STEVENS POINT, Wis. (WSAU) - The future of a downtown Stevens Point building is unknown.
St. Stephen's Convent at 1401 Clark Street is no longer used by the church, and is falling into disrepair. The church and the Diocese of La Crosse wish to demolish the 59-year-old structure. Several members of the community wish to save it.
After the church decided last fall to demolish the building, they received a letter from the city saying they could not since it is located in a downtown historical preservation zone. At Monday’s City Council meeting, a motion to grant the demolition permit was denied. Several council members, citizens, and Mayor Andrew Halverson agreed they should take 30 days to see if the building can be preserved.
One of the city residents speaking in favor of saving the convent was Mary Ann Laszewski. She quoted a 2011 Historical Survey saying the building’s neo-gothic designs and clad stone easily qualifies it for the National Register of Historic Places. She also says St. Stephens is the last complete catholic campus with a church, school, rectory, and convent and should be preserved. “I find the most egregious insult to this discussion is St. Stephens is stating that the convent holds no significant American history, culture, or heritage. For over 114 years, arriving in 1873, the very eminent sisters of Notre Dame gave us their entire lives to educating the children tuition free and the needs of this parish.”
Mayor Andrew Halverson would like to see the structure saved, but understands the burden that building places on St. Stephen’s parish. “The concern however is one obviously of cost, and a very credible concern to the parish in terms of maintaining that convent.”
St. Stephen’s Church has already stripped everything of value from the inside.
Attorney James Birnbaum represents St. Stephen’s Church and the Diocese of La Crosse. He says the city or any government getting involved has constitutional issues. “There are two problems with it. Number one, it interferes with what’s called the free exercise clause of the Constitution. The First Amendment says that Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion or prohibiting the free exercise. The other problem they may have is as a government, giving money to a church to restore a church for religious purposes has an establishment problem, and I don’t think the Council understood that.”
Attorney Birnbaum says the convent building has black mold problems, lead paint, asbestos, a leaking roof, and other expensive issues that are a drain to the church. “I’m not making any scary threats or anything of that nature but, where’s the money going to come from to maintain the church, the school, and the rectory, which are actively being used and will continue to be used.”City Council voted to meet with St. Stephen’s Church and with the State Historical Society to see what can be done to save the convent building. They only have 30 days to accomplish that. Attorney Birnbaum says he will have to meet with church officials to discuss what their options are.
There was a developer interested in converting the convent into apartments last winter, but the cost of eliminating the hazardous materials made that deal fall through.