PORTLAND, Me., May 11 - The woods behind the Sisters of Mercy convent where Sister Joyce Mahany has prayed since she joined the order in 1950 have disappeared. Gone are the stone grotto near which she said rosaries and the statue of St. Bernadette, where Sister Joyce would often stand in silent reflection.
She still chokes up when she talks about the woods, with its stations of the cross and benches for reflection, but Sister Joyce has come to terms with the now-barren land, which, when it is flattened, sodded and groomed, will serve a secular purpose. The six acres will be transformed into athletic fields for McCauley High, the girls school that the order operates next to its Portland residence.
"It's very emotional for me to see the statues gone, as well as the places where I prayed," Sister Joyce said. "But that sorrow will be turned to joy when I see the kids out there."
The Sisters of Mercy voted three years ago to donate their outdoor worship space to the 274 students, more than half of whom play sports. Work on the grounds started May 1.
Those who play field sports - soccer, lacrosse, field hockey, softball, and track and field - have long lamented about the school's single playing field, which overlapped with its only softball diamond. Opposing teams hounded McCauley players about the conditions, students said, and many practice sessions and games were held wherever the school could find space, usually in Portland city parks, at a nearby university or on the school's small front lawn.
McCauley's inadequate facilities and ragtag space arrangements, combined with an increased interest in field sports, made the nuns realize that the students might need the space more than they did. After numerous meetings among a planning committee and 25 sisters - none of whom openly objected to the plan - the order formally donated the land, which sits behind the high school and the convent. The City of Portland approved the $600,000 project in 2002.
The sisters, whose order has a tradition of educating women, said that letting go of the space was part of their mission.
"It fits in with our commitment to educating young ladies and giving them every opportunity we can," said Sister Mary Morey, who joined the order in 1960. "As sisters we are very committed to the school, and we realized how key this is to the program at the school."
While they are committed to the Field of Dreams, as it has been called, the sisters, all of whom took their vows decades ago and are unlikely to use the athletic facilities, find the project bittersweet.
Sister Joyce, who has lived at the convent on and off for her 55 years, would pray in the woods every day, except when the weather was bad. Sister Mary found spiritual solace among the trees, as did the school's principal, Sister Edward Mary Kelleher. Alumnae like Eileen Veroneau Brown, who graduated from the school in 1983 and now works there, have fond memories of watching the sisters walk amid the trees and stop in front of the statues, which are now covered with tarps and stored under a tree behind the convent. The icons will most likely be dispersed throughout the campus grounds once the field is complete.
But with so many students involved in athletics, building new fields was a guaranteed way to plan for the school's future and attract new students.
"I see extracurricular athletics as key to the development of the students," Sister Edward Mary said. "Being on a team builds leadership, and that is key for them. We want to make sure all of these things are available to our students, that we're not depriving them."
The new grounds will be complete late this year, but the first games will not be held until September 2006 to allow the turf to settle.
"It's going to be nice to be able to walk outside and play," said Rory Nickerson, 16, a sophomore on the lacrosse team.
The school has come to realize, however, that it takes a lot more than faith to finish the project, which is being financed almost entirely through donations. About half the cost has been paid, and the nuns are starting a fund-raising campaign, hoping to tap community groups and leaders as well as alumnae for donations.
The students seem especially grateful to the order. Jessamyn Perkins, 17, a senior who plays lacrosse, wrote a column in a local newspaper last week, thanking the sisters for donating the land. Although Ms. Perkins will not play on the field, she plans to watch the team compete when she is on break from Howard University.
"It really means a lot to me," Ms. Perkins said. "They did this so girls can have better athletic fields. It shows an amount of generosity that's inconceivable to a lot of people."