Bargain hunters were in the right place Tuesday morning: The Sisters of Mercy convent in Burlington played host to an auction in which nearly all of the furnishings inside the sprawling, five-story structure were to be sold to the highest bidder.
There were bagel cutters and baking sheets, a midcentury-modern sideboard and vintage parlor chairs. In total, 645 lots were to be sold, many of which contained multiple items and, in some cases, the contents of entire rooms.
And there were a lot of rooms. The mazelike building was once home to 100 Roman Catholic nuns who were part of the international Sisters of Mercy order. It closed earlier this summer.
Tucked in nearly every corner were artifacts from the sisters’ 130 years in residence. The bedrooms were nearly identical in size and content: bed frame, lamp, end table, recliner. Even the fans being used to cool the rooms had tags for sale. The building resembled a college dorm on move-out day.
The 60 bidders on-site and the 120 online would be there a while — “until we can’t stand it any longer,” auctioneer Toby Hirchak of Thomas Hirchak Company said with a smile. “It’s gonna take a while, but it shouldn’t be too cumbersome.”
He estimated that he could sell 100 items an hour.
Among the shoppers were Mary Jane Cain of Shelburne and her daughter, Barbara Cain Cousins. They were familiar with the building: Mary Jane’s late husband, Francis "Frank" Cain, grew up across the street and later served as Burlington mayor from 1965 to 1971; he died in March at age 96.
Frank Cain's sister, Virginia, had nonpolitical aspirations: She wanted to become a nun. At her father’s urging, Virginia attended Trinity College and sought to join the Sisters of Mercy. As a postulant — essentially a nun-in-training — Virginia was not allowed to leave the motherhouse, Mary Jane said.
“She could only wave from across the street,” Barbara said of her aunt.
While the Cains reveled in nostalgia, Ben Bergstein was on a mission to find discounted kitchen goods for the O'Brien Community Center in Winooski. Such items are too expensive to buy new, he said, touring the attic. In one corner stood a pink dresser lined with paintings of popes and Jesus. In others were gold crowns, a lime-green lawn chair and vintage black travel trunks.
Surveying the items for sale
“A lot of these convents are a combination of very old, historic furniture and kitsch,” Bergstein said.
He was spot on: Antique sewing machines were displayed in a room wallpapered in yellow-and-brown polka dots and carpeted in green. Elsewhere, a life-size statue of Mary stood at the end of a very 1960s orange hallway.
As he browsed, Bergstein said he hoped he could buy stuff on the cheap. He assumed most bidders were “tire-kickers,” not pros, but he wasn’t sure who would be shopping online.
“You don’t know what the competition is,” Bergstein mused. “So you hope for a break. You hope that everybody's snoozing on the stove and you get it for $500 instead of $2,500 which is really what it should go for. You never know.”
Luck, as it turned out, wasn’t on Bergstein’s side. A woman in the front row won the day’s first bidding war over the Vulcan six-burner oven, the seventh item offered up. It went for $1,250.