Finding Sanctuary

One young couple transforms a dilapidated home-turned-convent into their own sanctuary, serving up love and comfort food.

Amber Dearmon in the kitchen of her home that was once a convent in Mobile, AL
Photos by Elizabeth Gelineau

Amber Dearmon wakes in the morning to a view of St. Joan of Arc Catholic Church just beyond the bough of a Southern live oak. She and her three huskies step onto the freshly-sanded heart pine floors in the hallway and descend the switchback stairs. In her pale-rose kitchen, she brews a pot of coffee and concocts a hash using leftover vegetables and Picanha steak from last night’s dinner. She takes her breakfast into the living room and blissfully watches the world pass by through time-warped windowpanes. Morning light reflects off the dark walls, illuminating the nearly-dry paint strokes from her late-night restoration project. Moments like this overwhelm her with peace and gratitude. Her home is her sanctuary, just as it had been for nuns who lived there before her.

The white convent-turned-home across from St. Joan of Arc seized Dearmon’s glances long before she crossed its threshold. It was a vision stained with melancholy. The lead paint on the siding had alligatored and begun to chip, the vegetation in the yard had launched an offense to reclaim the structure and the once-inviting portico had begun its succumbence to rot. Still, she saw the charm beneath the decay of the old Greek Revival dwelling. Her affection for its algae-embellished shutters and its spiderweb-laced eaves grew into longing, as if she missed a house which she’d never known. 

Her fiance, Cody Ronk, had listened to Dearmon’s wistful admiration of the convent for the three long months the “For Sale” sign stood in the yard. It wasn’t the first time she’d been drawn to a house. The couple had already renovated several homes together, but none of them were as large an undertaking as the convent would be. He could see from the street that it was on the precipice of ruin. He could also see the glow that radiated from his fiancee when she daydreamed about it. “She just couldn’t stop talking about this house,” says Ronk. “So, one day, I came home from work and asked her, ‘What are you doing tomorrow around 4 p.m.? Because I’ve already contacted the realtor for that convent, and we’re going to go look at it.’”

It didn’t take much to convince Dearmon to clear her schedule. “When he told me that, I feel like you could probably see huge hearts in my eyes,” she says. “I warned him, though, that if we looked at the house, I was going to want to buy it.” Ronk understood the risk, but he wanted to make her happy. There was also a small part of him that hoped she’d be dissuaded by the magnitude of work it would take to restore it. 

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“When we got here that day, we actually had to come in through the back door,” Dearmon recalls. “The realtor couldn’t find the key for the front door, so we didn’t get to do the whole grand entrance thing. We got to come in the literal worst room in the house first. There was nothing there. There were four stained drywalls. No ceiling, no lights. It was awful, and I thought all this buildup had led me to literally nothing.” 

Everything changed when the realtor ushered the couple to the foyer where they should have entered. Sunlight from the windows that enveloped the staircase landing cast a spotlight on the home’s loveliness and neglect. Dearmon’s eyes darted between the fireplace framed by French windows, the timeworn heart pine floors, the intricate woodwork around the doorways and the arched transom window partially obscured by a baffling dropped ceiling. Every exquisite feature was discolored from age and coated in a thin layer of dust. It broke her heart. “That was the aha moment for me,” Dearmon says. “I just walked in here and felt like the house had been waiting for me, and I felt like God was telling me that this was where I was supposed to be. Cody tried to tell me that this was going to be a huge amount of work, but there was no going back at that point. He knew he made a big mistake letting me walk in here.”

Despite his misgivings, Ronk knew Dearmon’s tender heart was set on saving the convent. She tried to rescue every stray dog, feral cat, grounded baby bird and street-bound tortoise she came across. This house would be no exception. So, in a grand gesture of love, he bought it for her. It would require more love still to restore it. 

Dearmon and Ronk have lovingly restored the home’s original pocket doors and hardware. The walls of the kitchen are an art gallery that’s taken years to curate. The outdoor elevator is a simple pulley system that adds intrigue to the home’s design. 

Regardless of her affection for her new project, Dearmon couldn’t deny the uphill battle it would be to make the dwelling inhabitable again. “We couldn’t move in right away,” she recalls. “No room in here was finished enough to live in. We couldn’t cook, there was no air conditioning, there were no usable bathrooms and, frankly, we weren’t sure we could even sleep in here. I was afraid that my dogs would eat the lead paint chips that were flaking off the wall, and I was almost positive that there was asbestos everywhere. We had the water turned on, and the whole house flooded because someone had just chopped off the pipes in the wall and plastered over them. It took us months to fix the place up enough for us to have the bare necessities.”

Addressing the home’s oddities was the couple’s second-highest priority. The single-family abode had been outfitted with amenities necessary for nuns after it was donated to the Catholic Church. They decided that a proper restoration would require research to understand both the history of the house and why nuns required such unique accommodations. “We only got bits and pieces about the house when we asked what people around here knew about it,” Dearmon says. “We started by looking at city maps and property records and figured out that it was built sometime in 1924. It was bought years later by a guy for about $80,000 and donated to the church across the street. St. Joan of Arc told us that the sink in the sunroom used to be a sanctuary with a holy water sink. Beyond that and a few anecdotes about the nuns, though, we don’t have a ton of concrete information. Then we just started guessing what stuff was and why it was there.”

Dearmon wasn’t keen on removing the convent’s items that an average home wouldn’t have, but she recognized their impracticality and agreed to relinquish many of them. “Cody had to convince me that we could make better use of the space if we got rid of a lot of the stuff,” she says. “I lost the fight to keep the wall-mounted piano in the sanctuary because Cody needed office space. I made him move it without me, though. I couldn’t do it. He was right that restoring all eight fireplaces would be a silly investment because we didn’t need one in all the bedrooms. I guess I didn’t mind taking out the sinks in all the bedrooms. I still don’t know why the nuns needed those. But we figured out that the huge wheel upstairs is an elevator, and there’s no way we were getting rid of that.”

The kitchen was one area Dearmon didn’t mind modernizing. “Cody and I both love to cook,” she says. “We needed that space to be functional, and there was nothing there to start with. I learned to cook from my momma and her momma. We always ate good when I was growing up, and it was partly because they just knew how to make whatever food they had on hand taste good. Even today I don’t like following recipes because I like to play with my food, and I mess with it until it tastes good.” 

Ronk is the self-appointed sovereign of meat in the house. “I haven’t always loved to cook,” he says. “In fact, I was kind of forced into it. I was stationed in Korea when I was in the military, and my roommate would tell me how I could be doing something better every time I cooked for myself. I mostly learned so I could cook without being told what to do, but I did start to really enjoy the process. Now, I’ll order specialty meats and see what I can do with them. I’ll go like three weeks at a time trying new stuff every night.” It’s a hobby Dearmon is happy to support.

With the kitchen, living room and bedroom restorations completed, Dearmon believes that their project will soon come to an end. “We did this renovation in phases,” she says. “Phases one and two were getting the main living spaces livable enough for us to move in. Now there’s not really that much left to do— mostly some painting and tile work. It’s just a matter of finishing up.”

“That’s a little less straightforward than it sounds,” Ronk interjects. “Amber is a creative person who gets new ideas for rooms I feel like we’ve already finished. That kind of comes from our parts in this process. She’s the designer, and I’m mostly the construction guy. She’ll tell me something she wants, and I’ll usually do it. Sometimes I push back because we have so much more to do. If she’s hardheaded enough, she’ll start the construction herself and get stuck at a point where I feel like I have to step in. I love her, though, and what she plans usually turns out pretty good. At least she listens to me when I put my foot down on the wilder ideas like painting the ceiling bright green.”

Left The freshly-sanded switchback staircase in the foyer is one of the architectural designs that made Dearmon fall in love with the old home-turned-convent. Right Dearmon’s well-stocked kitchen lets her get straight to work when culinary inspiration strikes. Storing produce in fabric bags prevents exposure to light and the buildup of moisture. 

For restoration tasks beyond Ronk’s ability or desire, the couple seeks out qualified contractors with experience in renovating historic homes. “We bought this house because I wanted to give it the love it deserved, and I didn’t want anyone to destroy its charm by doing a quick flip on it,” Dearmon says. “I can’t let myself get frustrated with this being a long process because I knew it would be going into it. It’s been difficult finding people I trust to take on jobs around the house. Getting smaller stuff fixed like the original hardware on the pocket doors has been particularly challenging, but it’s worth it to me to wait for the right person to come along. This house deserves it.”

Despite the work ahead of them, Ronk and Dearmon are delighted with all they’ve accomplished and are content to maintain their deliberate restoration pace. “I’ve owned several properties, but I’ve never felt the way I do about this one,” Dearmon says. “I just feel at peace here. I have this effortless patience when it comes to this house. I say all the time that I feel like God told me when I walked in here that I was supposed to buy it. You know, it used to be a place where a bunch of other women worshiped Him, and now I’m doing it in my own way. How can I be impatient with a place that I feel God wants me in?”

Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes

Amber Dearmon mixing up some Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes
Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes

Serves 4 

2 1/2 pounds medium Russet potatoes, peeled and cubed
1 teaspoon kosher salt
4 tablespoons unsalted butter, room temperature
6 tablespoons mayonnaise 
1 ounce blue cheese crumbles, or more to taste
Salt and pepper to taste
1 tablespoon finely chopped chives, plus more for garnish

1. Place cubed potatoes in a large pot with 1 teaspoon of kosher salt and a gallon of cold water. Bring the water to a boil over high heat. Boil the potatoes for about 15 to 20 minutes, or until fork tender. 

2. Drain the potatoes. Do not rinse. Place the butter in a large bowl and immediately add potatoes, allowing the heat from the potatoes to melt the butter. Hand mash the potatoes and butter until just blended.

3. Add mayonnaise and blue cheese and stir. Add salt, pepper, chives and additional blue cheese to taste. 

4. Garnish with chives and serve immediately. 

Picanha Roast

Dinner at Amber Dearmon's convent turned home
Lemony Asparagus, Picanha Roast and Blue Cheese Mashed Potatoes

Serves 4 

1 1/2 teaspoons lavender rosemary salt
1 teaspoon black pepper
3 pounds of prime beef Picanha roast with fat cap
4 tablespoons olive oil

1. In a small bowl, combine lavender rosemary salt and black pepper. Set aside.

2. Wash roast and pat dry. Score the fat cap in a crosshatch pattern and rub the surface of the roast with olive oil, lavender rosemary salt and black pepper. 

3. Place the roast on a rack in a roasting pan, fat side down. Cover the pan with aluminum foil and bake for 50 minutes, or until it reaches an internal temperature of 135°F.

4. Remove foil and turn the roast fat-side up. Cook for an additional 10 minutes, or until the meat reaches an internal temperature of 145°F.

5. Broil on low for 3-5 minutes. Remove from the oven and let the meat rest for 5 minutes. Slice and serve. 

*Ronk sources his meats and lavender rosemary salt from

Lemony Asparagus

Serves 4 

1 bunch of asparagus
4 tablespoons olive oil
Kosher salt, to taste
1 lemon

1. Preheat oven to 425°F. Wash asparagus and snap off the tough end at the bottom, about an inch. Pat dry.

2. On a rimmed baking sheet, spread out asparagus in a single layer and drizzle with olive oil. Generously season with kosher salt.

3. Cut the lemon into halves. Zest 1/2 of the lemon and scatter over the asparagus, then squeeze the juice over the top. Cut the unzested half of the lemon into 1/2 slices and place directly on the asparagus. 

4. Roast for about 10 minutes, or until the asparagus and lemon slices begin to brown. Serve immediately. 

Lemon Blueberry Trifle

Lemon Blueberry Trifle
Lemon Blueberry Trifle

Serves 15

2 loaves of lemon pound cake
3 cups prepared lemon pudding
3 cups prepared vanilla pudding
4 ounces blueberry preserves
1 cup whipped dessert topping, divided
1 cup of fresh blueberries, plus more for garnish
3 cups whipped cream
lemon slices and mint, for garnish

1. Cut pound cakes into 1-inch pieces. Set aside.

2. Gently combine prepared lemon pudding and 1/2 cup of whipped dessert topping. 

3. Warm the blueberry preserves in a small saucepan over low heat. The preserves should only be slightly warm to the touch and a bit runny. Whisk the warmed preserves into the prepared vanilla pudding until thoroughly combined, then gently fold in 1/2 cup of the whipped dessert topping. 

4. Place 1/2 of poundcake cubes at the bottom of a trifle dish. Sprinkle 1/2 of the blueberries over the poundcake, allowing them to fall between the cubes. Layer the lemon pudding mixture over the poundcake and blueberries. Spread the blueberry pudding mixture over the lemon pudding. Add the remaining poundcake and blueberries.Top with whipped cream and decorate with sliced lemons, blueberries, and mint. Serve chilled.

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