The national housing shortage is a difficult problem, but there are answers out there: Have you considered living in a nunnery?

The Sisters of St. Francis moved out of their beautiful 19th-century Mount Alvernia campus on a hilltop overlooking Millvale in 2018 to a senior living community in Wexford. A New York company bought the property in May 2019, hoping to turn it into a senior care facility. When the pandemic made that venture less attractive, the building was put back up for sale.

Pittsburgh’s Q Development bought the complex this May and is planning to create between 125 and 250 apartments. The 25-acre site houses six buildings, the largest of which was Mount Alvernia High School, an all-girls Catholic high school that closed in 2011.

In fact, notes from the last religion lesson are still on the chalkboard.

“I don’t know what we’re going to do with it, but we’re definitely going to save it,” says says Rick Belloli, a principal with Q Development.

Notes from the final religion lesson still on the chalkboard. Photo courtesy of Rick Belloli.

The property contains three major historic buildings; the most compelling of which is the red-brick, 1897 Mother House, which had about 300 rooms for the nuns who lived there.

“And the Sisters of St. Francis just maintained it impeccably, over a century-plus,” says Belloli. “It’s in amazing condition, has amazing architectural features to it. There’s so much history and a sense of tranquility there.”

The space also includes a 6,200-square-foot chapel.

Building detail at the Sisters of St. Francis in Millvale. Photo courtesy of Rick Belloli.

Q Development is one of Pittsburgh’s most experienced developers in transforming Pittsburgh’s legacy of historic buildings into places that contemporary users need (housing, in particular). The firm’s recent projects include the stately Homestead Masonic Hall Lofts and the trapezoidal red-brick warehouse (a former International Harvester showroom) in Allegheny West, the Allegheny Branch House Lofts.

This project has a lot of moving parts, from architectural planning to zoning review and applying for historic tax credits.

“We’ve been talking to the Sisters of St. Francis locally as well as out of Syracuse … just trying to understand and respect the history of the site,” says Belloli.

The Mother House at the former Sisters of St. Francis in Millvale. Photo courtesy of Q Development.

Millvale has seen an influx of businesses, shops and restaurants as prices across the river in Lawrenceville have skyrocketed.

The St. Francis site is a bit removed from the main business district, so Q Development is looking at ways to make better connections.

“We could apply for some trail grants that might connect down to the riverfront trail,” says Belloli. There are things that we know we want to do, but we don’t have any idea how to do them as yet. So we’ll be working with a planning consultant, just see how we can connect into the rest of the neighborhood infrastructure in a way that might not be readily obvious today.

“We’re just starting the architectural brainstorming process.”