Former Portland convent now a home called Motherhouse

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PORTLAND — About 80 years ago, Patricia Nickerson would visit her aunt at the Motherhouse on Stevens Avenue.

Early last week, she moved in.

“I just moved here two days ago with my pussycat,” Nickerson said Nov. 29 before the grand reopening of the former St. Joseph’s Convent as Motherhouse on Stevens Square.

Dating to 1909, the convent and its iconic golden dome at 605 Stevens Ave. are now home to 88 apartments and a restored chapel; 66 are priced for people earning 50 percent to 60 percent of the area median income.

Some units offer views of the dome, some have stained-glass windows.

All will be occupied by tenants at least 55 years old as part of a wider senior housing project built on the grounds between Baxter Woods and the former McAuley High School/Maine Girls’ Academy.

There are plans for 161 new units for people at least 55 years old on the grounds around the Motherhouse.

The reopening brought together residents and city officials, including Mayor Ethan Strimling and District 4 Councilor Justin Costa. Developer John Wasileski said it was the culmination of almost 15 years of effort.

Wasileski said his interest in converting the convent began while it was still owned by the Rhode Island-based Sisters of Mercy. His daughter was attending McAuley, and he was concerned about the future of the convent.

He approached the Sisters with a housing conversion idea, enhanced in 2009 when the city created a tax increment finance district for the site, with a credit enhancement agreement returning 60 percent of future property tax increases to the developers.

“We never had anything in writing,” Wasileski said of working with the Sisters.

Almost four years ago, Wasileski and partner Matt Teare linked with Kevin Bunker, who redeveloped the Nathan Clifford School on Falmouth Street and rehabilitated the Rosa True School on Park Street.

“Kevin Bunker came to the table with lots of ideas and expertise,” Wasileski said.

Using $7 million in state and federal tax credits available for historic restorations, $3 million income tax credits for low-income housing from the IRS (passed on by the Maine State Housing Authority), $627,000 in federal grants passed on by the city, and a variety of other financing, the Motherhouse was converted into five stories and 101,000 square feet of housing.

City documents attached to the May 1, 2017, motion to provide grant funding show the development cost $18 million.

Wasileski said the balance of financing involved 10 public and private entities.

“At any point in time, it might not have happened,” he said.

The plethora of financial details meant less to Nickerson, who said she could barely recall visiting the Motherhouse as a child, but was overjoyed to be able to move in after living on nearby Rackleff Street for 60 years.

“I needed somewhere to go and I didn’t want to leave the neighborhood,” she said.

Residents Monika Main and Kathryn Bourque also said they love their new homes.

“No one walks down the halls here on their cellphones,” Main said. “They stop and talk to each other.”

Bourque said she learned apartments were available while riding her bicycle on Stevens Avenue. She turned 60 the day she moved in and plans to invite neighbors from her former apartment over to show off the building.

Bunker thanked MSHA staff and contractor Portland Builders for keeping the project viable, and his DC Management staff for seeing the work through and marketing the apartments.

“I can do a project, they make it a community,” he said. “These buildings are really about people.

David Harry can be reached at 780-9092 or dharry@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter: @DavidHarry8.

The former St. Joseph’s Convent at 605 Stevens Ave., Portland, was converted to 88 apartments, with 66 rented as affordable housing.Carol Connor, left, joined her aunts Lillian Murphy and Patricia Nickerson for the grand opening of The Motherhouse at Stevens Square Nov. 29. Nickerson moved in two days before the event.Speaking in the chapel of the former St. Joseph’s Convent, John Wasileski said Nov. 29 converting the convent to 88 housng units for people 55 and older took almost 15 years.

Some apartments at the Motherhouse on Stevens Avenue in Portland have stained-glass windows that recall the building’s history as St. Joseph’s Convent.

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Portland City Hall reporter for The Forecaster. Baltimore native, lived in Maine since 1989. A journalist since 2005, covering much of Cumberland and York counties. I joined The Forecaster in 2012.