On the evening of Thursday, March 23, 2023, a fire broke out and consumed the former Society of the Sacred Heart convent and school at Kenwood in Albany, New York.
The Provincial Team, comprised of four Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) who lead the Society of the Sacred Heart United States – Canada Province, shared in a message on Friday, March 24, “This catastrophic fire is heartbreaking for so many of us – RSCJ who spent their noviceship there, those who served as educators at the school, those who attended the school at Kenwood and/or Doane Stuart, Associates who gathered to deepen their spirituality, and those who participated in Province gatherings. We thank God that no one was injured. We also feel blessed that the cemetery [which is still owned and in use by the Society] has been spared.”
Religious of the Sacred Heart (RSCJ) and students on Kenwood convent and school grounds, October, 1874, Albany, New York.
Though having been vacant for a number of years, the property was most recently home to the Doane Stuart School as well as a community of elderly and infirm RSCJ until both communities relocated in 2009 and 2008, respectively.
The Society of the Sacred Heart purchased the Kenwood property in 1859 from Joel Rathbone, whose family had given it the name “Kenwood.” The Society owned Kenwood for over 150 years and sold the property, with the exception of the cemetery, in 2017, to a limited liability corporation, Kenwood Commons, LLC.
The Kenwood property had a long and storied history in the Society. It was like a motherhouse for many older RSCJ in the United States – Canada Province, the place of their novitiate, their early formation as women religious.
Upon arriving in Albany in 1852, the nuns established a small boarding school and later moved it to Kenwood shortly after they purchased the property in 1859. The school was incorporated by the state of New York as the Female Academy of the Sacred Heart on January 17, 1861, and was commonly referred to as Academy of the Sacred Heart or Convent of the Sacred Heart throughout its many years in operation.
In 1864, Mother Mary Aloysia Hardey, RSCJ, moved the Society’s eastern region novitiate, a place where novices were educated and guided in their religious formation, to Kenwood. She oversaw the construction of a Gothic chapel and the expansion of the buildings to house both the school and novitiate. Construction on the core of the convent began in 1866 and was completed in 1871. This is the structure (with a few later additions) that burned in the fire on March 23, 2023.
In 1899, to honor the desire of Madeleine Sophie Barat – the founder of the Society of the Sacred Heart – that there be a single novitiate, it was decided that all the novices from the United States and Canada would be trained at the convent at Kenwood. Numbers varied from year to year, but at its peak there were just fewer than 100 novices and postulants at Kenwood. (Postulants were women who were discerning whether or not to enter the novitiate, the two-year-period of formation before becoming a nun.) The school also continued to attract boarders, including many girls from Latin America, whose families sent them to the United States to learn English. Day students from Albany and neighboring towns were also accommodated.
In 1969, changes in religious life occasioned moving the Society’s novitiate from Kenwood to the Boston area where there was a variety of theological resources and to a house that would provide the space for the new style of community life following Vatican II. Around that same time, several convents in the Society were closed and, with them, the infirmaries they housed. So additional retired and infirm RSCJ moved to Kenwood, establishing a larger retirement community called Pax Christi.
Students at Kenwood, 1911
In 1975, the school at Kenwood merged with the local Saint Agnes Episcopal School to form the Doane Stuart School. Doane Stuart and the RSCJ Pax Christi retirement community continued side by side until 2008 when the Society’s decision to relocate the elderly and infirm religious and the school’s decision in 2009 to move to nearby Rensselaer resulted in the closing of Kenwood. Before closing, Kenwood had also been home to an ecumenical house of prayer and the Kenwood Daycare and Child Development Center.
Notably, in 2018, in order to preserve some of the physical history of Kenwood, a large circular stained-glass window and four arched stained-glass windows from the former convent were installed at the Society’s United States – Canada Province offices located in St. Louis. The arched windows greet visitors to the office conference area from its Forest Park Avenue entrance, and the circular stained-glass window can be seen in the office’s reception area and, on the other side of the wall, in the office’s chapel.