The dome of St. Joseph’s Convent, also called The Motherhouse, is visible for miles around Portland, and has stood as a prominent local landmark since its construction in 1909. Enlarged in phases, the three-story classical revival style brick building is ornamented with many beautiful features, including quoins, a detailed copper cornice, and the famous central entry tower topped by the copper cupola and Celtic cross. Home to the Sisters of Mercy until 2005, the order, founded in 1856, has focused on helping people through volunteer work in schools, hospitals and other community institutions. While their numbers have dwindled significantly over the past several decades, the Sisters of Mercy are still working hard for our community.
In the mid-1990s the Sisters began their search for a new purpose for the Motherhouse, beginning a 20-year odyssey to identify an appropriate reuse plan that was economically feasible, sustainable and in keeping with their mission. This journey resulted in the $15 million rehabilitation of the Motherhouse into affordable senior housing.
In general, the building was well maintained. However, the design and construction phase of the project uncovered a wide variety of challenges. Principally, the layout of the interior. For the Sisters, numerous common spaces, including a large chapel, wide hallways and very small bedrooms were ideal, but not for modern housing. Archetype Architects managed to preserve all of those historic features while creatively converting as much space as possible into new living areas. It was up to Portland Builders to take their design and make it a reality while also updating obsolete HVAC, electrical and life safety systems, improving energy efficiency and removing insensitive and unnecessary additions such as commercial kitchens, hair salons and nursing home units.
Support from the City of Portland, the State of Maine, Maine Preservation, Greater Portland Landmarks, the students and staff of the former McAuley School, the Deering Center Neighborhood Association, Sea Coast Management and Developer’s Collaborative were all essential to making this project a success.
The building now contains 66 affordable and 22 market priced apartments for seniors. The Motherhouse could have been sold for a higher return or sat empty for years, but thanks to the Sisters’ vision and mission --and an incredible project team--land around the soaring landmark is open to the public and integrated into the larger community. The Sisters of Mercy Motherhouse – a historic, enduring feature of Stevens Avenue, Deering Center and the greater Portland community – will be preserved and revitalized to carry on the Sister’s mission of caring and community into a new century.