This Old House – Tracing the Steps from Convent to Paraclete

In 2004 when we faced the possibility that our wonderful old St. Augustine’s convent would be sold for condominiums, we realized how important buildings are in the life of children and a community.  Originally the building housed over 30 Notre Dame Nuns who taught the 1,000 students who attended school next door.  As the numbers diminished in both the school and the convent, the Nuns decided in 1996 to give the building back to the parish with the hope it would continue the education mission for which it was constructed. 

Built in 1926, in the Arts and Crafts style of the time, the building had essentially been untouched for 88 years.  Four stories high with a fifth floor solarium, it housed over 30 sisters. An infirmary and suite for the “Mother Superior” were the only rooms to have a private bathroom.   Four small rooms on the first floor in front were for visitors, since the rest of the convent was off limits to anyone other than the sisters.   Two of the original detailed architectural plans are on display in the entrance hall.  Legend has it that the building has one ghost, Sr. Katherine, who is responsible for things that go missing. The beautiful chapel on the second floor was featured in Paul Newman’s film,” The Verdict.”

In 1997, the newly incorporated Paraclete moved into the convent upon the invitation of Msgr. Thomas McDonnell, pastor of St. Augustine’s parish with the intention of developing a model educational ministry for the youth of South Boston.  It was the ideal building for the unique program being created by Sister Ann Fox and Barry T. Hynes.  First, it could be used as a residence for a volunteer teacher corps of recent college graduates. Second, its rooms easily converted into learning spaces that were warm and inviting giving  the feeling of a large, handsome “ grandmother’s” home rather than a center for children.    On a quiet side street with a spacious front lawn and towering pine trees, the convent was once again bustling with educators – this time young people who,  like the sisters before them, were on a mission to educate.

The first year, the Paraclete Center served 100 middle school youth from the neighborhood.  Tufts Veterinary School students taught science, transforming the laundry room with its sturdy soapstone tubs into a biomedical lab complete with microscopes and lab equipment.

That year, in response to  the teen suicide epidemic gripping South Boston,  we opened our doors to Michael Patrick MacDonald and a group of teenagers who referred to themselves as the “Southie Survivors.”.  They all had lost friends to suicide.  As part of their activities, well known quilt artist Clara Wainwright, came on Sunday evenings to oversee the creation of a magnificent quilt that depicted their hopes for the future.  It is a significant art piece now displayed on our second floor.  Patrick went on to write “All Souls,”  a best seller about growing up in South Boston. He was not the only writer to return to their roots.  Anne McGrail, executive producer of “Thats’ Life” and writer for CSI would stop by while visiting her family in South Boston to give our young writers a few tips.

In 1998, Kids Can Cook with Dan Mathieu and Donna Montgomery arrived on the scene to create professional level cooking classes and to upgrade the convent kitchen to commercial standards.   This became a prototype for other after school programs. Funded by Mathieu’s catering company, students would cook a meal to take home to their families. In 2013, we brought in our own in-house chef when we saw the need to serve a nutritious meal in the evenings. Now our student chefs help prepare dinner for their fellow students.

In 1999, we became a testing laboratory for Tufts School of Engineering and Education who were developing new programming software designed for children which would allow them to make robots out of LEGO’s.  Our students were the first to build the now famous LEGO robots.  They have gone on to win many trophies in the annual First LEGO league competitions. The sisters’ large sewing room houses the Robotics program; but, earlier was the site for another project, building a replica of the famous 15 foot Rangeley Lake wooden row boat.  Directed by recently retired dentist, Dr. Barry Seigel,  the beautiful boat was launched from the 3rd floor window, courtesy of Jack Shaughnessy’s crane company.

Other special projects included, “The Ocean in our Backyard,”  when we assisted  TERC in creating a marine biology curriculum for afterschool programs.  Testing out science and forensic kits that were designed for middle school after school programs soon followed.

The year 2000 marked the beginning of a Global connection. Paraclete mothers invited Women Waging Peace delegates from war torn countries around the world to share a traditional style Thanksgiving dinner at the Paraclete.  It was the beginning of our amazing connection to Rwanda.  In 2002,  the convent once more became a place for nuns, as two Benebikira Sisters joined us to live in community with our teachers while attending school in Boston.  We now have a partnership with a primary school in Rwanda with our children exchanging pictures and stories   One highlight of this exchange was  accepting the request from the Office of the President in Rwanda to host a young girls dancing troupe who were coming to perform at an UNICEF  function -in Boston  The official explained they knew from their experience that  the girls would be safe at the Paraclete in South Boston.

In 2004,  the Archdiocese of Boston  put St Augustine’s Church, convent and school up for sale and we were served an eviction notice to facilitate the pending sale.  However, a parishioner appealed the decision and subsequently the Vatican ruled that it was  up to the receiving parish, St. Monica’s, as to how to dispose of the property.  The new pastor, Fr. Robert Kennedy, approved the sale of all properties, except the convent,  because of the value of the Paraclete program to the parish and the community.

In 2008 the Archdiocese offered to sell the building at  below market rate to the Paraclete – an offer gratefully accepted.  Since then it has done major retrofitting for energy efficiency with major funding from The Barr Foundation, Peabody Charitable Trust, The Cummings Foundation and the City of Boston. In addition  local trade unions .and construction companies continue to generously donate their services. The interior has been refurbished to maintain its comfortable, welcoming home-like setting.  The South Boston Historical Society and the South Boston MOM’s Club call it home.  The library is a favorite spot and in 2011,  Boston’s First Lady, Mrs. Angela Menino, came to read to our children.  The library ia  dedicated in her honor.

Carol Johnson and Associates provided a landscape design for our spacious front yard; graced with wonderful climbing trees. Through the years many volunteer groups from the corporate world have come to contribute to keeping the outside a beautiful oasis.  In  2014, we began the creation of a unique vertical vegetable garden and outside dining space in our back yard area.

So a building that began as a convent has become  the Paraclete  –  an educational community that has accompanied over 1000 young people  at some point during their school  journey.  It has been home  to 75 young people who have come as  volunteers to teach and made all this possible.