Franciscans sell Green Bay church, friary

St. Mary of Angels to remain parish community; friary will be turned into apartments

GREEN BAY — St. Mary of the Angels Church and Friary, owned by the Franciscans of the Assumption BVM Province, have been sold to a Fond du Lac developer. According to Franciscan Fr. James Gannon, the community’s provincial who is based in Franklin, Wis., the sale will be completed in December.

The developer, The Commonwealth Companies, plans to turn the friary, which once housed up to 50 Franciscan priests, brothers and novices, into 20 apartment units. The Friar House Flats will include one- and two-bedroom units.

The friary at St. Mary of the Angels Church in Green Bay has been sold and will be turned into apartment units. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

In addition, 20 two-story, three-bedroom townhouse units with attached garages will be constructed on the four-acre property behind the friary.

“The target population is families, but we are considering having a 55 and older preference on the friary units,” according to a news release on the developer’s website. Eight units “will be targeted for veterans and/or individuals at-risk of homelessness.”

“We are really excited to get construction underway,” said Kevin McDonnell, vice president of development in the Great Lakes region for Commonwealth Companies. “We got a great initial response from the community and potential residents.”

Sale of the church property has been a priority for the Franciscans, according to Fr. Gannon.

“Our numbers at St. Mary’s have been going down for years,” said Fr. Gannon. “The friary has basically been empty since we moved the novitiate out of the friary in early 1990s.” Franciscan Fr. Tony Cirignani, pastor of St. Mary of the Angels, and Br. Austin Mysliewicz, have lived at the friary in recent years.

St. Mary of the Angels Parish was established in 1898, but its history goes back even further.

The property was purchased in 1894 by an ordained minister to build a cathedral for the Old Catholic Church, a breakaway church founded in the 1870s. The founding pastor was Joseph Rene Vilatte, who was ordained a priest in the Old Catholic Church in 1885.

According to a history of the parish written in 1954 by Franciscan Fr. Constantine Klukowski on the occasion of the parish’s 50th anniversary, Vilatte was previously a member of the Roman Catholic, Methodist, Congregationalist and Presbyterian churches before joining the Old Catholic Church.

Diocese buys property

Two years after purchasing the land and building his church, Vilatte lost the property lien and turned it over to the Green Bay Planing Mill Company on Feb. 10, 1898. The following day, the mill sold the church to Green Bay Bishop Sebastian Messmer for $1,025. It was dedicated on Feb. 22, given the name St. Mary of Czestochowa and served the area’s Polish community.

Bishop Messmer then offered the church to the Franciscan Fathers of Pulaski, who received perpetual administration of the church on May 23, 1900. That year, the church’s name was changed to St. Mary of the Angels. In 1901, construction of the present church and friary began. From 1908 to 1951, the friary served as a seminary for men preparing to enter the Franciscan order.

Sale was necessary

Due to their dwindling numbers, Fr. Gannon said the Franciscans could no longer maintain the church and friary.

“The agreement with the parish community, for about 100 years, is that people take care of the inside of church and the Franciscans would take care of the outside,” he said. “Over the last seven, eight years, we sunk close to $2 million into tuckpointing, the bell tower and the roof.”

Deacon Paul Umentum, an attorney who specializes in real estate, has been helping the parish negotiate the sale of the property to Commonwealth. Deacon Umentum serves at St. Mary of the Angels and SS. Peter and Paul Parish.

“We are unique in that we never owned our church, the Franciscans owned the church,” he said. “Now Commonwealth will own the church and we, the parish, will be able to utilize it for as long as (Bishop David Ricken) wants.”

“He (Bishop Ricken) doesn’t like to close churches,” added Fr. Gannon. “He saw this as another option to keep it open.”

“It’s a very unique situation,” said Deacon Umentum. “Bishop approved it, and we think it’s going to be a big plus for the entire community.”

Mixed feelings about sale

According to Deacon Umentum, parishioners have mixed feelings about the sale, but they’ve had a lot of time to prepare for the changes.

“There’s sadness, in a way, because we are losing the Franciscans, from the standpoint of them living there,” said Deacon Umentum. “All the way up to about 10 years ago, it was still being occupied by 10 priests and brothers. … We are hoping they can continue to staff the parish.”

Knowing that the church will remain open and that the friary will not be razed is a relief for parishioners, added Deacon Umentum.

“I think there is a lot of hope, (the friary) is being updated and repurposed and saved as a historical building and the church will still be there,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for evangelization. We’re hoping that people who live there will attend the parish.”

Sale of the property and construction work will impact the parish in many ways.

Parish offices move

The parish offices, which have been located inside the friary for the past 20 to 25 years, will be moved to the vacant parish school located across the street. The school, known as St. Thomas More, is moving to a larger school site at nearby SS. Peter and Paul Church this fall.

A rummage sale was held July 26 and 27 at St. Mary of the Angels Friary to prepare for the friary’s closing. (Sam Lucero | The Compass)

The church will be closed once remodeling begins on the friary. The parish will hold services in the school gymnasium. In addition, the church will undergo remodeling.

“We will move out the first week of Advent, then we will be gone for a year,” said Deacon Umentum. “They believe construction will take about nine months to a year. During that year, our parish has an opportunity to update the church. That would be our expense. We are trying to raise some funds to do the interior.”

Church renovation

The major church renovation will be moving the sanctuary and altar back to the middle of the church, where it originally stood, said Deacon Umentum. “In 1968, the friars moved the altar to where it is now — more to the side. We are going to move it back to center,” he said.

“Architecturally it looks better and makes more sense. Bishop Ricken is supportive of that, so we are trying to raise money to do that,” he added. In addition, new carpeting, pews and other features will be added.

Because of the historic nature of the friary, Commonwealth has worked with numerous historic preservation groups to preserve the building’s historic integrity, said McDonnell. “We worked closely with historic preservation folks … to make sure we are satisfying all of the historic requirements,” he said.

The company has completed about 15 residential projects involving historic buildings, including two churches, he said.

Completion in 2019

McDonnell expects the project to be completed by the end of 2019.

He said one of the project’s challenges involved the attached buildings’ different uses. The company’s architects needed to include a firewall in their design between the church and the friary. “We are making sure that the flow of the building is able to be maintained,” said McDonnell. The main apartment entrance will be on the property’s north side, away from the church, which is attached to the friary’s south side.

“We are going to have some common areas,” said Deacon Umentum. “One place, called Clare Hall, which is used by the parish after Mass, will still be a common area between the apartments and the church.”

The two structures will also have separate heating and air conditioning systems and the church will have its first air conditioning system ever, said Deacon Umentum. The developers are also adding an elevator to the friary apartments.

The parish will be responsible for handling maintence and paying utilities for the church, but will not pay rent to the new owners.

On July 26 and 27, the Franciscan province held a rummage sale at the friary. Appliances, furniture, bedding, kitchenware and other items owned by the Franciscans were available for purchase. All remaining items will be collected, placed in a shipping container and shipped to the Dominican Republic, said Deacon Umentum.