A departed sister’s dream: Fundraiser supports completion of Villa Flora restoration

By Katie Garwood | gargoyle@flagler.edu

Generally speaking, historic preservation isn’t a responsibility for most nuns.

But for a few at the Sisters of St. Joseph, the declining state of the Villa Flora was enough for them to take action.  

The Villa Flora, a yellow-brown brick and coquina building built in 1898 as a winter cottage, sits on the northern end of St. George Street, just across the street from the Sisters of St. Joseph Convent.

And from the first time Sister Mary Christine Zimorski saw the Villa Flora, she felt compelled to have it restored. In 2013, her vision was set into motion: she formed a committee, grants were being written and plans were developing.

Nearly four years later on Feb. 18 of this year, restoration finally began. Doors and roofs would be replaced and damage would be repaired on the inside and out. The building’s 60 stained-glass windows–the most of any residential building in the city–would also be restored.

In July, Zimorski, the champion of the Villa Flora’s restoration, passed away. But those who had been a part of the restoration process were determined to see Zimorski’s vision through. That’s why in September, Jeanette Ghioto, the convent’s mission advancement director, launched a fundraiser to help “complete her dream of renovation at the Villa Flora.”

“I think when she came up here and saw it, I think it just touched her heart and she said ‘We can’t let anything happen to this building, we have to make it happen,’” Ghioto said. “She was a magnetic kind of person for getting people to be all excited about it.”

While the building’s unique appearance was what initially caught Zimorski’s interest, its storied past drove her to preserve it. When building the convent’s parking lot, bones were discovered beneath the surface, because at one point, it was used as a hospital. Countless families lived in the home since 1898 and in more recent years, many from the convent used it as a place of renewal or retreat.

Sister Jane Stoecker opens the door to the Villa Flora.

“I think she had a deep appreciation and love for the hallowedness, the holiness, the history of that building and felt that it was not just because of its historic value but because of what was involved in the history of that building and where it’s located,” said Sister Jane Stoecker, the general superior of the congregation. “Out of respect for the building and the history, it needed to be restored.”

For many, Villa Flora holds a great deal of sentimental and historic value. In the 1960s, the building was part of the St. Joseph’s Academy and housed dormitories and classrooms. One member on the restoration committee and Zimorski’s former assistant, Cheryl Sansone, used to live at Villa Flora when she went to St. Joseph’s Academy for high school.

“People were generous, especially those who were alumni of SJA,” Sansone said. “Because that building holds a lot of memory for a lot of people who passed through these walls. There’s a sentimentality involved for sure.”

Ghioto, who is in charge of the fundraising for Villa Flora said simply the fact that the fundraiser is for nuns has made it much easier to reach their goal. When it’s for the sisters, Ghioto said, “people come out of the woodwork.”

With help from fundraisers, the completion of the Villa Flora’s restoration is just weeks away. In the future, Stoecker said the building will be used as a Catholic renewal center used for retreats. But its public debut will come on Dec. 17 at noon, when the Sisters of St. Joseph invite the community inside the Villa Flora where Sister Zimorski’s nativity scenes will be on display.

While the re-opening of the Villa Flora is a long process, Stoecker said if it weren’t for Zimorksi’s love for the building, it’s likely the project would not have gotten as far as it has, even after her passing.

“There’s still a sense of sister,” Sansone said. “There’s still a sense of her vision, her hope, her energy.”

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