has seen older women crying in the hallways, uncertain of their fate as the case remains entangled in housing court disputes.

“I’m a strong Catholic and that’s what breaks my heart,” Wells said. “My faith says it’s not right – being a Christian says this is not right. You cannot mistreat the elderly and think you’ll be blessed.”

David Mynott, a City Life volunteer, said the morning protest in Boston forged an empowering and inspiring display of solidarity.

“It reminds us that we’re all together — if one of us is suffering, we all are,” he said. “Housing is a basic human right.”


Alison Kuznitz can be reached at alison.kuznitz@globe.com.