The Mission Helpers of the Sacred Heart, an order of Roman Catholic nuns who conduct outreach to inner cities, suburban parishes and rural villages, call themselves a community without walls.
That description might prove truer than ever as the Baltimore-based sisters proceed with plans to sell their Mission Helper Center in Towson.
In a news release Thursday, the sisters, whose order was founded 122 years ago on Biddle Street, said the decision to sell the 4.5-acre property on West Joppa Road came after a comprehensive review of the community's financial situation and in preparation for a new phase of ministerial service.
"In our review of our assets, we knew the priority had to be the care of our retired sisters," said Sister Elizabeth Langmead, vice president of the congregation. "We are a missionary community. We must use our resources for those missions and not to further the use of a building."
According to the community's website, retirement expenses have increased 89 percent since 2004 and caring for the elderly sisters accounts for 34 percent of the order's annual expenses. Much of the sisters' income comes from Social Security benefits and compensation for services to various parishes and ministries.
"Like so many, the Mission Helpers lost 29 percent of their investment portfolio between July 2008 and June 2009," the annual finance report says.
The sisters met among themselves and consulted with the National Religious Retirement Office and financial experts as members prepared for the future. The order has not found a place to relocate, nor has it settled on an asking price for the property, Langmead said.
The site, between North Charles Street and York Road, includes a three-story brick convent built about 23 years ago. The building serves as home to 20 sisters and includes offices and a chapel. The center is also the base for 25 sisters who are working across the U.S. and overseas.
The sisters moved to Towson from Baltimore in the 1920s. Their original stone convent was razed when they sold a sizable portion of their property to the developers of the Blakehurst retirement community nearly 20 years ago.
Sister Janice Bader, a member of the Sisters of the Most Precious Blood who works for the National Religious Retirement Office in Washington, said the order is facing a problem affecting many other Catholic communities across the country.
The number of priests and nuns is declining, she said. Religious orders "are not attracting new members at the same rate as 50 or 60 years ago."
Many congregations are also coping with large buildings that are underused and costly to maintain.
"A lot of orders are looking for alternative uses for their properties or selling them," Bader said. "We leave those decisions to leaderships of the individual communities. It is a difficult decision, like selling the family home after many years."
Bader said she could not discuss specifics of the Towson property but conceded the Mission Center's location is a positive from a marketing standpoint.
"There are many communities in similar situations who are located in a place where there is no market," she said.
Marc Witman, a consultant with Prudential Homesale YWGC Realty, called the property "a prime piece of real estate."
The location in a residential area makes the property "significantly desirable, just outside the heart of Towson and in great school districts," Witman said. "The land is fairly level and should not present a lot of infrastructure costs."
Build-ready lots in the area sell for as much as $400,000, he said. Current zoning is residential and would allow two homes per acre. But Baltimore County's development review process would take several years, Witman said.
"Most developers will not settle on a property until all county approvals are in place," he said.
If the existing building is suitable or adaptable, the sisters might also find an institutional buyer, such as a nursing home, a church or another retirement community, he said.