Nuns against the neighbors, and NIMBY takes the lead

John O'Connor
John O'Connor

I first heard about the sisters of Fraternite Notre Dame last winter, when two boilers broke down at a church they were running on Chicago's West Side.

It got so cold the sanctuary dipped to 34 degrees and the holy water froze. Despite this daunting challenge, they continued to operate a daily soup kitchen and food pantry. For as anyone who has been under their tutelage can tell you, nuns tend to be remarkably resilient.

Fortunately, as word of their hardship spread, many Chicagoans chipped in and the heating problem was resolved.

But McHenry County ain't Chicago. And there, the view toward the nuns and what they do appears to be somewhat different.

But first, some background: In 2005, the religious order paid $2.5 million for 65 acres of land there. They have since acquired 30 more acres. It was a savvy move. For like many areas northwest of Chicago, the nicer parts of McHenry County have generally been doing quite well lately. In fact, the area surrounding their land is chock-full of well-appointed McMansions, and residents who can afford them.

The sisters and the locals are hardly what academics might call socio-economic cohorts. For the former, money has always been tight. You're not likely to find them at Starbucks or a pilates class. The fact is, they can ill-afford afford either. Besides, they have far more important things to do.

One of the things the sisters have been trying to do lately is build a nursing home and boarding school on the property, and to partially offset the costs by making and selling beer and wine. But judging by the Not-In-My-Back-Yard response their effort just received, you'd have thought they had proposed a sanctuary for howler monkeys.

Last week, The McHenry County Board soundly rejected the sisters' plan. It might have been rude to simply tell the nuns to take a hike. So the board and some of the locals did it in a way that sounds less offensive. They said the proposed development didn't fit the, ahem, character of the neighborhood.

But the vote could hardly have been more stinging. It went 21-2 against, and not a single board member spoke in favor of the service expansion. Lest there be any doubt about the local sentiment, applause erupted once the measure failed.

Fraternite Attorney Tom Zanck said the sisters will continue to explore their options. Let's hope the locals and the board will reconsider and perhaps become a bit more introspective. If not for the nuns' sake, then perhaps for their own.

This is an area full of God-fearing people. Most if not all are quite familiar with the Judgment Day concept.

And there may come a time when they may have to explain their views to a higher authority than the county board. If/when that time arrives, appealing to land-use plans and development ordinances might not sound so compelling.

Actually, it doesn't sound like much of an argument right now.

John O'Connor is McKnight's Editorial Director.

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McKnight's Daily Editors' Notes features commentary on the latest in long-term care news and issues. Entries are written by Editorial Director John O'Connor, Editor James M. Berklan, Senior Editor Elizabeth Newman and Staff Writer Emily Mongan.

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