UPDATE: The New York-based Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities announced Tuesday it will allow the nuns to stay at the Manoa convent.

Sister Rose Annette Ahuna says she was “shocked and disappointed” when she and 23 other elderly nuns were hit with the bombshell that they have to move out of their home at the Saint Francis Convent in Manoa to an assisted living facility in Pearl City.

Many of the aging sisters have lived in Manoa convent for their entire adult lives. Some have been there for more than 60 years.

“I love this home. I have been here educating St. Francis students for 30 years. To think that we will be uprooted is devastating to me personally,” says the 85 year-old Sister Rose Annette. “I would like to remain here.”

Sister Rose Annette Ahuna shares some clips inside community area at the Saint Francis Convent. 12 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sister Rose Annette Ahuna in the dining area at the Saint Francis Convent. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

Rose Annette says what she finds most disturbing about the move to The Plaza assisted living facility, an air-conditioned high-rise in Pearl City, is the sisters will be far from the students who have always been part of their lives.

In Manoa, they can look out of their windows to the green fields and see the students are playing, yelling and cheering.  They can walk out to join them.

“I love being near the school activities and also to be able to continue to do the work I enjoy,” she says. 

Sister Rose Annette is a retired biology teacher. When I met her she was on her way to make a presentation to students about Saint Marianne Cope, the beloved caregiver of Hansen’s Disease patients at Kalaupapa.

Students And Alums Oppose The Move

Most of us would be upset if we heard our former teachers were in difficult straits, but the students of the St. Francis nuns are outright furious. Many of them say the nuns are more like family to them.

Sister Rose Annette’s former student, Carol Caspillo, says, “The sisters were like our grandmothers, our aunties.  We could confide in them about things we did not dare mention to our parents.”

Caspillo says her father was an immigrant from Puerto Rico and her mother emigrated from Spain; both were very strict, traditional Catholics. 

Caspillo says as a teenager growing up in the tumultuous 1960s, she found that Sister Rose Annette would patiently listen to the personal concerns her parents might find ludicrous.

“Sister Rose Annette and the other nuns were so caring. When we spoke to them, whatever we told them did not make a difference in what they thought of us. They never judged us,” said Caspillo.

Sister Rose Annette Ahuna leads the charge inside the Saint Francis Convent. 12 dec 2015. photograph Cory Lum/Civil Beat
Sister Rose Annette Ahuna, left, doesn’t want to be far from the students who have been such a part of her life. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

Caspillo, now 72, is the president of the St. Francis Alumni Association. The association has just kicked off an electronic petition to collect signatures to try to persuade the congregational leadership in Syracuse, New York, to change its mind. The association is also collecting donations to try to buy the convent so the sisters won’t have to move.

Caspillo intends to enlist the support of the thousands of people in Hawaii who were educated by the sisters of St. Francis. She’s also reaching out to people who have donated money in the past to the school, including Bette Midler, who for years has been a supporter of the Manoa nuns, frequently sending personal items to be auctioned off at the school’s fundraisers.

Still Doing Important Work

The convent is a four-story structure on the grounds of St. Francis School located behind the University of Hawaii Manoa.

I visited with seven of the St. Francis sisters for three hours last Friday in the convent dining room to hear more about the move.

They are teachers, health care executives and social workers, many of them still carrying out important work in the community.

The Saint Francis Convent is near the University of Hawaii, Manoa, campus.
The Saint Francis Convent is near the University of Hawaii, Manoa, campus. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel, a 74 year-old social worker, says the move to Pearl City will make it impossible for her to continue her job as director of the Franciscan Adult Day Care Center in Manoa and at the same time make it through heavy traffic to Pearl City each evening to arrive in time to share a communal dinner and nightly mass with the other sisters.

Shared food, prayers and daily religious services are a central part of convent life.

“I would be coming home late to an empty house at the Plaza. I would be missing what is most important to Franciscans, and that’s our life together,” she says.

I had earlier called Rochelle Cassella, a spokeswoman for the congregation’s headquarters, the Sisters of St. Francis of the Neumann Communities in Syracuse, to ask why the nuns have to move.

Casella said the decision to relocate the sisters is part of the congregation’s “nationwide sustainability plan.”

Front row from left, Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel and Sister Marion Kikukawa. Back row from left, Sister Joan of Arc Souza, Sister Rose Annette Ahuna, Sister Samuel Marie Settar and Sister Francis Regis Hadano.
Front row from left, Sister Norberta Hunnewinkel and Sister Marion Kikukawa. Back row from left, Sister Joan of Arc Souza, Sister Rose Annette Ahuna, Sister Samuel Marie Settar and Sister Francis Regis Hadano. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

The Syracuse leadership has already closed down two convents in New York state; moving the sisters to retirement facilities where, Casella says, “they can more suitably age in place.” 

Cassella says the relocated sisters in New York went through a period of adjustment but now they are happy after finding a new purpose evangelizing, “sharing the Gospel with others where they have moved.”

She says as the aging nuns in Hawaii begin to die, the population in the Manoa convent will dwindle; yet the leadership in Syracuse will have to keep paying to renovate and maintain the four-story building.  It will be more space than the remaining sisters will need, she says.

By renting apartments in the Plaza retirement home, the congregational headquarters in Syracuse has to pay for only the space the nuns are using. This makes logical sense, but to the sisters’ supporters it seems cold-hearted.

“This is just not right. It is an amoral decision,” says alumni association president Caspillo. “The nuns took a vow to care for people. This is their life. How do you take them out of their serenity and comfort? They should be able to die where they want to die.”

The leadership has told the nuns they will have their own floor at the Plaza in Pearl City with a community room and a chapel. Each of the 24 sisters will have her own studio apartment with a bathroom and kitchenette. The cost for each sister at the Plaza will be $4,500 a month.

The total bill will be $157,500 a month for 24 bedrooms and 11 other rooms that will be remodeled to fit the needs of the sisters.

But Sister Alicia Damien Lau says keeping all 24 nuns together at the Plaza might be impossible. She is a nurse who operates a medical consulting business and is adamantly opposed to the move. She points out that the Plaza is an assisted living facility, which is not licensed to provide for the medical needs of  six of the 24 sisters who are already at a nursing home level of care.

In the Manoa convent, the six medically fragile nuns currently receive nursing home level care from medical personnel from St. Francis Healthcare System of Hawaii.

Sister Alicia says the tight-knit group of 24 sisters will have to be split up in the move to the Plaza, with sisters needing nursing home care sent to other facilities.

But congregation spokeswoman Cassella says it is making a special arrangement with the Plaza to keep all the nuns together, even the six sisters needing specialized nursing care.

Presented As A Done Deal

The sisters say they were stunned when they were informed earlier this month about the finality of the move to Pearl City by a six-member visiting leadership team from Syracuse.

In a Dec. 2 meeting in the convent dining room, the sisters said the mainland team told them, “This is the decision” and not to ask questions. If they had questions, they were asked to write them on paper to put in a box to be addressed by leadership in a few days.

The elderly nuns in the room, most of whom are gifted professional educators, former school principals, community leaders and health care executives, refused to be silenced and instead peppered the speakers with questions.

Sister Joan of Arc Souza Principal of St. Francis School points to signage at the St. Francis Convent.
Sister Joan of Arc Souza is the principal of St. Francis School, so she wouldn’t have to move, but she’d be left alone. Cory Lum/Civil Beat

“Everyone in the room was infuriated, “ says Sister Samuel Marie Settar, 68.

“We realized the move to the Plaza was already a done deal,” said Sister Joan of Arc Souza, principal of St. Francis School who is also an alumna of the school.

As school principal, Sister Joan of Arc, 72, will continue to live in  Manoa, but she dreads the loneliness of being the only sister still living on campus.

“After 50 years of community living, I get to live alone,” she says.

 The sisters said they mistakenly thought the leadership team had come to Hawaii to address the committee reports the team told the sisters to send to Syracuse in September to make clear where they would like to live if they had to move from Manoa.

In their reports, the sisters had said their first choice was to remain in the Manoa convent but if that was not possible they would consider moving to an assisted care facility projected to be built in two years on the grounds of the former St. Francis Hospital in Liliha.

The new Lilihia facility will be rooted in the Franciscan origins the sisters share. It is a Catholic institution, not a secular facility like the Plaza. “It will allow our legacy to continue,” says Sister Norberta.

Sister Alicia Damien says when asking for the reports, “The leadership had told us to dream the dream of where we wanted to spend our retirement years, but then they shot us down.”

“We were betrayed,” says 71 year-old Sister William Marie Eleniki, the chief administrator of St. Francis Healthcare Foundation/Residential Care Community.

‘They Treated Us Like Kids’

The sisters say they found out that their mainland leadership team had already signed an agreement with the Plaza on Nov. 1, a month before the sisters were informed about the move to Pearl City.

Sister Marion Kikukawa, 68, says, “I was shell-shocked. I couldn’t feel betrayed. I couldn’t feel angry. I couldn’t feel anything until the next day.”

Sister Francis Regis Hadano, 86, says, “I was angry. We are all adults but they treated us like kids. It wasn’t right. We had dutifully written our committee reports and they were ignored. “ 

Tiled art at the Saint Francis convent depicting The Last Supper.
Tiled art at the Saint Francis convent depicting The Last Supper. Cory Lum/CIvil Beat

Sister Francis Regis, like many of the elderly sisters in the convent, is an alumna of St. Francis School. She says her Buddhist parents enrolled her as a student at the school after the 1941 Pearl Harbor attack because they were worried for her safety and wanted her in a school closer to town. She converted to Catholicism in her junior year at St. Francis.

Almost every sister in the convent has deep roots in the local community.

Sister Joan of Arc says the congregation headquarters seems to have been unprepared for the outpouring of support from hundreds of Hawaii supporters after the plan to move the sisters was revealed.

“Most of us know half the people on the island and we are related to the other half, “ she laughs.

A question I can’t seem to get to the bottom of as I write this column is why the congregational leadership in Syracuse will not permit the St. Francis sisters to stay for another two years in their Manoa convent until the assisted living facility is ready in the St. Francis Healthcare System’s Kupuna Village in Liliha.

Princess Abigail Kawananakoa, a financial supporter of the sisters’ order, asks the same question in a letter she sent to the Syracuse leadership Dec. 10, saying, “I am distressed by the news that the sisters presently residing at the St. Francis Convent in Manoa will be forced to leave. Since this is not the entire story, it seems harsh and premature if indeed the long-term plan was to relocate (the sisters) in your order’s Liliha facility when it is ready. Why not wait?”

When I got back to the congregation spokeswoman Cassella on Monday, she said that although the sisters moving to the Liliha facility is a possibility in the future, it would be costly to do the many repairs needed at the Manoa convent now to have them remain there for only two years until the Liliha facility is completed.

Cassella says the congregation has no plans to sell the 11-acre St. Francis Manoa school and convent. She says the convent has been offered to the school to lease.

The sisters say the lack of transparency from their leadership promotes their feeling of uncertainty.    

One thing is certain though: The nuns of the St. Francis Convent in Manoa want to remain together in a religious communal setting, surrounded by the love and grace of their close-knit community.

“We want to stay here to die just as the sisters did before us, “ says Sister Joan of Arc. “No one dies alone in the convent.”

Sister Samuel Marie says, “If you want to take the spirit out of the sisters, send them to The Plaza.”

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