ST. PETERSBURG — The afternoon started with prayers and hymns and verses from the Bible about building a kingdom.
Then there was a bit of a roast.
Has anyone ever built a house? asked radiologist Thomas Egan.
"Can you imagine having eight or nine women of the house telling you how to build it?" he said to a roar.
"We get it done right," murmured a tiny voice in the crowd.
Indeed. Come fall, the women from the Franciscan Sisters of Allegany will move into a new convent on the grounds of St. Anthony's Hospital, land which clerics blessed at a ceremony Thursday. Their old convent will be torn down to build a state-of-the-art emergency room with 34 private beds.
It was a matter of need for the hospital. Leaders considered all potential spots on the campus for the construction, and the convent made the most sense. Built in the late 1960s, it was getting old and had 21 bedrooms, too many for the seven sisters currently living there, age 36 and up.
But they didn't want to make the nuns scoot.
"We don't want to leave that part of our culture," said hospital president Bill Ulbricht. "They're part of our heritage. They're part of what makes St. Anthony's what we are today."
The Franciscan Sisters of Allegany came to St. Petersburg in 1931, during the Great Depression.
"Our sisters came because there was a need in the city of St. Petersburg," said Sister Mary McNally, the hospital's vice president of mission integration. "People were out of work. People were in need of health care. Sound familiar?"
The sisters established St. Anthony's, the only Catholic hospital in Pinellas County, and lived on the grounds. They have been there ever since, serving on boards and in administrative roles, visiting with patients and praying for staff members and volunteers.
People around the hospital have a hearty respect for them. So when the staff considered using the convent grounds for a new emergency room, naturally, it went to the sisters first.
"We want to respond to the needs of the community," said Sister Margaret Foley.
The new convent, on the corner of Fourteenth Street and Seventh Avenue N, will be smaller, with eight bedrooms. It also will be one story instead of two, pleasing the sisters who have a hard time getting up and down stairs.
It will be updated and fresh but simple, as their lifestyle demands. It will have a chapel and a meditation area and comfortable common areas for the sisters to gather. They pray together every day.
"It will have a Franciscan flair, with the colors being more muted," said Ulbricht.
But the most important thing, the sisters said, is that the new home be built flexibly with other uses in mind.
That way, if anyone needs the building, they can offer it.
Stephanie Hayes can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8857.