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Repurposing of religious land, buildings under way

Sacred Heart, Cousins Center to see changes

April 25, 2007

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By virtue of its name, St. Francis is a community long known for its rich Catholic heritage. But the city is finding itself at a crossroads with two parochial operations scaling back land.

Officials from the Archdiocese of Milwaukee and Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, however, say both entities have a future in the city.

Cousins Catholic Center

Seeking an infusion of cash, the Archdiocese of Milwaukee is planning to sell its 44-acre Archbishop Cousins Catholic Center, 3501 S. Lake Drive. Plans call for the St. Francis Seminary, Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi and Marian Center for Nonprofits to remain in place.

Putting the Cousins Center on the market will help the local archdiocese pay for sexual abuse lawsuits that have been filed in California.

But there are other logistical reasons for the sale, spokeswoman Kathleen Hohl said. The archdiocese's space needs have changed over the years, and offices currently housed within the Cousins Center can be moved to other nearby operations, namely the adjacent seminary grounds at 3257 S. Lake Drive.

"We're just moving a little north, if you will," Hohl said.

Complementary development

While there is a "for sale" sign in front of the Cousins Center, officials from the city and archdiocese say a complementary development is being sought for the site.

Two commercial real estate firms - RFP Commercial Inc. and Colliers Barry - are working collaboratively to find tenants for the property.

"We're currently seeking proposals from many different types of developers," said Bob Flood, a broker and principal with RFP. "The building could be reused or we could figure out how the property could be used for an alternative building. We're trying to work on a win-win situation."

While no firm time line is in place, Flood said the goal is to find a suitable developer for the property sooner rather than later.

"We're going to be moving this along at a quick pace," he said. "Right now, we're talking to the development community, and we are seeing who has an interest. That phase should be ending shortly. The archdiocese is then going to have input."

City Administrator Ralph Voltner said there are a number of options for the Cousins property, including single-family homes and office space.

"We're leaving our minds open, and we are willing to work with (the developers)," Voltner said. "It's an ongoing discussion and it's about finding the right balance."

Seminary Woods not for sale

While the archdiocese plans to sell the Cousins Center, nearby Seminary Woods would not be part of that deal, Hohl said. Several organizations, including Friends of St. Francis Green Space, have been lobbying to preserve the 37-acre natural habitat.

If the archdiocese ever were to sell the wooded area, Hohl said it would be with the goal of keeping it as a wooded area.

"The intent would be to do nothing with it," Hohl said. "It's still important to us. It's not like we wouldn't have a vested interest in it."

Friends member Ray Klug said the organization has been working with the archdiocese to ensure Seminary Woods' long-term future.

"It's a very unique area in southeastern Wisconsin," Klug said. "To have that increases the value of the area."

New life at Sacred Heart?

There has been some question about the future of the Sacred Heart of Jesus Parish, located on the other end of town at 3635 S. Kinnickinnic Ave. But long-term details have begun to crystallize with the recent announcement that senior apartments could replace a vacant parochial school on the property.

Sacred Heart's school was consolidated with five others in 2005 to form St. Thomas Aquinas Academy. The K-8 parochial school combined Sacred Heart with Immaculate Conception, Nativity of the Lord, St. Augustine, St. Paul and St. Veronica. It serves students in Bay View, Cudahy and St. Francis.

The Common Council, on April 17, voted to rezone the old school area for residential use. Sacred Heart has been working with developer Mike Lerner to work out a cohesive arrangement for the property.

Although they would be on the same property, the apartments and church would remain independent entities, said Brad Hoeschen, who chairs Sacred Heart's Parish Council.

City pushing for housing

Sacred Heart is not only the sole Catholic church in St. Francis, it is the lone house of worship within the city's boundaries.

"Sacred Heart is a part of the city of St. Francis," Hoeschen said. "It's been important to me. I've watched my kids get baptized there. But beyond that, a church is an important part of any community."

While the council has given its blessing to the mixed-use nature of the property, the apartments remain tentative. Lerner is currently seeking affordable housing tax credits from the Wisconsin Housing and Economic Development Authority to help bring the project to fruition.

"From the city's perspective, yes, this is a done deal," Voltner said. "We're hopefully optimistic about this."

Hoeschen said this is the first of several important steps in securing Sacred Heart's future in the city. He said the new arrangement could bring about new opportunities for the parish.

"Sacred Heart sees this as an opportunity to further our ministry to the community," Hoeschen said. "We could help people get to church. We really think it's an important step for us."

Rich religious tradition

While the city of St. Francis is entering its 56th year of incorporation, the archdiocese and Sacred Heart have a presence that far supersedes the community in its current form.

A Catholic presence was first entrenched in the community in 1833 when a group of nuns established the St. Francis of Assisi convent. The St. Francis Seminary was started in 1856.

Sacred Heart, meanwhile, became an organized parish in 1868 and moved to its current location in 1872. The church, an outgrowth of the convent and seminary, was designed to serve the needs of early settlers.

Contact reporter Dave Fidlin at (262) 446-6603 or dfidlin@cninow.com.

BY THE NUMBERS

68

apartment units proposed at old Sacred Heart site

44

land mass of Cousins Center, in acres

5

parochial schools merged to form St. Thomas Aquinas Academy

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