A Wisconsin Catholic women’s college has just announced plans to build housing welcoming both single mothers and retired nuns living in a residential community.

The project is a collaboration between Mount Mary University, the School Sisters of Notre Dame, who founded the college over a hundred years ago, and Milwaukee Catholic Home.

Mount Mary President Christine Pharr told CNA that the project will be a “big win-win” for students, single mothers, religious sisters, and campus life. She said the project will empower women of all ages.

Founded in 1913, Mount Mary University is a small, private Catholic college with about 1,200 undergraduates, all of whom are women, and 500 postgraduates, including both men and women.

The school will break ground on the project this summer and plans to complete the initiative by November 2021. The $45 million dollar project will consist of four buildings.

Within three of the buildings, there will be 90 apartments for sisters and other senior citizens, 24 dorm rooms for enrolled single mothers, and 52 assisted living units.

Those buildings will surround a “town center” that features a small clinic, dining services, a hair and nail salon, exercise facilities, and a chapel.

“It'll have a beautiful two-story chapel in it, and many of the artifacts and the stained glass windows from the current convent will be brought over to this new venture to make sure that the heritage of the sisters is preserved as we go forward,” Pharr said.

One of the dorms will also offer on-site child care with space for 120 children. Pharr said about 10 percent of students at the college are single mothers.

While Pharr was vice-president of College of St Mary in Omaha, Nebraska, she witnessed the success of the college’s single mother dorm. Although she did not supervise the program, she said, she was able to become familiar with its operations and engage closely with the students.

Pharr emphasized the importance of providing mothers with the proper resources to overcome the barriers that prevent them from pursuing higher education. She pointed to statistics that show a growing trend of single mothers in higher education, but with much lower graduation rates than women without children.

“If you're looking at data over maybe the last 15, 20 years, the number of single mothers returning to college has increased significantly nationally. About 11% of college students are single mothers in the state,” she said.

“There's about 32,000 single mothers who are college students, and yet their graduation rates are less than half of women without children. The obstacles that they face are rather significant: affordable housing, quality childcare, transportation, [and] just plain financing that can allow them the resources to go to a university and get an education.”

Pharr said that through grant programs, the university has been able to provide academic tutoring, counseling, advising, emergency loans, and food assistance to single mothers.

“This is important because it provides a place for single mothers to get an education in a safe environment. As a small Catholic institution, we provide tremendous resources to our students,” she said.

“I think at this institution, the potential to provide an environment where these women can be successful when they might not be living out in the community commuting, trying to address all of those other issues.”

Pharr said the housing project has been in the development over the past couple years as a response to the order’s declining number of nuns and an increase in retired sisters. When the project was initially under development, she said the order was looking at opening the space to non-religious elderly people.

Pharr had the idea to include single mothers.

Many of the nuns who will live on campus now live in convents elsewhere. Since many sisters had been involved with the school, Pharr said they are excited to come back to campus. She noted the importance the nuns’ presence will have on student life, bringing a light to the mothers, students, and to the sisters themselves.

“I think having the sisters in proximity to students and children will allow them to really stay young and be excited about the kinds of things they see happening on campus. It'll be a short walk over to seminars. They can take classes; they can participate in events on campus much easier,” Pharr said.

The campus is planning for both serendipitous and planned interactions among the students, families, and nuns, Pharr said. The sisters, besides running into students on campus more, will be able to share meals in the dining room with both students and children. She also said the clinic and day-care center will become a learning opportunity.

“We also have what we call planned interactions. So in other words, intergenerational learning opportunities. We hope that the early childhood education center [will] be a lab school, which will allow for our education majors to actually learn and participate in early childhood education.”

“In addition, we have programs in occupational therapy and nursing and social work and numerous others where we will have onsite clinical opportunities and internships so that the students can learn and be in direct connection with the sisters and the seniors.”

Pharr emphasized the value of the project - which will help mothers, campus life, and the nuns - noting that the project is deeply tied to the beliefs of the sisters.

“This is a great mission fit. The School Sisters of Notre Dame, part of their charism has always been to care for the needs of women and children. Mount Mary, in a similar manner, our vision statement says that we educate women to transform the world,” Pharr told CNA.

“To me, this is just one more way in which we can continue to empower women at all ages, whether they're sisters, whether they're seniors, whether they're children or students.”