Wilton commentary: Future of religious campus is priority for all

Stephen Hudspeth

Stephen Hudspeth

Staff / Hearst Connecticut Media

Members of the audience at the pre-election League of Women’s Voters’ sessions with the candidates last month were invited to offer written questions. One question for the Planning and Zoning Commission candidates requested their views on optimum development for the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s campus on Belden Hill Road.

The candidates wisely deferred answering that question, explaining that they should not offer comment given their role if elected in passing on development plans. The question deserves thoughtful consideration by all of us, though, especially given my understanding that in return for their being permitted to connect with the town sewer system in the face of serious issues with their private waste-treatment facility, the School Sisters entered into a still-in-effect deed restriction with our town on present and future use of the land.

The School Sisters are a very effectively managed order of nuns whose sisters have worked in some of the toughest settings around the world, in Africa, Asia and Latin America, as principals and other school administrators as well as teachers. The Wilton sisters’ province encompasses the eastern U.S., Canada and England, and their generosity and hard work is well known and widely admired. That generosity is practiced locally as well as nationally and internationally, as for example with their work helping Wi-ACT in transition of our Syrian refugee family to life in America.

Their Wilton campus is beautifully designed for its original purpose as an educational facility for novices newly joining the order. Its use in more recent years has been as a continuum-of-care community for members of the order, and it is well-designed for that purpose, too. It houses over 80 sisters still very active in doing good and important work even though many are retired from full-time careers. Also, until recently two dozen sisters who required skilled care were housed in the attractive Lourdes Center that connects to the main campus. Those sisters in need of this special care were moved recently to another facility where they continue to receive excellent care, and the School Sisters then announced publicly their plans for the eventual sale of the entire campus. My understanding is that these plans are generally expected to take several years to reach fruition.

This past summer, our town’s emergency responders held a large-scale missing-person training exercise on the campus. Those of us in CERT who participated in that exercise were stunned at the careful design and sheer magnitude of the campus’ main structure. I had visited the campus a number of times before this exercise but had never experienced the full enormity of it or how well designed it is. While the search area for the exercise didn’t include the chapel, I’ve been there multiple times, too. It’s a truly glorious structure, soaring skyward with grace and elegance. It would be tragic to see it demolished. In short, the totality of the School Sisters’ remarkable campus is really magnificent and well worth preserving.

The key question in that regard is, of course, whether a developer can be found with a permissible use for such a structure and whether a developer having that kind of a vision for it will offer an attractive price. Perhaps the campus could serve as a retirement community (quite popular in Wilton these days!) or for some other permissible use that takes advantage of the campus’ bucolic setting that fits so well with the single-family residential area in which it is situated, yet is also conveniently near the Merritt and I-95. It’s already existing town-sewer connection should also be a major plus.

So I’m glad the question was raised at the P&Z candidates’ session and expect it will be the subject of lively discussion as development plans proceed. Knowing how generous and farsighted the School Sisters and their leadership are, I have every confidence that their decision on development plans will be a good one, and I fully expect that they will consult actively with our town on how best to proceed well before any development plans actually come up for P&Z consideration.

It behooves us to be as helpful as possible in assisting the School Sisters to find the best permissible use for their property that fully honors its beauty and integrity, and we have the town resources in areas like economic development to be potentially really helpful. I hope that the School Sisters will feel free to request any help they would find useful and know that our town is already very open to being of help.