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USF&G; can't win PR war with nuns


On television Tuesday evening, Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill attempted, with notable lack of success, to stifle a heart-wrenching sob.

"Oh, dear," said Kerrie Burch-DeLuca, spokeswoman for the insurance giant USF&G;, corporate perpetrators of the sob witnessed across Maryland.

"Oh, my," said Jay Erbe Jr., USF&G; vice president for administrative services.

They can't win. They can win the battle, but they lose the public relations war. They can argue logic, and they can argue unsafe conditions, and they can argue that they've been a benevolent landlord for a long time, but when this newspaper ran a front-page story Tuesday that USF&G; was evicting a group of nuns from a historic Northwest Baltimore building it's occupied since 1915 to make way for corporate expansion, it set off a wave of television and radio coverage - and made a lot of people ask: What, in the name of God, is that giant company doing to those poor sisters?

"Nothing," said Kerrie Burch-DeLuca, speaking in the corporate mode.

"That's right," said Jay Erbe Jr., also corporately.

"I haven't a clue," said Sister Mary Aquin O'Neill, asked where she would live, now that USF&G; has told her and other Sisters of Mercy that they must leave Provincial House, in Mount Washington, by Nov. 30, thus ending a five-year struggle with USF&G; to continue to operate their Mount St. Agnes Theological Center for Women.

She looked quite sad and quite formidable. She looked like someone not entirely ready to yield, even with USF&G; attempting to defend the move on business grounds.

"Our point," said Burch-DeLuca, bending the facts only slightly, "is that we've let them live there for 15 years, for free, and we told them the end was coming long ago. We can't let them stay indefinitely. And now, I guess 15 years of generosity don't seem to matter."

"We're moving 800 employees out there from downtown," Erbe added. "We need to make room for them, and the sisters have known this for a long time."

Burch-DeLuca said she'd gotten some phone calls after the morning newspaper story. Erbe said he'd gotten a few. But they weren't yet aware of inquiries from the tabloid TV show "Hard Copy," which was quickly reacting to the newspaper coverage. And the evening's local news hadn't yet been broadcast.

When it was, one station's anchor intoned, "It comes as a shock to many I a group of nuns, evicted from their home by a Baltimore business I "

Another added, "It's difficult to believe. I The sisters need your help I " A telephone number was flashed on the screen for people wishing to help the Sisters of Mercy. Could he think of a worse public relations nightmare, Erbe was asked.

He laughed sardonically. No, of course not. There are public relations rules so basic, they don't even have to be written. At the top of the list is this: You never, ever throw nuns into the cold.

"But it's our generosity that's painted us into this corner," Erbe said. "These are women who have a business, and we let them run it there for years. And now, we've reached the point where BTC we want to expand our business, and we've run out of options on how to do it."

"Public relations," added Burch-DeLuca, "isn't a consideration. Doing the right thing is the consideration."

For USF&G;, the "right thing" argument goes like this: The nuns' Provincial House has an inadequate heating system, falling roof and shingles, and bad electrical wiring. It's unsafe for habitation.

Could the company not make these repairs itself, as a goodwill gesture to the sisters? How expensive could such repairs be for such a wealthy company?

"Pretty expensive," Erbe said. "And, don't forget, this is a company that was fighting for its financial health six years ago. Two years ago, we had cash-flow problems. We've survived the worst, but we have to look out for our employees."

The Sisters of Mercy once owned the 116-year-old Provincial House and the surrounding land that make up USF&G;'s Mount && Washington campus. But they sold it to the company for $2.5 million in 1982 to raise money for the nuns' retirement.

As part of the sales agreement, the nuns were allowed to remain at Provincial House for 10 years without paying rent. Thus, USF&G; claims of 15 years of corporate "generosity" are slightly out of context. Ten of those years of free rent were part of the sale agreement.

At the moment, though, its chief concern is the corporate smudge of appearing to be insensitive to nuns.

"We knew we'd catch it," Burch-DeLuca admitted.

It's one thing to look bad in the public eye.

Nobody's sure how it looks in God's eye.

Pub Date: 9/25/97

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