The Catholic sisters who have lived at Loretto Convent for decades say they are relying on the sale of their quiet campus in Wheaton to fund their retirement and health care.
After a yearslong search for a buyer, the nuns have entered into a contract to sell nearly 16 acres to developers seeking to build 48 homes aimed at empty-nesters and retirees.
But the project has touched off a controversy. Neighbors are pushing back because of concerns about traffic and take issue with the primary access to the subdivision off one existing road. Advocates for the city's history are fighting for the preservation of an 1890s mansion on the property.
Even a planning and zoning board meeting Tuesday turned heated before members voted 4-2 to recommend the city council approve plans for the subdivision. Opponents intend to raise their objections when the council reviews the proposed development by Pulte Homes on March 20.
The grounds of the Loretto Convent, once busy with visitors, now sit largely dormant. More than 80 nuns used to reside at Loretto, their sanctuary since 1946. The sisters previously ran a preschool that closed in 2014 because of low enrollment and hosted annual conferences that drew thousands. But their ranks have thinned considerably and only nine nuns now live there.
"This is our retirement, and I think we deserve it," said Sister Kay Foley, the institute's former U.S. province leader. "I really think the sisters -- I've watched these women, I've been among them for 50-some years -- deserve the fruits of their labors."
Foley's comments came at a planning and zoning board meeting this week. Member Ronald Almiron voted against the nonbinding recommendation that he said was "premature."
Almiron wanted to continue questioning an attorney for Pulte Homes and to make a closing argument. Earlier, Almiron, also an attorney, inquired about plans for environmental cleanup and demolition of 14 buildings on the site.
But Scott Weller, the board chairman, said Almiron's questions were outside the purview of the panel's authority and that members were tasked with reviewing the plat of subdivision, including the street layout and lot sizes.
"I think you're allowing the applicant to move this much faster than it should," Almiron told Weller. "I think it should be looked at much more closely."
The ranch-style houses proposed for the subdivision, called the Loretto Club, would be geared for, but not restricted to, retirees and seniors. The base price would range from $650,000 to $750,000. Developers and the sisters have been in talks for about a year.
"Nine sisters with very little resources cannot be forced to maintain 16 ares of land and 14 buildings that they can't afford to maintain," said Vince Rosanova, the attorney for Pulte. "That's inconsistent with the property rights that they're entitled to."
Chris Picone, an attorney for the sisters, said the nuns have been considering a potential sale for about a decade. The highest offer they received came from a developer who proposed reusing the Loretto buildings for a senior living facility. But the developer later determined the project was not financially feasible, Picone said.
Pulte plans to demolish the buildings to make way for the subdivision.
Nancy Flannery, the chairwoman of the city's historic commission, and others have called on Pulte to restore the property's House of Seven Gables as a community center that would anchor the Loretto Club. Pulte has offered to donate the mansion to anyone willing to relocate it, but no has stepped forward, Rosanova said.
Built in 1897, the brick home joined the "Colony," an exclusive neighborhood for members of the private Chicago Golf Club, the first 18-hole course in the country. Steel magnate Jay Morris hired Chicago architect Jarvis Hunt to design the home for his daughter.
Flannery says the mansion's craftsmanship -- the "gorgeous" woodwork, crown molding, painted beams -- is worth saving.
"If we lose this place, we'll never get it back," Flannery said. "We'll never get anything equal to it, and if we lose our history on this, we've really lost an important part of ourselves."