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Historic convent near UMSL slated for demolition

Saturday, March 29, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
The old Incarnate Word convent owned by the University of Missouri-St. Louis is being threatened with demolition by the university. The convent was built in the early 1900s and has been owned by the university for more than 20 years.

BEL-NOR — Standing inside a gutted chapel on the fringe of the University of Missouri-St. Louis, the director of facilities management on campus paused to take a whiff of the musty air.

"Can you smell the mold?" Frank Kochin asked during a tour. "It's worse in the basement."

The chapel is part of a former Congregation of the Sisters of Charity of the Incarnate Word convent that was built in the 1920s and will soon be demolished.

Its granite arches, terracotta roof tiles and wooden walk-in coolers speak to an era when many more women answered the call to be a nun. Requiring less space, the sisters sold the convent to UMSL for $1.2 million in 1993, when the university was expanding.

UMSL initially used it for campus housing, the honors college and office space. But over the years, activity there became infrequent until it was ultimately left vacant. Kochin said the "beautiful" exterior is deceiving because of all the work that's needed behind the walls and under floors.

University officials say it would cost about $11 million to make upgrades to meet modern standards. Instead, UMSL expects to pay about $1 million this summer to demolish the facility, which consists of two connected buildings on five acres. The spot will be turned into green space.

"The university has no strategic needs for those two buildings," said Bob Samples, UMSL's associate vice chancellor for communications. "It's nothing that we are doing off the cuff. A lot of work has gone into our strategic plan."

He said the facility doesn't fit into UMSL's goal to "recruit, retain and graduate more students." It rests on the edge of the 350-acre campus, in a neighborhood.

"It's not architecture. It's location," Samples said. "Its condition and location are not ideal."

But critics who have started a petition effort to preserve the convent say they expect more from a taxpayer-funded university.

"There is a sense that UMSL really could care less about the concerns of their neighbors and the preservation of history, despite their mission as a state university," said Dan Riley of Bel-Nor, who started the petition drive and Facebook campaign.

An assessment of UMSL property done by consultants estimated that $300 million is needed in maintenance and repairs. Of 38 buildings on campus, six were named for possible demolition.

The candidates are Normandie and St. Agnes halls, which make up the former convent; a vacant house, at 7956 Natural Bridge Road, built in 1930 with a green tile roof, that used to be the alumni center; a postal services building, which is a former QuikTrip service station; parking and transportation building; and the regional center for education and work building, a flat, square structure at the busy intersection of University Boulevard and University Place Drive.

So far, the convent buildings and the nondescript parking and transportation building at Waco Avenue and Florissant Road have been slated for demolition.

The electronic petition that started circulating last week to stop the demolition of the convent has garnered more than 300 signatures. The petition says the facility has been a "source of pride" for the communities of Bel-Nor and Normandy.

"The convent is an excellent example of American craftsmanship, masonry and metalwork from the early 20th century with architectural characteristics from 11th and 12th century southern France, Spain and Italy," the petition states.

The Incarnate Word Academy, a private school for young women next door that first met in the convent in the 1930s, still remains active.

Riley said the university isn't thinking creatively on preserving the convent.

"Give the building a chance, even if it's not in your hands UMSL," he added. "Give it to someone who can make use of it."

Samples said the university is open to listening to alternative proposals by anyone with the resources to take on the building.

Meanwhile, he points to the nearby red brick swath of UMSL's south campus formerly occupied by the Daughters of Charity, a different group of religious women, which is now the location of the honors college and other programs. A chapel there has about 40 weddings a year. The university also owns the Passionist Fathers' former retreat center.

"You have to understand, we are a taxpayer-paid institution," he said. "We do have historic buildings and historic buildings are challenges, too."

When in use, he said it costs about $150,000 a year to heat, maintain and clean the former convent, not including emergency repairs to things like the water main, which burst this winter.

It's a far cry from 1928, when St. Louis Archbishop John J. Glennon blessed the Romanesque building. For many years, the convent was the regional center for the Incarnate Word Sisters. Today, there are 300 sisters worldwide, including about 20 in Missouri who mainly work in parish ministry and education.

Sister Helena Monahan, president of the Incarnate Word Academy, recently explained in a letter to alumni that the neighboring convent was sold about 20 years ago because the sisters no longer needed the space and UMSL did.

"We were comforted knowing that the buildings would be used for educational purposes and would help stabilize the neighborhood," she said, adding: "Changing times, however, create new and unforeseen needs."

She said much of the interior is different and "little of its remembered beauty and sacredness remains."

She seemed comforted that some of the historical artifacts will be used to line a road to a nearby cemetery for the sisters, where many of the tombstones mark three dates: birth, vows and death.

She concluded in the letter that the "lasting heritage" of the academy and sisters isn't in buildings but in the lives of those influenced by the mission at hand.

"This spirit is indestructible," she wrote.


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