Little Sisters of the Poor plan $25 million renovation

Sandbags lined the concrete atop the exterior basement stairs at St. Martin's Home in Catonsville, a symbol of the Little Sisters of the Poor's long — and losing — battle against summer heat and storms.

After one heavy downpour, the sump pumps in the basement of the 200,000-square-foot brick home failed. Equipped with water vacs, the nuns, in starched white habits, mopped up the entire basement. They sandbagged the stairs to stave off another flood.

They used emergency generators when the June derecho that left hundreds of thousands of Marylanders without power knocked out much of the air conditioning system. Part of it never came back. The sisters filled the gaps with window units and relocated affected residents to newly built rooms.

"We are stabilizing until we can complete our reconstruction," said Sister Rosemary, the home's development director. "Times change and ideas change and we have to adapt."

The sisters, who have cared for the needy elderly of all faiths for more than 140 years, launched a $25 million Caring Building Campaign in 2009 and are more than halfway to the goal. The residents themselves chipped in nearly $7,000 from raffles and sales of candy and baked goods.

On Sept. 21, the nuns learned that an anonymous donor pledged to match every dollar raised in the next nine months, up to $2 million.

"What an auspicious start to the second half of our campaign," Sister Rosemary said. "I am certain we can match this most significant contribution."

The renovation of the structure, built in 1969, is already underway. One wing has been been completely renovated, while a second wing's renovation is in progress and a third is set to be gutted soon, all without disruption to the 70 residents.

In a hallway, the residents posted a prayer to the patron saint of carpenters: "Saint Joseph, watch over us. The demolition has been done."

The building still complies with all requirements for long-term-care facilities, according to state inspectors, but the standards are changing next year.

About two-thirds of the money raised will pay for changes to bring the building up to the latest federally mandated life safety codes by next August and to replace obsolete systems.

The remaining money will improve living spaces, adding such amenities as a store, a modernized library, and exercise and physical therapy areas. Bedrooms in the assisted-living areas will be expanded by about 30 percent and include private baths.

"We have gone from the medical model to the more social one," Sister Rosemary said. "We needed more common areas and space for shows and events. We want a country-like setting, surrounded by green, on one floor, not a high-rise."

The sisters, whose community is dedicated to the care of the elderly poor, tend to many who have no means to repay them. Those numbers are likely to grow. By 2030, 20 percent of Americans will be elderly, according to Census data.

Teresa Lehrer, 94, arrived nearly six years ago — "so grateful to be here," she said. She has no immediate family and no idea where she would be without the sisters, she said.

She remembered visiting family at the sisters' former home on Valley Street in Baltimore. The grotto that graced that location for nearly a century is now at the entry to the 21-acre Catonsville property.

The Little Sisters of the Poor, who operate 28 homes for the elderly nationwide, say proudly that they are beggars. Medicaid, the largest source of financing for long-term care in the United States, only covers about 50 percent of $8 million in annual operating costs at St. Martin's.

"We rely on generosity of the larger community to make up for budget shortfalls regularly experienced," Sister Rosemary said. "Our needs far exceed our residents' incomes."

Donations come from area parishes and many others, including the fruit and vegetable vendors the sisters gather from weekly at markets in Jessup.

"They believe in miracles, and those usually happen," said Daniel Medinger, who sits on the home's board. "The sisters have a good streak going even though their business plan is not an easy one."

The new wings are designed to offer a "homelike ambience," each with a kitchen, a gathering area around a stone fireplace with a wide-screen TV. Amenities include a walk-in spa tub, and beauty and barber shops.

"This is just a beautiful place to be," said Rose Dente, 100, who has lived at St. Martin's for 40 years, because, she smiled, "they won't let me go."

Sister Rosemary has become so construction-savvy that she readily dons a hard hat and easily converses with contractors.

"We aren't finished this [renovation] and she is already talking to us about the next one," said Jeff Lapp, job superintendent for Baltimore-based CAM Construction.

Retired registered nurse Evelyn Hill, 80, spent much of her career at Johns Hopkins Hospital. As soon as she took a job at St. Martin's, she "started negotiating to live here eventually."

She moved in eight years ago and now lives in a remodeled apartment that opens onto a rose garden. She taught herself to play the piano, regularly entertains relatives, and made many friends.

"That so many of us have thrived here is a testament to the good care and that comes from the sisters," Hill said.

Suzanne and Jerry Campos visit her mother, 99-year-old Marie Cusick, every week. He was installing another rack in Cusick's closet recently. Cusick, who used to work in retail, has never stopped shopping. She frequently invites other residents to "shop" in her closet and just lent one a complete ensemble for a wedding.

"She has been happy here since the get-go and this home has really enhanced her life," Suzanne Campos said. "The sisters look out for all the residents but don't confine them."

The home schedules movie nights, wine and cheese parties, and a breakfast club. Residents can bring their own furnishings, even cherished collections such as Shirley Baker's cabinet of Hummel figurines.

Construction on the third wing began Oct. 1. After that, contractors will upgrade the convent, which also is a center for training candidates for the order. Sister Rosemary trained there 33 years ago as a postulant and is awaiting six candidates this year. That ensures that the legacy of the Little Sisters of the Poor will continue, she said.

"Our residents pass the last years of their lives with us, until God calls them home," she said. "When they are with people who love them, they feel secure. They don't just survive; they thrive."

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