Thursday, November 12, 2009


Convent Conversion
Duluth News-Tribune (MN)
January 9, 2005

Artist's DrawingHosts of prayers used to soar heavenward every time the nuns drove past their old home. Now, a group of Benedictine Sisters are offering up advice and history lessons as plans are made to renovate the once-proud but abandoned Sacred Heart Convent on Second Avenue West, near downtown Duluth.

Women's Transitional Housing purchased the condemned, 98-year-old structure a little over a year ago and is lining up money to convert the three stories of bricks and windows into 11 efficiency apartments for women in need and their children.

``I used to drive by and say a prayer that something good would happen with the building. Now it is,'' said Sister Mary Christa Kroening, one of the nuns who now lives at the College of St. Scholastica Monastery. She lived at the Central Hillside convent between 1960 and 1978 while teaching at the neighboring Cathedral schools.

``We have so many good memories there and we're thrilled this is happening,'' said Sister Ramona Ewen, a resident of the convent between 1946 and 1963. ``We're very excited the building is going to be used again, especially with the way it's going to be used -- to help women. It's going to be fun to come back when it's all done.''

The 11 new efficiency apartments will provide affordable, permanent housing, said Zoe LeBeau, co-director of Women's Transitional Housing. A commons area will be on the first floor of the former convent. Meeting rooms and offices will be in the basement. The nonprofit Housing Access Center will offer assistance and services to residents.


An estimated $756,000 worth of renovations at the convent is expected to begin in March. If the project stays on schedule, work could be done by October, LeBeau said.

The project's launch hinges on an application for $180,000 in historic tax credits. The federal government sells the credits to corporations to encourage the restoration of historic properties. Corporations receive federal tax breaks in exchange for their investments. Women's Transitional Housing expects to hear about its application in March.

Alicia's Place FrontWhen construction is completed, LeBeau's group will nominate the convent for the National Register of Historic Places, she said. The nearby Sacred Heart Cathedral, now the Sacred Heart Music Center, and Cathedral School, now the Damiano Center, were placed on the National Register in 1984.

``This is a terrific adaptive reuse of another great old building. It's a great project,'' said Duluth preservationist Carolyn Sundquist, a member of the board of advisers for the National Trust for Historic Preservation.


Financing for the convent project includes $20,000 from the Benedictine Sisters, who trace their history with the building to 1942 and their history in Duluth to 1881.

They first arrived as teachers from St. Joseph, Minn. Their order's influence in Duluth has included orphanages, homes for the elderly, the College of St. Scholastica and the Benedictine Health Care System.

For more than a decade, including during the 1930s, the nuns lived at Sacred Heart Institute, which was across East Third Street from St. Mary's Hospital at the site of what is now the parking ramp for the Duluth Clinic. The institute was an eight-block walk for the sisters to the schools in which they taught.

The women moved into what would become Sacred Heart Convent in 1942 when the Christian Brothers, a teaching order, moved out. Girls were being allowed to attend Cathedral High School, and church rules forbade the brothers from teaching girls.

The sisters lived in small rooms on the top two floors of the convent, which had been built by the parish for $22,600 in 1907. Many also slept in small rooms at a neighboring stucco-sided apartment building.

Coming from their rooms in both buildings, the sisters gathered each day at 6:30 a.m. in the convent's third-floor chapel for morning prayers. Then it was down to the first-floor dining room and kitchen for breakfast. School started at 8 a.m.

Also on the third floor was a sewing room and a community room with a small black-and-white television. The sisters recall watching ``Car 54 Where Are You?'' and other sanctioned programs.

On icy mornings, they struggled up Duluth's steep hillside from the stucco building to the convent or from the convent to the schools. When it snowed, they gathered at the convent's large first-floor picture window to watch cars sliding sideways down the hill. The back yard was sometimes flooded for a skating rink.

During the 1950s, the women restored the convent's hardwood floors, using pieces of plate glass to scrape off layer after layer of varnish put down by the Christian Brothers.

They remember that pigeons were such a nuisance, police officers had to come at least once to shoot them. One pigeon flew in through the chimney and fireplace, raising a ruckus.

``We used to have the men of the parish come and do any kind of repair work we needed. They'd come over once a week and we'd give them our list,'' said Sister Ewen. ``We were one big happy family. There were lots of good times.''

Other men visited the convent, too. Homeless men the sisters referred to as ``St. Josephs'' knocked often at the back door and were given sandwiches, cups of coffee or whatever leftovers could be warmed up from the refrigerator.

``The building is coming full circle now. It's going to be a place where people go for help again,'' LeBeau said.


Broken Stained GlassSister Kroening was the last Benedictine Sister to live in the convent. She moved out in 1978 after 18 years. A new Cathedral School, now the Marshall School, had opened. The new convent, at what is now Sylvan Learning Center on the eastern end of Marshall, was her new home.

Difficult years followed for the former convent. It became notorious. Court records indicate police were called frequently for fights, fires, burglaries, break-ins, public drunkenness, probation violations, assaults and other problems.

In 2001, when the convent was known as Swede's Apartments, one resident beat another to death during a drunken fistfight.

``There were a lot of problems there,'' said Terri Roeber, executive director of the Housing Access Center, a Duluth nonprofit that attempted to intervene on behalf of tenants to improve conditions. ``It wasn't good.''

In May 2001, the building was condemned for habitation when its owners refused to correct code violations. According to the Duluth Building Safety Office, convictions followed for illegally living in a condemned building.


LeBeau and Women's Transitional Housing Co-Director Deyona Kirk were familiar with the building's rough past. But the solidly built structure, with its many private rooms and common areas, intrigued them. They were looking to expand services and decided to take a look.

``We were really nervous,'' LeBeau said. ``We had a bad feeling, but as soon as we walked through the front door we felt the best energy. It was warm and comfortable and dry. We could just tell it was a great building.''

The nonprofit purchased the former convent in December 2003, using a $110,000, low-interest loan from a national nonprofit called the Corporation for Supportive Housing. Additional investments totaling about $125,000 have since resulted in architectural drawings and other plans. Total project costs exceed $1 million.

``It's going to be so beautiful,'' LeBeau said. ``Wait until you see it when we're done. This project has so much promise.''

Women's Transitional Housing owns and operates 75 housing units in Central Hillside, East Hillside and Lincoln Park/West End. About 20 are temporary residences. The other units are affordable, permanent homes, some with counseling and other supportive services offered on site.

Created in 1988, the nonprofit has helped thousands of women at a clip of about 250 to 300 per year, LeBeau said. Most are either homeless or low-income, or escaping abusive relationships or completing substance-abuse treatment. Many have children.

Women's Transitional Housing also is building three condos this year intended as homes for some of its 15 employees or for the 15 employees who work in the nonprofit's Women in Construction program.

The Women in Construction Co. LLC will be the general contractor for the convent renovation, LeBeau said.

``That means it's going to be a building for homeless women built by women who used to be homeless themselves,'' she said. ``And in a building that really was one of the first places for social services in the hillside and in Duluth.''

The building's history will be preserved and celebrated in photos and stories framed and displayed on walls inside the restored convent, LeBeau and Kirk said. The Benedictine sisters have been e-mailing remembrances, sitting through interviews and visiting the building.

``Just walking through again brought back a lot of memories, a lot of the things that happened there,'' Sister Kroening said.

Damaged PlasterShe and the other nuns were saddened to see peeling wallpaper, missing wood trim and cracked plaster inside their former home. The hardwood floors they worked so hard to restore and were so proud of were barely noticeable beneath the grime.

But the women also noted that the building's decorative stonework was intact, that the curious little room under the stairway was still there with its oddly placed Gothic window, and that the stained-glass image of St. John Baptist de la Salle, the founder of the Christian Brothers, hadn't been broken.

They saw the same promise and potential as the leaders of Women's Transitional Housing.

``They helped confirm for us why we bought the building,'' LeBeau said.

``It was great to find out from them what everything was,'' Kirk said. ``The chapel. The sewing room. Where the cook slept. And what all the buildings were around there. It was so great. It's such a fascinating history. I love this project.''

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