Friends groups support new use for historic buildings

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St. Mary’s Convent (above) and School are two historic buildings that contribute to the St. Mary’s Catholic Church Historic District. (Press photo by Austin Greve)

Submitted by Chris Schoen

Parishioners and other members of the broader Clayton County community have recently organized the Friends of St. Mary’s of Guttenberg. This non-profit 501c(3) organization is working with the St. Mary’s Parish and the Catholic Diocese to support efforts to repair, renovate, and maintain the former St. Mary’s Convent building so that it may be repurposed in ways that help address diverse needs in the city and county.

Friends of St. Mary Board

The mission of the Friends is to preserve our parish heritage and provide a foundation for our future Christian community. Beth Sadewasser serves as President and Jane Parker as Vice President. Carol Hartmann is the secretary and Pat Kolker is treasurer. Other board members are Betty Evers, Austin Greve, Adam Sadewasser, Chris Schoen, Jane Staebler, and Brandie Tomkins.

Historic significance

St. Mary’s convent and school are two historic buildings that contribute to the St. Mary’s Catholic Church Historic District. The other two buildings in the district are the church and the rectory. A fifth structure, the grade school constructed in 1962, does not contribute to the historic district. The four limestone and brick masonry buildings of the district share similarities of materials and complement one another architecturally, which was the intention of the designer, Father Joseph Brinkman (1859-1925).

St. Mary’s Church was constructed in 1904 in the style of Gothic Revival. The school (1894) and rectory (1899) were built in the Colonial Revival style with Italianate influences in its details. The convent or Sister’s Home was erected in 1926 with Tudor Revival characteristics. The district was listed on the National Register of Historic Places (NRHP) in August 2004 for its architecture and because the church and school are associated with the strong German-American influence in Guttenberg. 

Physical reminders

The St. Mary’s Catholic Church Historic District lies along South Second Street between Herder and Schiller streets and east of the Canadian Pacific Railroad tracks. Situated in the center of Guttenberg, the parish has been an important part of the community since 1851. The Catholic Germans who settled here with families, and individuals from other parts of the United States, made it their priority to establish a church and school. It may be argued that the St. Mary’s buildings are physical reminders to everyone that the services provided in them by the clergy, sisters, and parishioners in them have been and continue to be central to the community. 

The Convent

The convent was the home for Franciscan Sisters of Perpetual Adoration who taught at St. Mary’s High School until 1968. The building includes a basement, two living floors, and an attic. The original mansard tile roof was later modified to include a ridge over most of the roof and was cladded with asphalt tiles. Because it was constructed to be a residence for multiple individuals, it includes infrastructure and elements that provide considerable flexibility for reuse.

Main floor

The main floor includes a small foyer at the east end and a central hallway. On the north side of the hallway is the former sitting room/Heritage Room with a small bathroom, a conference or dining room, and a kitchen and pantry. On the south side of the hallway is a large room with built-in book cabinets and a former solarium that was converted to a chapel in 1949. 

Basement/second floor

The basement and second floor are accessed by a stairway at the south side entrance. Originally nine bedrooms, identical in size, and a communal bath were situated on either side of the central hallway. A communal space was at the north end. This arrangement has been altered to create a bathroom, four larger rooms, and two smaller rooms. Each of the rooms has one or two closets. Entries and doorways into rooms are wide enough to be wheechair accessible.

The basement includes one large room, a utility room, and four storage rooms. The boiler furnace, which provides hot water for heating radiators, was installed in 1969. 

The attic is an open space with two lines of support along a central bay. 

Maintenance and improvements

The convent has been unoccupied since March 2011. Maintenance has been focused on keeping the building structurally sound and it is in very good condition. Two issues have been identified as priorities, replacing the roof and sealing holes in the attic to keep out bats. Roof replacement is anticipated to cost around $20,000. Replacement of the building with a structure that could offer similar utility is estimated to cost at least $1,000,000. Other improvements may include updating wiring and adding WI-FI for computer connectivity or additional plumbing for new bathrooms, painting walls and ceilings, refinishing floors, installing energy-efficient windows, and replacing soffits, eaves and downspouts.

Broader community usage

A number of reuses for the former convent have been proposed. There is a strong need for space for day care and after school programs. Temporary housing might be provided for individuals and families coping with domestic abuse situations, damage/destruction of one’s home by fire or flooding, extended hospital stays by family members, or other circumstances. The utilities and spaces could be used for hosting single day or multiple day meetings  conferences. Prayer or religious study groups might utilize communal spaces, as could quilters or other hobby groups.

Parish Center Committee

Finding new uses for the convent building is not the only activity by parishioners. The Parish Center Committee is similarly organized to put the former grade school building to new use. Individuals leading this organization include Julie Rastetter, Lora Kolker, Nancy Schroeder, Jessie Young, Sue Bahls, Malorie Scherbring, and Gail Broxson. 

Brinkman Hall and grade school

The Committee recognizes that Brinkman Hall is most suitable for large gatherings and events while the former grade school is more accessible and comfortable for use by smaller groups. Their mission statement is: Our Parish gathering place where people and the Holy Spirit meet. Already the space is used by the several parish committees for meetings: Crafty Ladies, the Quilting Ladies, Faith Formation students, a new women’s faith sharing group, and a new book club. Additionally, the facilities have been available for two open houses. 

The brick and concrete panel school, constructed in 1962 between the church and the convent on South Second Street, is a two-story structure. It is situated over the location of a large stone church built in 1874. 

Inspired to serve

This year the community celebrated 50 years of ministry by Father Bries. For the past 21 years, he has described how Christ has taught us to feed, clothe, and otherwise support our neighbors. It is a result of Father Bries’ guidance and inspiration that the Friends of St. Mary’s of Guttenberg and the Parish Center Committee are bringing energetic efforts to provide reuse of the former convent and grade school buildings for the benefit of the broader Guttenberg community.

Working together

As a non-profit organization independent of the St. Mary’s Parish, the Friends of St. Mary’s of Guttenberg will accomplish its projects without funding from the parish or Diocese. Tax-free contributions to the Friends of St. Mary’s of Guttenberg will go entirely to this organization. 

Please join us in our efforts to repair, renovate, and maintain the former St. Mary’s Convent. We need your help to continue the tradition. All of the buildings in this block on South Second Street – the church, rectory, convent, grade school, and high school — are an asset, not only for the parish, but for the entire City of Guttenberg. We need to work together to help the community for the betterment of its citizens. All gifts are vital to the success of this attainable project. This is the time to appreciate our historic district and enthusiastically work together.

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