Location Red Hook (Brooklyn)
Rent $650 (market) Square feet 800
Occupants Sister Olivia Clifford and Sister Dorothy Flaum
I like the rabbit welcome sign on the gate outside. There’s another: “Sursum Corda.” [Dorothy] It’s Latin for “Lift up your hearts.” Come in out of the rain. Catherine McAuley said, whenever you welcome a guest, offer them a comfortable cup of tea.
I read that she was the founder of your order, the Sisters of Mercy—ever hear of the band, kind of goth? Anyway, she established the first house in Ireland in 1827 to serve women and children from the Dublin slums. The Sisters of Mercy were called “walking nuns,” the first to circulate among the poor. They nursed victims of cholera, earthquakes, and floods. It’s so cozy in your kitchen, with the ruffled curtains with sunflowers on them and the teapot. I feel like I’m in County Cork near the sea, though we’re only in Brooklyn—but Red Hook has that salty quality. You’ve lived together 25 years! What’s up this tiny staircase, so old? [Olivia] We have a chapel up here. We have mass. [Dorothy] Sometimes it’s just us, sometimes other people come.
Here’s your videotape collection: Victor Borge, Meet Me in St. Louis, Lassie’s Great Adventure. But you do most of your living on the first floor. Didn’t one of you have two knee replacements? [Dorothy] Yes, but I’m able to get upstairs. I was just at Dancing in the Streets’ Dance Swap. It was in that new club, Red Hook Blue.
Who were your partners? [Olivia] Somebody might grab you and say, “Do this.” [Dorothy] The MC would announce: the Bump. The place was packed.
You’re both from Flatbush. Did you want to be nuns early on? [Dorothy] It was Deanna Durbin’s era, so I wanted to be an opera singer. Simply because I could hold a tune. But being in a very practically minded family . . . [Olivia] I was the great actress, of course. Vilma Banky—I could act just like she could. [Dorothy] You’re still good at it. You do good impersonations. [Olivia blushes.] We spent our novitiate in Syosset, Long Island—six months in long black dresses, widow’s weeds. Then a black habit, white veil. We were assigned to St. Mary’s Children and Family Services for dependent and neglected delinquent boys. That’s where we met. In 1978, we moved to Red Hook and opened a residence for developmentally disabled teenagers. We lived right there with them, across from Visitation Church. [Olivia] Now we’re retired, or recycled we call it. We found we were not only working with residents but with the people in the parish. So we looked for a place here. [Dorothy] The Seaman Center had an apartment available. [Olivia] It belonged to the Port Authority and people thought it might not a safe place for us. Then we looked at an apartment over a coffee shop. You had to enter by fire escape. The rent was too high. Then a realtor took us here. We told him right off, we can’t afford the rent. He called the owner. He said, “You’re not going to like the rent but you’re going to like the people.” The owner was delighted. He did come down in the rent. He’s never raised it since. That was 1991. He’s Bud Fisher, who had a bar near here years ago, Bud & Packy’s. When we moved in, people said, “Oh, Rose Fisher’s garden was never without people.” [Dorothy] We decided we’re about people and witnessing to people and we would do as Rose did and entertain in the yard. We have a Welcome to Spring party and Farewell to Summer. We have some butterfly bushes out there. They attract butterflies. And we have azaleas, tulips, lilies. The dog is buried out there. [Olivia] Don’t say that; it’s not legal. [Dorothy] The vet said we could as long as the grave is down far enough. He has a fitting headstone: “Brownie 1984-1998.” [Olivia] We picked him up on the street. He was beautiful. [Dorothy] Handsome! And so smart.
Are you going to be in the Earth and Surf Parade May 18? That’s the day Red Hook comes alive! [Dorothy] Of course. Last year, I rode in a convertible.