A shuttered Delaware County parish school will take on new life as a senior housing complex – and the location was a case of “love at first sight.”

“Two gorgeous, convertible buildings in a tranquil setting, with a trolley stop in front,” said Suzanne O’Grady Laurito, assistant director of Catholic Housing and Community Services (CHCS), which provides a continuum of care to older adults throughout the five-county archdiocesan area.

On Sept. 17, Laurito joined some 30 participants at a long-anticipated groundbreaking ceremony for St. Joseph’s Place in Collingdale. The $19.8 million facility – the sixth for CHCS, and the agency’s first in the Philadelphia suburbs — will provide 50 affordable apartments for income-eligible seniors aged 62 and older, thanks to a substantial rehabilitation of the former St. Joseph’s Parish Elementary School and its annex buildings.

The designs by Kramer + Marks Architects preserve the structures’ historic elements, while creating a new addition to unify the buildings. Along with apartment units, St. Joseph’s Place will feature a community room, food cupboard, laundry, lounges and on-site social services for residents.

Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre, who oversees archdiocesan Catholic Human Services, blessed the construction kickoff, describing the initiative as “a testament to the church’s commitment to our beloved seniors within this community.”

The bishop, who had proposed the site’s redevelopment back in 2017, also commended the project’s numerous partners from federal, state and local government, the private sector, the Philadelphia Archdiocese and St. Joseph Parish.

Archdiocesan Catholic Housing and Community Services staff joined secretary for Catholic Human Services James Amato (right) at a Sept. 17 groundbreaking ceremony for St. Joseph’s Place in Collingdale. The $19.8 million project will provide 50 units of affordable housing to area seniors. (Gina Christian)

“Many individuals and groups have labored so that we might see this day of groundbreaking,” he said in his address. “Through their ongoing diligence and dedication, they participate in God’s creative activity to build up his kingdom here on earth.”

A blend of tax credits, community development grants and funding from federal home loan banks and local lenders all combine to make CHCS senior homes possible.

In 2020, the St. Joseph Place project received a tax credit allocation of approximately $12.5 million from the Pennsylvania Housing Finance Agency (PHFA). The U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) awarded the initiative $750,000 from that agency’s Section 202 program, which bolsters independent living options for low-income older adults.

Funding from the County of Delaware, the Federal Home Loan Bank of Pittsburgh, TD Bank, Raymond James and a private investment rounded out the project’s financial resources – and CHCS director Heather Huot said she was “very grateful” for backers’ sustained commitment.

During a Sept. 17 groundbreaking ceremony, Philadelphia Auxiliary Bishop John McIntyre (left) blessed the renovation of the former St. Joseph Parish School in Collingdale into a new affordable senior housing complex, one of six operated by archdiocesan Catholic Housing and Community Services. (Gina Christian)

“Developing affordable housing is not for the faint of heart,” said Huot. “It takes patience, teamwork, problem-solving and creativity. There are always challenges and setbacks, curve balls that you never saw coming.”

At the same time, the need for affordable housing has accelerated as the nation’s population rapidly ages. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, those 65 and older will outnumber children under the age of 18 by 2034, and by 2060, nearly one in four Americans will be at least 65 years old.

In addition, “the pandemic has laid bare the need for affordable housing for everyone, not just the privileged,” said PHFA executive director and CEO Robin Wiessmann during her remarks.

Inquiries for CHCS’s St. Rita Place, which will open next month, began three years ago; applicants brought lawn chairs to wait in long lines for its application session in May.

The growth of CHCS’s senior housing program has been “very inspiring,” said CHS secretary James Amato, adding that agency staff have a “unique ability to address poverty, safety, physical and mental health, and community-building (that) is astounding.”

CHCS’s senior housing development model is a godsend for parishes struggling with unused structures, said St. Joseph pastor Father Thomas Sodano.

“It’s like taking a rock out of a drowning man’s arms,” he said. “If these buildings hadn’t been reused, they would have pulled the parish under – not just down, but under.”

Although the school structures are in relatively good condition, the annual cost of basic maintenance has averaged some $25,000 per year, a sum the parish’s modest weekly collections can’t cover, said Father Sodano.

A few leaks in the 100-year-old roof forced him to organize a volunteer “bucket brigade” that collected gallons of water during each storm. Without the budget for security cameras, vandals have occasionally gained access to the buildings; some 50 broken windows (including a few Father Sodano accidentally slammed shut) were only repaired through the skill of a parishioner who declined payment.

Collingdale borough council member Dorothy Gallagher said St. Joseph Place had her vote from the start, especially since the project stands to benefit senior women without robust pension plans to draw on.

“I was so excited,” said Gallagher, a member of Blessed Virgin Mary Parish in Darby and a resident of Collingdale for six decades. “I said, ‘Oh, that my church might be able to do this.’”

St. Joseph’s Place is a win for all, said Laurito.

“Those of you who are connected to this parish see a new and exciting use for a beloved school,” she said. “This tight-knit borough preserves two significant and historical buildings. The church expands its mission to care for those in need – seniors in need of a dignified and affordable home that will enable them to age well … for years to come.”