Ground has been broken for a new convent for the sisters of the Order of Saint Helena, three years after 28 acres was bought in North Augusta.
The new convent will feature a 21,500-square-foot main building with a chapel, dining area, meeting rooms, main kitchen, cloister and rooms for the sisters.
Two or three smaller cottages will also be built on the property, plus a guest house.
If all goes as planned, the sisters will move in next fall.
“We’re very, very excited,” said Sister Ellen Francis.
The Order of St. Helena was founded in 1945 in Versailles, Ky. Some of the sisters moved to Augusta in 1960 and lived in a small log cabin that still stands on the campus of Augusta Technical College.
They were invited to the area by the Episcopal bishop in Georgia to be a praying and spiritual presence in Augusta, Ellen Francis said.
A few years later, they built the facility on Eagle Drive. It was renovated about 15 years ago.
At one time, sisters of the order lived in New York, Seattle, Augusta and other locations, but in 2008, they consolidated and all 14 sisters came to Augusta.
“We never expected this to be our main convent,” Ellen Francis said.
Many of the sisters moved into the guest house, which meant for a time the convent couldn’t rent it to those seeking a spiritual retreat.
They bought two houses in the surrounding neighborhood and were able to reopen the guest house, which is a source of income, but, more importantly, fulfills a central part of the order’s mission to provide hospitality.
Ellen Francis said several things factored into the decision to move all the sisters to Augusta. One was the cheaper cost of living, but another was that there are fewer Episcopal religious communities in Augusta than there were in New York, where the sisters lived in another large house.
“We are the only Episcopal religious order in the Southeast,” she said. “It gave us a place to come where we could have kind of a special mission.”
The sisters – there are now 15, two in nursing homes and one who travels to and from Ghana – are involved in missions throughout the community. Ellen Francis, for example, paints icons and is involved in the Interfaith Fellowship of Augusta.
The new location, near Interstate 20 at Exit 1 off Martintown Road, is convenient for visitors and the sisters’ various missions in the community, while still maintaining the peaceful retreat. Ellen Francis said that while the move won’t affect the work the sisters are doing in the Augusta area, she hopes to make new friends and reach out to other religious communities in South Carolina, too.
Construction is expected to take about a year, and the sisters hope to move in the fall of 2015.
The current property has been listed for sale, she said.
The new buildings were designed by Cheatham, Fletcher and Scott and will be built by R.W. Allen.
“It’s going to be a very special design. We hope it will be beautiful and welcoming,” Ellen Francis said.