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The painful price of peace

The Episcopal nuns were beloved neighbors on Roxbury’s Fort Hill, until word got out they were selling their convent to a charter school

By Lisa Wangsness
Globe Staff / May 14, 2011

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The Society of St. Margaret’s roots in Roxbury go back to the late 19th century, when the small Episcopal order of nuns established a nursing home for poor African-American women near the top of Fort Hill.

Their friendship with the community deepened over the years, as the nursing home was later reborn as the nuns’ residence: They opened their convent for neighborhood meetings and get-togethers. Their neighbors invited them to block parties and contributed to their charitable work.

“When I was in my 20s, the sisters would come and play cards with us,’’ said Donal Fox, a pianist and composer who owns a house next door.

But that relationship has been sorely tested by the nuns’ attempt to sell their serene hilltop convent to a new charter school. After several months of tense meetings, testy correspondence, and a petition drive challenging the sale, the leaders of the fledgling Bridge Boston Charter School terminated a tentative agreement to buy the convent for $3.3 million, concluding that they could not fully address neighbors’ concerns about traffic.

“It is clear that there are schools on even smaller streets and on more difficult streets, but given the concerns of the neighbors and our unwillingness to induce neighbors’ unhappiness, we feel this was the right decision,’’ said Cheryl Alexander, president of Bridge Boston’s board of trustees. Her board hopes to find an alternative location shortly, she said. “No one has any hard feelings.’’

The sisters still plan to sell their Roxbury property and relocate to a retreat center the order owns in Duxbury. Their sprawling 35,000-square-foot convent has become unaffordable, the nuns say, and they want to channel more resources toward their small mission in Haiti, which was badly damaged in last year’s earthquake.

“We will miss the neighborhood, but we understand that transition for all of us is not easy,’’ said Sister Adele Marie Ryan, the order’s superior.

Some neighbors are still wary, so much so that they want the sisters to let them help decide who the future buyer should be.

“I think they are not understanding that if they proceed again to make a decision in a vacuum, we may be forced to fight them again,’’ said Bill Lottero, who has lived next door to the convent for 20 years.

Others are more sympathetic. Randy Foote, 62, a longtime resident, said he would have welcomed the charter school. In any case, he said, the nuns have a right to get as much value for their property as they can.

If the nuns had explained their reasons for wanting to sell before announcing a tentative agreement had been signed, Foote said, neighbors might have been more cooperative.

“I think they didn’t handle it well politically,’’ he said. But he added: “There are a few neighbors who would have just opposed them because all they want in their backyard is a convent.’’

The nuns say they tried to notify the neighbors as soon as possible, but the charter school offer came unexpectedly fast.

In January, before they put the convent on the market, the sisters were approached by board members of Bridge Boston, about half of whom had worked with the Epiphany School, a highly regarded private Episcopal school in Dorchester that serves poor children. Bridge hoped to receive a charter from the state in February and to open its doors in September with about 72 children. Adding a grade a year, the school would eventually educate 335 students in preschool through eighth grade.

Bridge Boston’s leaders thought St. Margaret’s would be a perfect home for their school. It would need little interior renovation, and the property includes the home of 19th century abolitionist William Lloyd Garrison, a national historic landmark.

“We found that so meaningful,’’ Alexander said.

The nuns signed a preliminary sale agreement with the board, contingent upon the school’s receiving its state charter and required city zoning approvals. The sisters asked to put the issue on the agenda of the next neighborhood meeting, which wound up being postponed because of a blizzard.

But neighbors were caught by surprise, and some felt blindsided.

“We were hurt, actually,’’ Fox said. “It was like a family member who doesn’t tell you they got married, or that they’re going to leave the country and live in Europe for the rest of their lives.’’

Many were also fiercely protective of their tranquil neighborhood, a mix of brick row houses and clapboard multifamily homes, some with lush gardens and flowering trees. Though the grassy peak of Fort Hill lies just a few blocks from the rush of Columbus Avenue, on a recent morning, little could be heard but the wind and singing birds.

The brick and stucco convent faces Highland Park Avenue, a narrow dog-legged road that can be difficult to navigate in winter. In the backyard, rocky outcrops drop 40 feet or so to a flat yard along Highland Street, where Bridge’s board thought school buses could enter and exit.

Many neighbors objected to additional buses and supply trucks rumbling down their narrow streets. They complained that the convent property had insufficient room for parking and bus traffic, and they questioned whether children could safely play on a property with such steep ledges.

“It would have had a huge negative impact on the community, trafficwise, noisewise, and parkingwise and densitywise,’’ said Michael Johnson, 37, a neighbor for 12 years.

Johnson, who teaches dance to third-graders in the Boston public schools, added, “We are proeducation, and we love children. But this is the wrong place for a school.’’

Not everyone agreed. Foote said he knew at least 50 neighbors who supported the school.

But those who fought the proposal say they collected several hundred signatures opposing the sale from neighbors in every direction.

In a letter to city officials, the Boston Preservation Alliance wrote that playground equipment, pavement, and other changes would damage the Garrison property. The nuns remained on the sidelines of the dispute, out of respect for Bridge Boston, they said.

Ultimately, said Peter Keating, a member of Bridge Boston’s board, engineers hired by the school concluded it would be impossible to promise neighbors that the school would have no traffic impact on the neighborhood. The board set about making other plans.

Although some neighbors are demanding a say in the future use of the property, others strike a more conciliatory tone.

“How nice it would be if the neighbors could work with the sisters . . . so the sisters get what they need, and also the neighborhood is not left in a detrimental state,’’ Johnson said.

The nuns say that they are happy to listen to what neighbors have to say and that any buyer requiring change-of-use zoning permits would have to follow the required city process. But they say they will continue to exercise their right to sell.

City Councilor Tito Jackson, who represents the Highland Park neighborhood, suggested that he sees room for better communication on both sides.

“I think the focus goes back to community engagement,’’ he said. But he added: “This process is more difficult than saying what we don’t want to see.’’

Lisa Wangsness can be reached at lwangsness@globe.com.

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