Dorm Life With Nuns: Turning a Convent Into a College Residence

Sisters of St. Francis convent is home to 40 students at Neumann University.

The Sisters of St. Francis and Neumann University students have become fast friends as the convent has offered self-contained living space to students.
The Sisters of St. Francis and Neumann University students have become fast friends as the convent has offered self-contained living space to students. (photo: Courtesy of Neumann University)

PHILADELPHIA — Attending religious sisters’ vow renewals, going to Mass and eating breakfast with nuns isn’t a typical college student’s morning routine.

But one such morning was shared by students and sisters this past autumn — thanks to the newfound friendships that have developed due to a new housing initiative at Neumann University.

Last fall, Neumann University discovered they needed more on-campus housing. The saving grace? The Sisters of St. Francis of Philadelphia.

In 2022, Neumann University purchased the Our Lady of Angels Motherhouse Convent, one of the Sisters of St. Francis’ buildings. The convent currently holds 40 sisters in one wing of the building; the school proposed the idea of using the other wing for student housing.

“It made perfect sense to use the space, especially since they share our values and have their own values,” said Sister Esther Anderson, who has been in the order for 60 years. “The university is built on five values: reverence for persons, excellence, integrity, stewardship and service.”

Now, 40 students live at the convent alongside the sisters. Both the students and sisters live in a self-contained wing, allowing for privacy and separation. Though the convent has housed students before in emergencies, such as during snow or ice storms, this is the first time they’ve hosted students long term, according to Sister Esther.

The Sisters of St. Francis have been very involved on campus — teaching classes, working on staff, and being on the school board. Through these opportunities, the sisters foster and develop friendships with the students.

“We would go to their plays, ball games, homecoming, graduation — all those types of things,” Sister Esther said. “They came to our motherhouse quite frequently for evenings of spiritual reflection. They also worked in some of our offices as interns. There has been a very good exchange.”

Sophomore Kayla Patino applied to be a resident assistant in the dorms but was offered a position as the community coordinator for the students’ wing at the convent.

“Even though I applied to be an RA, I realized I really wanted to be the community coordinator, and so I thought, ‘Let’s take a chance; let’s do it,’” Patino said.

As the new community coordinator, Patino moved into the convent before the rest of the students.

“When I first walked in, I was like, ‘I’m living in a church,’” Patino said. “It all looked so holy. As soon as you enter, you could just tell that this place is so sacred. It was very quiet, and I was very at ease and peaceful.”

Patino’s roommate, sophomore Katela Villasenor, agreed that her move-in day was an incredibly calm experience compared to freshman year.

“I just remember walking in and saying, ‘Whoa.’ I was aware of these beautiful, intricate stairwells,” Villasenor said. “I looked up, and the ceilings were so tall, and I felt so small.”

Even with separated wings, Villasenor wasn’t sure if the sisters would hear the sounds of college life.

“At first, I thought, ‘We’re going to have to be really quiet here. We’re going to live in a fishbowl basically.’ But as soon as we got settled in the first week, I felt so at peace,” Villasenor said.

Soon, the students began seeing the sisters outside of the building, parking their cars next to each other or leaving the convent at the same time.

“We just started creating bonds ever since moving in,” Villasenor said.

Patino’s first interaction with a sister was at the corner of the street outside the convent one day. After finishing a long walk, the sister arrived back at the convent and came up to Patino and said a quick prayer with her.

“I feel like any interaction that we had was always a blessing,” Patino said. “It was a beautiful moment, and we always connected with each other.”

One of Villasenor’s first moments with the sisters was at an event called Fall Fest. The students enjoyed good conversation with the sisters.

“We all had a great time, and we started to show off some dance moves,” Villasenor said. “[The sisters] were showing us dances and dancing with us. That was just a great bonding moment, right off the bat.”

When the students first moved in, Sister Esther said that she and other sisters baked cookies and brought them over to the students’ wing. After that, the students invited the sisters for an ice cream party. More parties and hangouts followed: a student-hosted Halloween party, a Thanksgiving “sharing night” where the students shared why they came to Neumann University and the sisters shared why they joined the order, and a big Christmas gathering.

“When they moved in, I think we understood that they would be in their space,” Sister Esther said. “But they really had a desire to have a greater interaction with sisters.”

Sister Catherine Ginther, who has been in the order for 62 years, agreed that, at first, she had to figure out what their role was when living alongside the students.

“We were trying to find out ‘What is our place?’ and not interfere or slow them down,” Sister Catherine said. “But then, I remember especially when they had a Halloween party, that became one of our first great interactions. They had all kinds of games, and it gave us a little insight into them. It was a good icebreaker.”

Often, the students help the sisters with technological difficulties, especially when they have trouble with their phones or computers.

“They’re very willing to help; there’s just a good exchange between the students and the sisters. It’s very natural,” Sister Esther said.

Patino recalled that one of her favorite moments with the sisters last semester was attending their renewal vows. Some students attended the Mass, and, afterwards, the sisters invited them to breakfast.

“I felt like it was a very big, intergenerational moment because we sat with them and ate breakfast. We got to have a conversation with them and not be on our phones and really connect with them,” Patino said. “That was a really special moment because we forgot about everything else and put that to the side to just have a true, genuine conversation.”

Sister Catherine agreed that the intergenerational impact has deeply affected the community.

“I just think intergenerational contact with one another is so good,” Sister Catherine said. “It’s wonderful to have the young around and the young voices and movement and ideas.”

Both the students and sisters have been able to share, teach and learn from one other in their new living situation.

“One of the things that I learned from them personally was to always have faith and keep my faith going,” Patino said, adding, “And to never give up. I remember I was struggling a little bit with my classes last semester, and I found a lot of comfort when I talked to them. They told me they’d keep me in their prayers. I will always believe and keep going even when things don’t go right.”

Both Sister Esther and Sister Catherine said that they have been impacted by the students’ goodness.

“They’re genuinely good people, and they’re very generous with their service and reaching out to people who are in need,” Sister Esther said. “The gift for us is seeing what young people are doing: their goodness, their generosity, their creativity, their talents, and hearing their hopes for the future and how they might make a difference in whatever work they go into, in whatever community they are in. It’s really encouraging to see young people who really are motivated.”

“They impacted me with their goodness,” Sister Catherine said. “I learned that there is a certain freedom at their time of life. I know they have responsibilities to their families, to other students. Some of them may have part-time jobs. Some of them may struggle with their studies, but there is a lightness of freedom.”

Neumann University will continue to house students in the convent, and both Patino and Villasenor want to live in the convent again in the fall.

Patino said it’s nice to be in the company of the sisters. “They like to crack jokes. They like to have a good time.”

And Villasenor has picked up on their peaceful lifestyle.

“I think one of the biggest lessons that they taught me was to just relax because everything will fall in place later on in life,” she said. “You can relax and calm down because God does everything for a reason. There’s a path for you waiting for the rest of your life.”