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Sisters building new Sacred Heart nursing home to serve God ‘through the frail and vulnerable’

Sister Vacha Kludziak, a religious of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate who this year marks her 20th anniversary as administrator of Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville, Maryland, stands at the construction site of the new Sacred Heart Home that is being built to replace the nearly 100-year-old building that currently stands on the site. (Sacred Heart Home photo by Ray Alcaraz)

For 95 years, Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville, Maryland, has served the elderly by providing nursing care, spiritual care and other services in a building situated on nine acres on Queens Chapel Road. Now, after nearly a century, the building has been found to be too old for its purpose.

After a 2018 feasibility study found that “the aging building requires constant costly maintenance, which includes replacing leaking pipes, repairing damaged floors, and constantly dealing with ongoing plumbing and heating issues,” the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, who have administered Sacred Heart Home since 1998, are overseeing construction of a new facility there.

“There are multiple problems with this almost 100-year-old building. There is no day we don’t have some sort of problem,” said Sister Vacha Kludziak, who this year marks her 20th anniversary as administrator of Sacred Heart Home. “It would be too expensive to renovate, so a new building would allow us to provide for our residents in a better way.”

Sacred Heart Home was built in 1926. Right now, the home – which shares the property with a convent and priests’ residence – is “grandfathered” and protected from newer nursing home licensing requirements. “There is no way we could bring this (present) building up to new codes with the constraints of the building,” Sister Vacha said.

Construction began last spring on a convent for the sisters because the existing convent has to be razed in order to make room for the new nursing home.  The work is being completed by Morgan-Keller Construction of Frederick, Maryland.

Above, construction of the new Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville is seen in an aerial view. Below, is the new convent for the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate, who staff the home. The sisters’ convent had to be razed to make room for the new nursing home. Construction is being completed by Morgan-Keller Construction of Frederick, Maryland. (Sacred Heart Home photos by Ray Alcaraz)

“The old priest quarters are coming down and the old convent is coming down because that is where the chapel to the new complex will be built,” said Ray Alcaraz, Sacred Heart Home’s director of mission advancement. He added that “the new convent will be ready around April of this year.”

The new nursing home will have just one level with a partial lower level. It will feature common areas, and four residential wings. Each residential wing will have rooms with private bathrooms and showers, common dining room areas, country kitchens and social activity areas. The convent will be connected to the nursing home by a breezeway.

“It will be a more modern facility with a courtyard that is set up so residents can access the courtyard, but they won’t be able to walk away. That is especially important for residents with Alzheimer’s or dementia,” Alcaraz said.

“We will transition from the old model, which was more like a hospital or medical layout, to a new model that is like a residence with a much more homelike feeling,” said Sister Mary Imiolek, a registered nurse at the home.

Right now, the old facility has a 100-resident capacity, but will be downsizing once the construction is complete. The new building will accommodate 44 residents.

“We are looking at a smaller facility because we want to give more attention to our residents,” said Sister Vacha, noting that many of the residents are frail elderly. “We want to let them know that they are not forgotten or a burden.”

In addition to dispensing medicine, food and basic care, the sisters take an active role in meeting the emotional, social and spiritual needs of the residents. “We are not just about medical care. We look at the needs of our residents holistically,” Sister Mary said.

That sentiment was echoed by Sister Vacha.

“We do not just make sure they are washed and dressed and fed,” Sister Vacha said, “but also look after their spiritual needs.” Mass is offered every day in the home’s chapel, as is a daily recitation of the rosary.

Capuchin Franciscan Father Emmett Schuler has served as resident chaplain at Sacred Heart Home for more than three years. He lives on the grounds and distributes Holy Communion daily to residents who cannot attend Mass. In addition, Sacred Heart Home has residents of other faiths and offers services and activities for other denominations.

Sister Mary pointed out there are movies and activities planned “for different interests and groups.” The home also offers a variety of activities and services, including a hairdresser and barber. 

“There may be a lot more fancy places, but they can feel cold and dreary. Here, our residents find a lively, loving spirit,” Sister Vacha noted.

The sisters also comfort the dying. “It is very important for us to be there for them when the moment comes for them to transition” to the next life, Sister Vacha said. “A lot of people gather for birth, we want to make sure we are there for them when they transition.”

“These ladies – God love them – are going through death even more than military chaplains,” Father Schuler said. “As the residents are dying, they (the sisters) will be there night after night taking shifts to be there when they (residents) have their birth into heaven.”

The Congregation of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate assumed sponsorship of Sacred Heart Home in 1998 at the invitation of Cardinal James Hickey, then the archbishop of Washington. The order was founded in Poland in 1878. In this country, sisters also serve as sacristans at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception and run a nursing home in Baltimore and a hospice in Cleveland.

The sisters do not wear a habit.

“It is part of our hidden life. We want to transform our environment from the inside, like the Holy Family in Nazareth, with no external signs,” Sister Mary said. “We can change the world in a quiet, unassuming way.”

The sisters are renowned for the care of the residents of Sacred Heart Home. In 2017, U.S. News and World Report ranked the facility as one of the best places in Maryland for long-term care for the elderly.

Also, the 2018 feasibility study ­– conducted by an independent research group – found that “respondents were unanimous in their praise for the care, compassion and service provided by the Sisters and staff …  Sacred Heart was given very high ratings by all of the people we talked to as a model of what a senior care home should be.”

In addition to Sisters Vacha and Mary, the other sisters who work at the home include retired Sister Maria Piecyk, who is a volunteer; Sister Denise Podlaska, support manager; Sister Hanna Szymaniak, bookkeeper; Sister Lucyna Chabera, who offers pastoral care; Sister Anna Kedziora, a social worker; Sister Anna Maria Kargul, also a social worker; and Sister Marta Lipinska, an administrator in training.

Above, Sister Mary Imiolek, a religious of the Sisters Servants of Mary Immaculate and a registered nurse, takes proper precautions before visiting residents of Sacred Heart Home. (Sacred Heart Home photo by Ray Alcaraz) Below, Sister Vacha Kludziak in May will mark her 20th anniversary as administrator of Sacred Heart Home in Hyattsville. (CS photo by Andrew Biraj)

“We give the residents as much of ourselves as possible. It can be very demanding, but we love what we do because we not only give, we receive,” Sister Anna Maria said. “We see people’s goodness in who they are at this point in their lives. This is a challenging ministry, but there is nothing else I would rather do than to serve these people here.”

“We live here, and we are always available to do what needs to be done. We also try to attend to all those small everyday things that make our residents feel good,” she added. Sometimes, she said, a resident “may get a taste for something” and the sisters will bake what the resident has a craving for.

“We work hard to make this a home, not just a facility. Little things can help make the residents feel special, so we do the little things with love,” Sister Anna Maria said.

In addition to the sisters, about 100 lay staff also work at the home. “It takes a whole village to take care of the elderly,” Sister Vacha said.

“Everything we do, we do out of love,” Sister Vacha said. “We try to see Jesus in everyone we serve. God called us to the Archdiocese of Washington to serve Him through His people, the frail and the vulnerable. We see Christ’s face in the people we serve. There is no way to deny that.”

In the past year, as part of the social distancing and other quarantine efforts put in place to stem the spread of COVID-19, Sacred Heart Home instituted a strict policy to protect its residents from contracting the virus. No visitors are allowed in the building and only essential staff are on site. Residents have their temperatures checked twice a day and the sisters make sure residents are regularly hand washing and hand sanitizing.

The facility also undergoes a daily very strict cleaning and disinfecting throughout the day.

In addition, staff, doctors, therapists, contractors and vendors are subject to regular screening, having their temperatures taken and surveyed about their recent contacts. They must also follow the protocols set in place for Sacred Heart Home residents.

“The residents can’t receive visits from family and friends, so the sisters who are constantly with them are their de facto families until things change,” Alcaraz said.

The sisters are seeking donations for their $20 million project. Sister Mary said that “we are relying on God’s grace and the Holy Spirit” to finance the project because “our energy is spent with our residents. They deal with so many losses ­– ­ their friends, their homes, their family members – so we try to provide them with people who love them and comfort them.”

Sister Anna Maria said that “this is where our heart is, and we want to have a comfortable place where we can serve and love our residents. Our home and our heart are here. We are one big family.”

For more information on the project and how to assist the sisters in building the new home, call Ray Alcaraz at 301-277-6500, ext. 110.