A religious order’s asset; a library hoping to buy it
The St. Ursula Center is still a proposed site for the Bayport-Blue Point Library, but a deal that is agreeable to the Ursuline order has yet to be clinched.

SCN/Leuzzi

A religious order’s asset; a library hoping to buy it

Story By: LINDA LEUZZI
8/30/2018


As Jason Borowski put it, there is a definite feeling of serendipity.

Borowski’s group, the Blue Point Civic Coalition, would lean towards the Bayport-Blue Point Library’s purchase of the St. Ursula Center as a best-case scenario. 

The novitiate of nuns was relocated to the 8.27-acre Blue Point location on the corner of Middle Road and Blue Point Avenue in 1935. The Bayport-Blue Point Library was originally founded as the Blue Point Library in 1938. 

Both have cemeteries near or on their grounds. 

Both espouse higher-minded ideals. The Ursuline Sisters of Tildonk are committed to education; with the library, that is a focal point as well. 

But that projected dream, one that is hopeful from the Bayport-Blue Point Library’s perspective as well as Borowski’s civic group—which formed in opposition to the sisters’ proposed sale of the St. Ursula property to the Seafield Center—hovers right now. Seafield pulled out in January due to overwhelming residential protests to the proposed 76-bed drug and alcohol treatment facility for women and the Ursuline nuns are trying to do what is right.

For themselves as well as the community.

“Seafield offered $5.2 million for our facility and we were supposed to close May 3, but the opposition from the community and the Town of Brookhaven made Seafield back off,” explained Sister Joanne Callahan, province leader of the Ursuline Sisters, U.S. Province. 

What the BBP Library Board has offered was more than $1 million less, she said, than the Seafield offer. 

Besides the library, two entities have expressed interest, both of which are assisted living projects. There has been an offer from a third assisted living developer that exceeds Seafield’s bid, Callahan said.  “We’re also looking into developers who might be interested in residential housing,” she added. 

“We need to live off the interest from our retirement fund and this is our only big asset,” she said. “Our Belgian province offered to lend us money towards the sale, but it needs to be paid back.”

The order would love for the library to purchase the center, “but we want a fair price,” Callahan said. “We’ve been discussing solutions with the library as of last week. Our understanding is that their appraisal is well below our appraisal, and we are trying to get to a meaningful and fair settlement on both sides.” 

Aging in this country is a tough process. The Catholic Church does not support the Ursulines financially and there are currently 36 sisters left in the U.S. Ursuline order, who range from 37 to 102 years old. “Five are in the Maria Regina Residence in Brentwood in skilled nursing care and three are in Braemar Living in Medford,” Callahan said. Money the sisters made mostly from diocesan and college teaching when they numbered 100 was invested in the 1960s into a portfolio of stocks and bonds advised by lawyers. But when the economy tanked in 2008, “we lost a third of our retirement fund and began to spend some of our principal,” she said.  

Also, whatever stipends reported by the diocese for teaching positions, not high salaries by a long shot, reaped low Social Security income. Those who headed college positions fared better. “In 2008, there were very few left earning a salary or significant Social Security,” she said. “We asked Plante Moran [a business advisory firm] to do a study and their findings were so on target it was hard, but easy, to say the only option was to sell Blue Point.”

In 2017, it went on the market. 

When Seafield was proposed, a phalanx of signs went up opposing the deal along Middle Road and surrounding streets, with a huge billboard facing the center. The turmoil aimed at the sisters was a sad time.

 “We found it very difficult to see the anger directed at us when we had been a wonderful neighbor and were in keeping in our mission to help women,” said Callahan. For years the grounds and the chapel had been open to the community. Christmas Eve masses led by the late Msgr. Tom Hartman, co-host of the popular television program “The God Squad,” were packed. Over the last 20 years at least, the sisters held spa nights, craft fairs, golf outings and annual luncheons, including the one scheduled Sept. 23 at the Strathmore Vanderbilt Country Club, to raise money. But it hasn’t been enough. 

“The goal is that we need to seek money from major donors for our retirement fund,” Callahan said.

The Bayport-Blue Point Library on Blue Point Avenue is a charming space. But it was last renovated 30 years ago. Right now, stacks in the children’s section are too tall, at seven feet, for little ones to reach books on the upper shelves. Youngsters have to walk down the hall to the Program Room with staff and if there is a bathroom break, they can’t go alone. The Teen Room is a misnomer; it’s a 6-by-8-foot corner with two desks. And that’s just for starters.

A renovation at St. Ursula Center would be the less costly way to go, Bayport-Blue Point Library director Michael Firestone emphasized. And the easiest. No relocating. But it would have to be voted on by the community, whichever way they select. 

Firestone confirmed the board and the Ursuline sisters have been in regular contact. “We’re hoping for an agreement by late September,” he said, referring to a referendum if a deal is struck. “We’ve targeted late November/early December for a possible vote. We would need just under 60 days for a public referendum and if approved, the nuns could get their money in 30 to 45 days,” he said.

Firestone said the Ursulines’ $5 million figure is the sticking point for the library board and that that figure is based on a zoning change. 

“Our appraisal was done prior to anyone mentioning zoning,” said Callahan of the A-l residential property. 

There are three plans for the library’s expansion: the St. Ursula option; one at the current site on Blue Point Avenue; or to completely take down the building and construct a new one there. 

St. Ursula’s existing building is 29,900 square feet with a 12,600-square-foot basement; the existing library has 13,325 square feet with a 3,996-square-foot basement.

“To renovate the convent, it’s cheaper than any new construction,” Firestone said. “[BBS Architects, Landscape Architects and Engineers] estimated $11.9 million,” he said. “That would give us an additional 28,000 square feet.”

To renovate the library at the current location on 1.46 acres would cost $13.5 million for an additional 24,000 square feet. “We would build two stories, have a whole new front, then renovate from the middle to the back,” Firestone said. “But we would have to relocate.” This would involve knocking down the whole BBP Library building in its entirety and constructing a brand new one at $17.2 million for 25,000 square feet.  That would require relocation as well. 

The cemetery on the grounds where Ursuline nuns are buried would have to be cared for in perpetuity. “They can hold 60 plots; I was told there are only two vacancies,” he said.

The library is owned by the Bayport-Blue Point School District. “I would speculate they wouldn’t have a need for the building,” Firestone said. “They could sell it and put money from the sale towards a library bond.”

Blue Point Civic Association president Ed Silsbe said the existing library has issues that are real and tractable and the need for a new library makes sense, but there was a concern. “I get it 100 percent,” he said. “Our ambivalence is whether the move to the Ursuline Center makes sense on several different levels. Our civic presented a few reasonable alternate locations. Those options are still out there, including if they can trade with a town-owned property.”

Library board president Ron DeVine said he couldn’t give a ballpark figure for any of the expansion proposals on what it might cost taxpayers. “We haven’t gotten to that level,” he said frankly. “Once we know the direction we’re taking, that would be disclosed for the proposition.” 

Brookhaven Town Councilman Neil Foley, whose constituency includes Blue Point, lives in Blue Point and has four children who utilize the library. “I would rather it stay A-1 residential, but as a public official I have to hear all options,” Foley said of its current zone. “Any potential development would have to go through the town board for any change of zone, then through the planning board and then the zoning board of appeals.” For an application to wind its way through the process would take 18 months without major hurdles, he said.