Decision to close St. Martin of Tours convent sparks outrage

Hundreds of St. Martin of Tours alumni and current and former parishioners have taken to Facebook, expressing sadness and condemning a decision to close the convent.

The Sisters, Servants of the Immaculate Heart of Mary have lived in the convent, at Loretto Avenue and Sanger Street in Oxford Circle, since 1925.

The decision was made by the Rev. John Meyers, the church pastor, after discussions with his pastoral council and IHM leadership.

“We’re certainly grateful for all the Sisters have done for 90-some years,” he said.

Meyers, who is the only full-time priest at the parish, will address the issue in Sunday’s bulletin. He said space is at a premium, and that while the nuns’ departure is “a painful and sad thing,” active parishioners need a social and spiritual setting.

No use has been finalized for the convent, which houses eight nuns. Meyers said that rumors that the convent will become a Spanish heritage center are “a complete fabrication.”

Sister Ellen Giardino, the principal, broke the news in a letter to parents and guardians last Friday. The nuns will move out by June 30.

“I will remain as principal of St. Martin of Tours School and Sister Agnes will remain with me as she continues to serve in her various roles,” the principal wrote.

“We will live in a nearby convent and commute daily to school. Sister Jeannine, Sister St. James, Sister Patricia Wolfe, Sister Julia Ann and Sister Susan will be assigned to other ministries. These Sisters are greatly affected by their leaving our school. Their presence will be a tremendous loss to SMT.”

The overwhelming majority of posts on the St. Martin of Tours Facebook page have been in support of the nuns and in opposition to the pastor’s decision. They have clashed with Vincent Meyers, the pastor’s brother. The pastor described his brother as “not exactly a professional diplomat.” The Rev. Meyers quit Facebook during the presidential election.

St. Martin of Tours was once a flourishing parish and at one time had more than 2,700 students.

But enrollment and church attendance really started to drop in the mid-1990s with changing demographics in Oxford Circle, Summerdale, Northwood and Frankford — the neighborhoods that feed the parish and school. The number of nuns, too, began to decline, with lay teachers assuming a larger role. Meyers noted that no St. Martin’s parishioner has become an IHM nun since 1976.

In 2013, St. Martin’s began being managed by Independence Mission Schools, and enrollment has grown. The parish no longer oversees the school, but does own the convent.

The school had no role in the decision to close the convent, and its long-term lease is not affected by its closure.

“Seeing the departure of our IHM sisters is sad for all of us who witnessed their deep love and support,” explains SMT School Board President Bob Adams. “We we are blessed to be a part of IMS which is stepping up to help preserve Catholic education for the children of Oxford Circle, Philadelphia and surrounding. We have a really bright future here.”

The Sisters will serve out the school year. They will be honored on April 22 at the school’s second annual Together Towards Tomorrow Gala, taking place at Leonardo Helicopter (formerly AgustaWestland).

“We will miss the Sisters who are leaving SMT and we are extremely grateful for their service to the school and the community,” said Independence Mission Schools president Anne McGoldrick. “We are blessed with the continued leadership of Sister Ellen and Sister Agnes and we look forward to the outcome of our work with the IHM congregation to preserve the legacy of the Sisters for decades to come.” ••