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Match made in heaven: Universities turn to convents for student housing

It may sound like the makings of a sitcom: take a convent of sisters, with extra space, and throw in some college students in need of housing. It’s not a comedy, but it is something that is happening at several universities around the country and could be a unique solution to a student housing crunch.
Snell is a graduate student at Neumann University, a Catholic institution of higher learning in Aston, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia. Sister Catherine Ginther lives in Our Lady of Angels Convent, mere steps from the center of campus. Thanks to a new effort, both students and sisters now live in the convent, as part of an innovative effort by the university to create more student housing.
At Neumann, students and sisters live on different floors of the convent, which was renamed Glen Riddle Hall - but they often spend time together. On their floor, the sisters decorated their living room for Christmas.
With 2,500 students Neumann University, near Philadelphia, found itself in a pinch. Meanwhile, the nearby convent found itself with fewer and fewer sisters. That is when an unusual housing pairing began.
With minor renovations, Neumann University began moving students into the convent this past August. Other universities are also using convents, or former religious-affiliated buildings, for campus housing, including Villanova University near Philadelphia and UC Berkeley in California, with Loyola University in Chicago currently looking into it as well.
Posted at 11:54 AM, Dec 14, 2022
and last updated 2022-12-14 12:54:37-05

ASTON, Pa. — Down the hallowed halls, where sisters in a Catholic order live, there are changes afoot.

“It was a new experience coming in,” said Zayyan Snell. “As you can see, this is like a beautiful space we’re in.”

Snell is a graduate student at Neumann University, a Catholic institution of higher learning in Aston, Pennsylvania, just outside Philadelphia.

Sister Catherine Ginther lives in Our Lady of Angels Convent, mere steps from the center of campus.

“I think it's wonderful,” she said.

With 2,500 students, though, Neumann University found itself in a pinch.

“We needed housing for the students,” said Sister Kathy Dougherty, the university’s vice president for mission and ministry.

Meanwhile, the nearby convent found itself with fewer and fewer sisters.

“There are fewer women entering the congregation,” Sister Dougherty said. “So, the need for this building just wasn't necessary.”

That’s when an unusual solution came to be: 40 students would move in with 40 sisters and all live together in the convent.

“This was just a perfect opportunity for the building to be used,” Sister Dougherty said. “And so, some minor renovations were done for their living arrangements for the students.”

Other universities are also using convents, or former religious-affiliated buildings, for campus housing, including Villanova University near Philadelphia and UC Berkeley in California, with Loyola University in Chicago currently looking into it as well.

“For the students, I didn't want them feeling like they were living in a convent,” Sister Dougherty said. “And I also wanted to make sure that the sisters felt that their space was reverenced and respected as well.”

At Neumann, students and sisters live on different floors of the convent—which was renamed Glen Riddle Hall—but they often spend time together.

“I just feel it's uplifting to all of us to have that energy,” Sister Catherine said.

Snell says he and other students take care to not interfere with the sisters’ daily life.

“I think most of the students here really didn't want to disturb the sisters,” he said. “The sisters are so friendly and it's like they teach us so many things.”

That learning goes both ways.

“The cell phone seems to be the biggest challenge because we didn't we didn't grow up with that,” Sister Catherine said. “Generally, if I have a problem, I say, ‘Oh, well, I'll look for one of the students tomorrow.’”

The students take it all in stride.

“I'm officially tech support for Glen Riddle. I don't mind that; it's great!” Snell said with a smile. “Like, sisters stop me: ‘Excuse me, do you know how to work this app?” I'm like, ‘Your email? Of course! Yeah, I got you.’”

All of it is now happening as connections across the generations are created and sheltered in a common space.