Mount Mary Plans Housing To Serve Single Mothers Alongside Retired Sisters

Jan 17, 2020

Milwaukee’s Mount Mary University is planning a unique housing project that will serve students who are single mothers, alongside aging nuns and other senior citizens.

The intergenerational living complex combines two goals: to bring members of the School Sisters of Notre Dame back to the university their order helped create, and to support student parents, who often struggle to graduate from college.

The development is happening in partnership with the School Sisters of Notre Dame and Milwaukee Catholic Home. Groundbreaking is expected this summer, with the goal of opening by November 2021.   

Mount Mary President Christine Pharr.
Credit Courtesy Mount Mary University

Mount Mary President Christine Pharr says the idea of building an on-campus residence for the School Sisters of Notre Dame has been in the works for a couple of years, as the sisters decrease in number and grow older. Many of the sisters currently live in an Elm Grove convent.

“So we hatched a plan that the School Sisters would potentially move back to the Mount Mary campus and we would build housing for them that would ultimately be converted into student housing as their numbers declined,” Pharr says.

The religious order founded Mount Mary University more than 100 years ago. The nuns lived and worked on campus for a number of years. Moving back to Mount Mary would be a “homecoming,” Pharr said.

Adding students who are single mothers to the mix was the brainchild of Pharr, who used to work at College of Saint Mary in Omaha, Neb.. That school operates a successful program supporting single mothers.

“They face a lot of obstacles, including the cost of an education, transportation, child care, and simply having the resources to get all of those needs met,” Pharr said. “So this seemed like a perfect way to bring the sisters together with a demographic of students in the Milwaukee area that could benefit tremendously from having the support and resources a program like this could offer.”

The plans for the $45 million intergenerational housing facility currently include 24 dorms for student single mothers, 52 assisted living units, and 90 independent living apartments for sisters and other senior citizens.

The housing complex would also include on-site child care and health care facilities.

"[Colleges] are trying to think about, how can we ... reinvent ourselves to serve different demographics?"

Pharr says Mount Mary doesn't currently offer support services like on-campus child care for its student parents, who make up, she says, between 10% and 20% of the student population. Pharr says having housing, child care and other resources could incentivize more single mothers living in the Milwaukee area to earn a college degree. That would be good for the students but would also help Mount Mary in a time of declining college enrollment statewide.

“We all know that right now the number of high school students graduating is declining in the Midwest, and Wisconsin is no exception to that,” Pharr said. “And so all of us are trying to think about, how can we continue to serve that population, but also reinvent ourselves to serve different demographics?”