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A 16th Street convent marks its last days with a yard sale

The light-post signs make the standard Saturday morning promise: “Great Deals!” they read. “Everything for sale!”

And inside the nondescript 16th Street apartment building, it’s another run of an old ritual in this transient part of town: Shoppers ponder rooms full of fraying Archie Bunker easy chairs, potbellied table lamps, and stainless-steel quilt racks that look like walkers for the elderly. There’s an old Maytag dryer with a note attached promising years of reliable use. There’s a washer that skips a cycle but runs nonetheless. Used mops and brooms go for a buck apiece. Older women in sensible shoes hype an industrial steel sink and a collection of aging Tupperware.

Stay long enough, though, and you get the sense that something’s missing. Not a single Ikea futon is flopped on the floor. No Precor stair-steppers or dusty exercise bikes grace the foyer. And where in heaven’s name are the plastic Redskins beer cups, black-and-white beefcake posters, and family-reunion commemorative Frisbees?

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Going to a moving sale is always a little weird. You’re evaluating the detritus of people’s lives—here snapping up the book they bought on that Tunisian vacation two summers ago, there tossing aside their 7-year-old’s outgrown raincoat, everywhere feeling as if you’re sifting through a place you don’t belong. Of course, Saturday morning at the convent of the Sisters of Notre Dame de Namur, the housecleaning sale’s even weirder because the house in question is that of the Lord. The spectacle, almost eerily free of kitsch, is pretty much exactly what you’d expect from people who have taken a vow of poverty.

According to a nun staffing the cash box Saturday morning, brides of Christ sometimes have to move. “There aren’t enough nuns to fill the place anymore,” she says. “So they’re selling the building and turning it into condos.”

For the past 32 years, the sisters—from a 200-year-old Catholic order dedicated to the education of the poor—have occupied the musty structure at 1625 16th St. NW. The convent took over its building on the tree-lined strip in 1967, housing young women coming in to study for their ministry. At one time, as many as 40 nuns lived in the building. But by the time the convent started closing up shop, the core population was down to about 15—leaving 25 bedrooms empty.

If the items for sale look picked over from the start, that’s because other nuns got first dibs on the really good stuff. Beds and dressers went to a group of sisters from Argentina who recently opened a new convent elsewhere in D.C. Other items were donated to local shelters. And when the last eight nuns left the old convent and moved to a house on Taylor Street NE, near Catholic University, they took a lot of furnishings with them. “As it was, we took too many things over to Taylor Street,” says Sister Bernadette Glodek, who lived on 16th Street for 30 years. “We had to bring stuff back. Our eyes were bigger than our stomachs, you might say.”

While the sisters mourn the end of an era, some of their customers along 16th Street’s hot stretch of gentrifying housing are admiring their real estate savvy. The building—owned by the nuns, not the Catholic church—is worth a small fortune in today’s market. “Oh, there was no problem selling it,” says Sister Glodek, who helped negotiate the sale, but won’t disclose the price.

The proceeds from the sale—and the yard sale—will provide a much-needed boost to the nuns’ retirement fund. Years of free labor have left them without much in the way of Social Security benefits, and the Archdiocese of Washington leaves God to care for them in old age. “Some people think the church takes care of the health, education, and welfare of nuns,” says Sister Glodek. “But it doesn’t.”

Fortunately, service in Catholic schools has left the nuns with some fundraising experience—if not a ready supply of Ginsu knives for Saturday morning’s shoppers. A friend of the nuns who runs a flea market came over a few days before the sale and helped them price their wares at market rates. Except for a few odds and ends, the convent is cleaned out by the end of the day. The washer and dryer haven’t budged, but a restaurant owner has bought all the kitchen fixtures—including two walk-in refrigerators. “Took them right out of the wall,” says Sister Agnes McBryan, who organized the sale.

Meanwhile, the old convent is pretty much ready for the demolition crew—set to arrive soon after the nuns close out the sale. Some students are still arranging for trucks to cart away metal closets and desks, but once all the accounts are settled, the leftovers will go to that universal yard-sale graveyard, the Salvation Army. “I’ll miss the neighborhood,” sighs Sister Glodek. “However, you can’t have everything you want.” CP