The doors of the Protectory of Mary Immaculate opened for the first time on Feb. 9, 1868. The orphanage and hospital, located on Maple Street in Lawrence, was managed by five nuns who were members of The Sisters of Charity of Montreal. Sisters associated with this community are known as the Grey Nuns.
By 1891, 13 Grey Nuns were working at the protectory, caring for 90 orphans and 20 disabled people.
The Grey Nuns of Mary Immaculate would go on to care for countless citizens of Lawrence over the decades and became an important part of the city’s cultural landscape. The orphans under their care would play kickball behind the protectory. They were treated to Saturday matinees or trips to the public pool in the summer. In the fall, they climbed Tower Hill or walked to the Falls Bridge.
“The nuns ran a tight ship, but they understood it wasn’t just about room and board and education. It was about raising those children and caring for them as human beings,” says Debbie Scionti, director of mission integration at Mary Immaculate Health/Care Services, the institution that ultimately evolved from the original protectory.
The orphanage closed in 1954, becoming a licensed nursing home that would serve many former mill workers.
The ability to adapt to the changing needs of the community has kept Mary Immaculate, now sponsored by Tewksbury-based Covenant Health, thriving for 150 years, Scionti says.
Today, Mary Immaculate is one of New England’s largest nonprofit providers of long-term elder care services, employing nearly 400 people and serving 500 elders on any given day.
The staff runs three adult day health programs that include chair car transportation, 106 assisted-living residences, 194 independent living apartments, and a 231-bed skilled nursing facility with memory-care and short-term rehabilitation units.
“We have residents who live on campus, have a fall and come here for rehab,” Scionti says. “You’re still at home, just at a different part of the campus. When they come through the door and see familiar faces, you just see the tension release from their whole bodies.”
The last two Grey Nuns who worked at the facility retired in 2010, but two reside in the independent living units and four are in the nursing home.
“There is something special about taking care of a Grey Nun who comes from the tradition of taking care of others for so long,” Scionti says. “We are so blessed to have their presence still.”
Scionti attributes the continued success of the facility to staff members who have always stayed true to the mission of caring for the whole person and being there for people when they need it most.
“All of our employees may not be able to recite our mission statement, but they know we have a mission and what it is all about,” Scionti says. “Each staff member is involved in a ministry that is really big and important.”
Mary Immaculate’s staff and residents remain active in the community, partnering with other local organizations. Once a week, residents make 100 sandwiches for the homeless residents of Lazarus House. Students from Merrimack College’s Austin Scholars program spend two hours a week volunteering with residents, and a youth group from St. Augustine’s parish stops by on Sunday mornings to play cards, paint fingernails and sing with the residents. This program is beneficial to both ends of the age spectrum.
“I suspect St. Marguerite [the founder of the Grey Nuns] is smiling on the work that is happening here,” Scionti says. “She never stepped foot in Lawrence one second, but she knows what is going on here.”
Mary Immaculate Health/Care Service