At new Mount Mary apartments, single mothers live alongside Catholic sisters
There is a new, one-of-a-kind housing option on a college campus in Milwaukee.
Mount Mary University recently opened Trinity Woods, an apartment complex where students who are single moms live alongside Catholic sisters.
The intergenerational housing is meant to help the students succeed and give the sisters a place to spend their golden years in comfort.
On one recent snowy afternoon at Trinity Woods, student Diana Fontanez, 27, and her daughter Mila, 7, are about to head to dinner.
As they walk through the building, they run into their 92-year-old friend, Sister Gina.
"What did you have fun with in school today? What did you like?" Sister Gina asks Mila, who responds "learning."
Gina is one of about 100 School Sisters of Notre Dame who live at Trinity Woods, on the border of Milwaukee and Wauwatosa. Diana Fontanez says Mila easily makes friends with the seniors.
"One of her best friends here is Sister Gina," Fontanez says. "So every time they see each other, they strike up a conversation. Or when me and Mila are eating dinnertime and she sees Sister Gina she invites her to sit with us."
Fontanez says the sisters have also provided moral support for her. She remembers one lunch they had together where she confided in them.
"I remember venting about how I was struggling with [Mila] in school a little bit, and I remember having this conversation [with the sisters] like, 'This is normal, I can navigate this,'" Fontanez says.
The sisters bought gifts for the moms and kids at Christmas. Soon, the two groups will get together to decorate cookies for Valentine’s Day.
This unique living arrangement came about when the School Sisters of Notre Dame were looking for a new home, because as their numbers declined, the Elm Grove convent where they were living was too much space.
"As the sisters are aging, we thought, 'We don’t need huge properties,'" says Sister Joan Penzenstadler, 77, who now lives at Trinity Woods. "But we need a place for our sisters to be cared for and be that powerhouse of prayer and presence."
Returning to the Mount Mary campus made sense – the School Sisters founded the university more than 100 years ago.
The sisters worked with Mount Mary and Milwaukee Catholic Home to fund and build Trinity Woods, which opened in December 2021. It currently houses about 100 Catholic sisters and 80 other seniors in independent and assisted living units.
The arrangement allows for Milwaukee Catholic Home, which runs Trinity Woods, to offer apartments to seniors in the community as the sisters gradually need less space.
The sisters spend their time socializing with each other, volunteering in the community, and occasionally auditing classes at Mount Mary. Five days a week, they gather in a basement chapel for afternoon Mass.
On the third floor, in a section called Madonna Hall, Mount Mary students who are single mothers live with their children. There are nine families here, though there’s room for 24. Mount Mary has opened up some of the extra rooms to graduate students — three are living there now.
The apartments are $1,200 a month, which is the same price as the school's regular dorms, according to Mount Mary.
"All the data tells us that single moms with children have many barriers to overcome to earn college degrees," says Mount Mary Vice President for Student Affairs Keri Alioto. "Doing what we can to create an environment specifically that sets these moms up for success is important."
Diana and Mila Fontanez share a two-bedroom apartment. They spend a lot of their time in the common kitchen and living room shared by the families on the third floor. There are toys and books for the children, and a television that on a recent afternoon was playing Cocomelon.
Diana Fontanez says life got in the way of her first two attempts at college. When she heard about Mount Mary’s housing for single moms, she decided to try again.
"Just with all the resources that are available to us, it’s been the most successful I’ve been as a student here," Fontanez says. "So I’m really proud of that. Just kind of having our needs met and being so close to school."
Maggie Bowen, another single mom student, says her toddler Josiah is thriving in their new environment. He goes to a daycare on the first floor of Trinity Woods.
"Just, like, his relationships with the sisters — we’re constantly surrounded by so much love," Bowen says.
Sister Joan Penzenstadler hopes that supporting the single moms and their kids can be part of the School Sisters of Notre Dame’s legacy, even as their numbers dwindle.
"To use an analogy, to be elder trees in the forest, giving nourishment and protection to new growth," Penzenstadler says. "That is our mission, and it is absolutely essential in this society."
Penzenstadler says Catholic sisters are often confused for nuns. But the difference is that sisters aren’t cloistered — they’re active in serving their communities. This is their community now.
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