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Sacred Ground

Three nuns seek allies to help bring new life to a forgotten paradise in Powhatan.



The three sisters still live there, in two little houses below the grand white mansion that stands on a hill. The mansion, humbled by the beating of time, was built long ago by a very rich and very unhappy man. No one lives there anymore.

A fantastic castle rises nearby, a towering Gothic creation of red brick ramparts and stained glass. Hundreds of girls once clattered through its classrooms, herded by black-clad nuns. Now the halls are locked and silent.

Under little white crosses lie the only people left from those times: those who were slaves, sisters and girls who never saw graduation day.

Belmead's past is touched with sorrow, but it is not a sad place. People who come here feel a deep and abiding sense of peace. The air smells sweet. Blue herons guard the river and horses graze the fields. The sisters collect fallen deer antlers and line them up on the porch; they plant trees by the river and tend the graveyard.

This land is not so very far from less magical places, where gas stations and big, ungainly homes grow ever more numerous. Yet this is the nature of its enchantment — no matter how things change around it, Belmead remains as it has always been.

Now the enchantment is threatened by that most profane consideration: money. In keeping with their vows, the sisters are poor. The heavy property taxes they pay to the county will soon rise again.

They can pay the bills for now, but not forever. The only way to keep Belmead, it seems, is to sell at least part of it. But that would contradict the very core of the sisters' calling to share their resources with the poor and voiceless.

About twice a month, people who want very much to have Belmead for their own go to visit the sisters. These strangers look at the rolling hills by the swift river, this virgin territory 40 miles southwest of Richmond off Route 60. They see money growing on the hoary old trees. They offer millions — to help the ministry, they say — for the chance to take Belmead's 2,265 acres and divide it into neat little parcels, choice pieces of paradise for the wealthy.

"They're children of God too, even if they are rich," says Sister Emma Flaherty. "But we would certainly not prefer to sell this to them."

They do not want to see Belmead dissected, fenced and gated.

So they are on a quest to save the land.

All three silver-haired and blue-eyed, the sisters are unlikely knights.

Forget any notion you may have of stern nuns glaring from beneath crisp wimples. The Belmead Sisters wear jeans and sensible sneakers. With their gentle ribbing and good-natured debates, they act like a trio of favorite aunts.

Sister Emma, 65, is the voluble, businesslike one. She's the executive director of FrancisEmma Inc., the corporation established to carry out the sisters' ministry at Belmead. She has a doctorate in public policy and teaches American history three days a week at John Tyler Community College.

Sister Marion McDonald, 75, says little but has a dry sense of humor. A former science teacher, she's now the land manager and spends much of her time mowing the lawns and caring for the saplings planted by the river by a group of overeager young volunteers. Many of the little trees, she notes with dismay, have toppled and died.

Sister Emma and Sister Marion both took their vows with the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, the order that owns the land, and later joined the Sisters for Christian Community. They've both traveled the country in service, teaching school on Native American reservations and in several cities, including New Orleans. Both came to live permanently at Belmead 18 years ago. They were drawn to the Diocese of Richmond because of then-Bishop Walter Sullivan's reputation as a "peace bishop," Sister Emma explains, and they took positions teaching at a local school.

Sister Maureen T. Carroll, 64, whose sparkling eyes swim behind thick glasses, has only recently taken up residence at Belmead. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament sent her there for a sabbatical from 20 years of being a teacher, principal and fund-raiser at inner-city schools in Chicago. She took her vows in 1960. "And I've never had a quiet day in my life," she says.

Sister Maureen, with master's degrees in education and in philanthropy and development, is also chairwoman of the board of FrancisEmma Inc. An avid photographer, she soon became enchanted by life at Belmead and loves rumbling over the fields in her silver Ford Taurus station wagon.

"This is my best friend," Sister Maureen says, affectionately patting her noble steed. It has more than 200,000 miles on the odometer and a Jesus fish affixed to the back.

The three of them are Belmead's devoted caretakers. They potter about the grounds and keep an eye on things. For the last 35 years, not much has gone on here.

For nearly 80 years, the white mansion, St. Emma, was a military academy for young African-American men, run by priests. Now it's used only occasionally for retreats, when other sisters of the order come to meet and pray together.

The red castle, St. Francis de Sales, was a boarding school for African-American and Native American girls denied education elsewhere. But the imposing four-story building, unused since 1989, is slowly succumbing to the years.

Hardly anyone but alumni remembers the schools, and many Powhatan residents do not even know Belmead exists. Those who happen upon it by chance find it a delightful idyll, a place frozen in time. The twin schools, graceful in their decay, the stone granary and charming bridge all seem like they will endure forever.

But the sisters have found that preserving Belmead is not as simple as letting things be.

"It's costly to hold out," Sister Emma says. The county estimates Belmead's 2,265 acres and buildings at about $6.9 million. Twenty years ago, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament paid $9,000 in real estate taxes. Last year, the bill was $26,211.

Property values in Powhatan have shot up in recent years because of increased development; the average increase in assessed value from 2001 to 2005 was 55 percent. The sisters are anxiously awaiting the results of their reassessment, which they plan to appeal before the county's Board of Equalization.

Their money comes primarily from the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament and donations. They also get limited income from leasing fields to a Mennonite farmer, horse boarding and selective thinning of planted loblolly pines.

"The money is certainly a struggle now," acknowledges Sister Maureen. The order derives its income from some small investments, she says, as well as from donations and the salaries of sisters who work. But most of the nearly 300 sisters are retired and advanced in years.

The school buildings desperately need saviors, especially St. Francis. Renovating the building would cost somewhere around $10 million, they estimate. "We don't have that kind of money," Sister Maureen says.

They get plenty of offers of assistance from the developers who knock on the door. "They would like to help us develop the land, is what they would like to do," Sister Emma says wryly. Then the sisters could use the money for their ministry, the developers explain. The sisters politely decline.

"We believe that the root cause of oppression on Earth," the sisters' steering committee wrote in 2004, "comes from a philosophy of defining Earth and its poor as resources to be expended for the economic endeavors of the wealthy. We hold that by selling the land our land will be forever lost to those unable to reserve for themselves such rich and scenic places as our Virginia property."

For many years, they have wanted to return Belmead to its original purpose: as a place of education and sanctuary. Belmead could be a balm, Sister Emma says, for "a whole section of the population that is exhausted and torn and stressed."

But for years they've been unsure of how to do that, and no one was particularly eager to help them. "Fifteen years ago, people weren't that interested in a four-story brick building in Powhatan," Sister Emma says.

Now, however, both the development that increased their tax bill and the swell of historic renovations in Richmond have also increased interest in the school buildings at Belmead. In 2004, the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, who are headquartered just outside Philadelphia developed a comprehensive plan for the property.

In the plan, the sisters outlined their intention to preserve the land and to put it to use in a manner in keeping with their ministry, with the help of like-minded partners. If they are forced to sell, they wrote, they would try to ensure the property would not be used in a way that conflicted with their values.

Last year, the sisters put out a request for proposals from any organizations interested in leasing St. Francis and about 25 acres of surrounding land. They received several submissions and winnowed them down to two — one for St. Emma and one for St. Francis.

The sisters say they can't reveal any details of the plans until they meet with both organizations in early June. One idea that's been discussed is the creation of an environmental education center or research annex for Virginia colleges. Virginia Commonwealth University and the University of Richmond have looked at the property.

The sisters are optimistic, but others doubt their dreams are tenable. "There's still some people who think it's not going to work unless we develop it," Sister Emma says.

"At least they're honest," she adds. She understands they are inclined to estimate the land's value in terms of what it could be made into, rather than what it is. And the sisters haven't ruled out selling. But still, it's a little unnerving, having all these people eyeing Belmead.

"Waiting," Sister Emma says.

Sister Emma climbs into the passenger seat of Sister Maureen's beloved Taurus, rearranging some piled possessions. "I put your New Testament over here, all right?" she says. Strings of plastic beads, a souvenir of Sister Maureen's time in New Orleans, and an Apache wooden cross hang from the rearview mirror.

Sister Maureen presses heavy on the gas. The beads rattle as the Taurus rumbles over the hilly roads, past a large pond. "If you look, you'll see Hagatha," says Sister Emma, meaning the great blue heron that often patrols the banks. The bird fails to appear.

"No Hagatha. Only good people can see Hagatha," Sister Emma says, grinning at her visitors. The sisters have other wild friends: Odysseus the osprey and Rusty the fox, who as a kit was carried tenderly to their house by their dog, Shadow.

The Taurus approaches a locked gate. "If we had a 'Knight Rider' car, we could jump it over this," Sister Maureen later says. That is the Taurus' one limitation, so Sister Emma gets out and swings wide the gate to the lonely castle of St. Francis de Sales.

Turkey vultures circle over the brick ramparts, the bell tower and the statue of a calm St. Francis, who has stood a century above the chapel door.

Sister Maureen looks it over with obvious pride. "She built this for us," she says, meaning the order's founder, Katharine Drexel.

Drexel, daughter of Philadelphia financier Francis Anthony Drexel, established the order of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament in 1891. As a young woman, Katharine Drexel traveled the American Northwest and witnessed the deprivations suffered by reservation-bound Native Americans. After an audience with Pope Leo XIII, Drexel forsook the velvet-and-silk life of a society lady and took her sacred vows.

Drexel, who died in 1955 at age 96, was canonized in 2000. As her family's sole heir, she used her vast fortune to open nearly 65 schools and missions in the American South, West and major urban areas, to educate African-American and Native American children.

Belmead was one of Drexel's first-found and best-loved places. She bought the 600 acres called Mount Pleasant, while her sister and brother-in-law purchased 1,270 adjacent acres and later deeded the land to the sisters.

In 1899, Drexel opened the boarding school for young black and Native American women, St. Francis de Sales. In the school's early days, students studied the typical academic subjects as well as homemaking, sewing and teaching skills. Later, St. Francis adopted a full academic college preparatory curriculum, accompanied by a heavy emphasis on art and music.

"It was a tight ship," says Sister Marion, who taught biology and chemistry at St. Francis in the late 1960s. Every minute was scheduled. "No troublemakers, no. Not a chance."

The 25 or so sisters who taught also served as dorm mothers, chaperones and advisers, or "moderators," as they were called. After supper, girls entered a monitored study hall, where they watched the evening news together and then did their schoolwork. Sister Marion remembers the night the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. was announced. Everyone was anxious, she says — "just stunned."

Not long after, the sisters and students were informed that St. Francis and St. Emma would both close. With desegregation taking hold, demand for the Catholic boarding-school education had diminished. The last girls graduated in 1970; the last boys in 1972.

St. Francis has suffered little in the intervening decades. The brick walls and granite foundations are sound. The weeds that once pressed in around the building have been enthusiastically hacked away by Sister Marion, Sister Emma and one of the loyal volunteers who help maintain the property.

Yet some of the top windows are boarded; the outer verandas sag. Rainwater has escaped the clogged gutters and crept into the walls.

A big brown feather from a turkey vulture has fallen on the grass outside, delighting Sister Maureen. "Oooh," she says. "That's good luck to find a feather like that."

She and Sister Emma lead the way into the chapel.

The slippery rain has peeled the lofty ceiling and eaten great holes in the wood. A tall scaffold supports the beams and the carved pews are hung with blue tarps. But the ruin below only sends the eyes above, to the enormous rosette windows.

These are not like ordinary church windows with their unsubtle blues and crimsons, their biblical figures that stare from apostrophe eyes. The St. Francis chapel windows, made by a Richmond artisan, are nautilus swirls in the colors of a dying sunset: amber and violet, blood and cloud.

Facing the golden light, Jesus stands with upraised arms upon the carved marble altar. "This altar is as a prayer rising with full though speechless means up to Heaven," reads a plaque affixed to its side.

"It will be beautiful again someday," says Sister Maureen.

The sisters head into the main school building, which is less magnificent than the chapel, but just as eerie. They pass through the long, cobwebbed halls, parlors with faded wallpaper, where parents and bishops would sit, and the enormous green-tiled kitchen, where sinks and steamers sit abandoned.

"There's ghosts," Sister Maureen says. "Yeah, there's ghosts."

"Nooo," Sister Emma chides.

"They're benign ghosts," Sister Maureen says.

"I don't believe in ghosts at all," Sister Emma says firmly.

In one bright classroom, a thousand ladybugs lie dried on the floor. In another, two erasers sit on the ledge of a chalk-smudged board, and the clock is stopped at 8:38 — just after the bell rings.

Look into the blank mirrors that hang in the dusty bathrooms, and you can almost see the faces of the girls peering back, those thousands of young women with their minds on their studies and, maybe, that handsome cadet at St. Emma across the fields.

Katharine Drexel's sister and brother-in-law, Louise and Col. Edward Morrell, established St. Emma Military Academy in 1895. Taught by priests, young black men learned military discipline and studied a basic academic curriculum. They also chose a course of study in agriculture or a trade, such as tailoring or carpentry.

Richmonder Robert A. Walker Jr. attended the school from 1962 to 1965 and recently wrote a book about his experiences there.

His parents, both teachers in Richmond Public Schools, didn't know what to do with him, Walker recalls: "I was the militant, the hardhead, the one renegade in the family." The remedy, they decided, was to send him to St. Emma.

Walker recalls being a "scared young man, away from home for the first time," trying to adapt to a bewildering new world of military discipline and merciless hazing from older cadets. "They were right tough," he says.

Nevertheless, Walker calls his years there "enriching." He recalls with fondness the day he received his cadet's pin and the carefully choreographed social activities with girls from St. Francis. "The sisters over there were kind of strict," he says. "They would walk around with a ruler, and you had to dance at a certain distance between you. That ruler had a dual purpose too, because they would smack your fingers with it."

In 1965, Walker graduated with a military diploma, an academic diploma and a trade diploma in auto mechanics. He went on to Virginia State University, joined the Marine Corps and has worked 34 years for the U.S. Postal Service.

"It was good for me," he says of his years at St. Emma. "In fact, I think that's something the kids of today could use."

Drexel was "a dynamic woman," Walker says. She defied Klansmen and ignored violent threats as she set up schools like St. Emma throughout the South. The barn at St. Francis was set afire shortly before the school opened by people opposed to a school for black girls.

"She had so much courage to do what she did," Walker says, "before there was anything called civil rights."

The boys' school was housed at Belmead, the Gothic Revival mansion built in early 1850s by Philip St. George Cocke. A wealthy planter, Cocke bought the surrounding land piece by piece until he had accumulated about 2,000 acres.

He didn't enjoy it long. Cocke proved an able brigadier general early in the Civil War, but was demoted to colonel in the consolidation of Virginia troops with the Confederate forces. Cocke slid into a deep depression. On the day after Christmas in 1861, he shot himself in the head outside Belmead's parlor windows.

The massive house feels cold, with its fortresslike walls and high ceilings. The sisters have furnished it sparsely. Each of the eight bedrooms holds narrow, neatly made beds and mirrorless dressers — humble spaces, befitting women married to God.

A few artifacts recall the house's former opulence, such as the gilded cherub gaslights protruding from the wall of the upstairs observatory. (The cherubs look distinctly dejected. "You'd be too if you had flames coming out of your head," says Sister Marion. "Not a happy assignment.")

Painted bundles of tobacco, wheat and corn decorate the diamond-paned windows and doors, fine artwork that likely was created by slaves, Sister Maureen says.

Through the painted doors lies a small concrete veranda, where one can sit on the rusted garden chairs and look down the hill toward the river and the road. During the sisters' retreats, they hold services here. Once a red fox ran across the grass as they prayed. An eagle alighted on a nearby tree. "It was like they were called forth for the service," Sister Maureen says in wonder.

Besides finding the right people to renovate St. Emma and St. Francis, the sisters have a long list of other things to do.

Efforts are under way to place 1,000 acres of the property under a conservation easement — an agreement whereby the sisters would surrender certain development rights while maintaining ownership of the land.

The easement, to be held by the Virginia Outdoors Foundation and the James River Association, would remain binding in perpetuity, meaning Belmead could never be made into a golf course or shopping center. The sisters would also receive tax credits from the easement that they could sell.

The sisters are also working to place St. Francis on the National Register of Historic Places, a labyrinthine process that's nearly at an end. They have engineers drawing plans to rebuild the collapsed bridge over Deep Creek that once led up to the mansion. The Nature Conservancy manages the forests on the property and plans to eventually return them to native hardwoods. The sisters imagine a spiritual center at the 165-year-old granary, a pillared stone building ancient in appearance that was built by slaves.

The sisters are working to raise money too. They're hoping donations will flow at a free benefit concert May 20 on the grounds of Belmead.

Taken in full, saving Belmead seems an impossible task. Yet with a little help, the sisters believe they'll "be able to do this unrealistic thing," Sister Emma says. "It's almost like we're looking for the multiplication of the loaves and fish."

Many small miracles have already happened. The chief planner hired to work on the comprehensive plan became so taken with the vision that he volunteered his future services pro bono. The welder they employed to repair some railings at St. Francis "sat at the table and he wrote us a bill … and then he wrote, 'paid in full,'" Sister Emma says. Volunteers help maintain the grounds.

Their hope lies in such kindnesses, she says.

But there remains much to do. And little time to do it.

The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament number about 286. Half are older than 78. There is new life sprouting, however. Three women are in formation, the process by which they prepare themselves to take their vows.

There is no denying that religious life is in a state of transition, the sisters agree. Fewer women are choosing to enter religious life, and those who do are often older, in their 30s and 40s. "Associate" programs, in which Catholic men and women alike lead normal lives but commit themselves to an order's mission, have supplanted lifelong vows. The Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament have 300 such associates.

"When the last of the traditional priests and traditional sisters die off, that's what will be left," Sister Marion says matter-of-factly.

Sister Marion is the one who spent uncounted hours combing old registers of births and deaths so she could affix names and dates to the anonymous graves of the property's four cemeteries.

She found names for the students and landowners, the sisters and the priests who lived there in the last two centuries. Hardest of all was restoring names to those who were slaves.

Many of their deaths went unrecorded. But Sister Marion found mentions of many and had the names — first names, mostly — inscribed on a plaque. There are Billy and Milly, Georgianna and Joham, and infants who did not live long enough to be named.

This was not a historical exercise, Sister Emma explains, but a necessary task. Because, she says, "you realize that people are buried who worked this land, gave their lives, really, for this land, and are nameless. They belong to somebody."

They lie in the most beautiful of Belmead's four cemeteries, a shady place on a hill by the road where cedars and enormous twin poplars grow. Great fields of golden barley sweep all around the rust-flecked white crosses that march in rows. A feather fallen from a vulture's wing rests on the grass.

Belmead's enchantment is felt strongly here. So are the scars of its past. And one feels there is a reason beyond beauty, beyond history that the sisters need to save this land. Sister Maureen says it simply: "We call this holy ground." S

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