Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Cathedral of St. Paul wants a bigger say on issues in its neighborhood

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You'd think the institution at the top of the hill would hold a little more sway over local politics.

But the rector of the Cathedral of St. Paul said his church is practically "invisible" in civic affairs. The church has stood on the sidelines for too long, he said — and needs to speak up if it's to have any say in what goes on around it.

The Very Rev. Joseph Johnson said unpleasant surprises over old light-rail plans and the Seven Corners Transit Center — both of which he said indirectly affect the cathedral — have prompted him to start hustling.

"Important decisions are being made about the city's fate, and the cathedral is not part of the decision-making process," Johnson said.

He has started courting community leaders and getting the cathedral's name out there. He'll need their help to avoid any more surprises — and to get community support for the cathedral's own development proposals.

Civic leaders' reaction so far: Welcome to the fray, Reverend.

"Now that we know that they'd like to be engaged, it's wonderful," City Council Member Dave Thune said.

At least in recent memory, the church has long been quiet on civic matters, some city officials say. Except for cooperation on social programs, Thune said, the city hasn't really had any relationship with it.

That's already changing under Johnson, a 37-year-old who came to the Twin Cities from Texas.

He has been rector since June 2006, havingserved as assistant chancellor of the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis and pastor at St. Vincent de Paul in St. Paul.

As rector, he serves a dual role as pastor to the cathedral parish and one who assists the archbishop in leading the principal church of the archdiocese.

He said his wakeup call came just months after taking his position, when he saw plans for the proposed light-rail loop through downtown. To his surprise, he saw a rail stop right at the edge of the cathedral at Marshall and Summit avenues — labeled St. Paul College.

"No one ever called us" about putting in a light-rail stop so close to the church, he said. "We weren't even on the map. That brought into stark reality how disengaged we'd become."

Nor was there much evidence of the cathedral on the map of last year's Twin Cities Marathon, he said — even though the route went past it — except for its presence in a picture or two.

And Johnson said construction of the Smith Avenue Transit Center, which he said has disturbed downtown's view of the cathedral — "It looks like an upside-down ice cream cone on top of that parking ramp" — happened without any clerical input.

It was the church's own distraction with day-to-day affairs that has kept it out of the loop, he said.

Johnson has been trying to change that, meeting with elected officials and staffers from the city's planning, parks and public works departments. He said he hopes to get a heads-up on major projects or have cathedral representatives keep tabs on the goings-on at City Hall.

After all, the cathedral has its own land-use issues, and Johnson said getting support from district councils and the city will be crucial.

The church has considered installing underground parking and replacing its Summit Avenue chancellery with a multipurpose facility, among other things.

It's working with neighbors and St. Paul College to resolve parking concerns and may need to reconfigure Marshall, Selby and Dayton avenues for traffic-safety and security reasons.

All of those are just ideas, Johnson said, and the cathedral plans to talk to district councils and city planners before trying anything.

So far, he has won over Bob Bierscheid, the city's parks and recreation director, who said he had never heard from the church professionally until the rector came to his door.

"It did impress me that he did the outreach," Bierscheid said. "It was fresh. Other institutions you kind of take for granted." Pioneer Press

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