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Wednesday, Oct. 1, 2008

Saving Seminary Woods

Local groups act to protect a historic natural area

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The tumult created by the financial crisis facing the Archdiocese of Milwaukee has opened up an opportunity for those who seek to preserve natural, historic woodlands for future generations.

While the archdiocese is in talks with Cardinal Stritch University regarding the sale of the Cousins Center, its headquarters in St. Francis, a handful of committed neighbors, government agencies and environmental groups are aiming to purchase about 70 acres of adjacent land owned by the St. Francis de Sales Seminary.

The seminary sits on land that was deeded by the Potawatomi Indians to the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi in 1833. The main seminary building was built in 1855 and is now surrounded by the Cousins Center, the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi Marian Center for Nonprofits (the former St. Mary’s Academy), St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, a grotto and historic cemetery, and other supporting facilities.

Seminary Woods, which encircles these buildings, is home to a variety of important native plants, a rippling Deer Creek, and woods that are a vivid reminder of pre-European-settlement Wisconsin.

The land is much loved by Bay View and St. Francis neighbors, dog walkers and history buffs, but they’re concerned that the seminary could sell off parcels of it for development.

Peg Kohring, Midwest regional director of the Conservation Fund, who is spearheading the effort to save Seminary Woods, said that the largely untouched woods provide a glimpse of what 19th-century residents encountered as they developed southeastern Wisconsin. "Preserving the woods is preserving history," Kohring said. “We have a once-in-10-generations opportunity to put this land in public ownership.” 

Appraising Its Value The land is zoned for single- or multiple-family residences so, in theory, an interested developer could make the seminary an offer it can’t refuse.

John Marek, chief financial officer for the archdiocese, said that the seminary hasn’t fielded any serious offers from developers, but that it is interested in seeing the land protected and kept in its natural state.

But Kohring warned that it’s only a matter of time before the seminary feels compelled to sell the land. “If we don’t acquire it, I know there’s going to be change,” Kohring said. The groups hope to purchase the land from the seminary and then form a land trust to ensure that the parcel is cared for in perpetuity.

“It used to be that you could just leave a woods alone and you wouldn’t have to do anything,” Kohring said. “But with invasive species, we can’t do that anymore. It’s absolutely critical that we have an active manager to preserve the woods and its legacy and historical context.”

Ralph Voltner, St. Francis city administrator, said that the city is working with the groups to save the woods. “It adds to the quality of life in St. Francis,” Voltner said. “You can’t put a dollar figure on it, that’s for sure.” Yet the woods are currently being appraised by the Department of Natural Resources so that it can be sold to the groups, which are seeking out funds from public and private donors.

So far, the groups have found partial funding for the land purchase. The Metropolitan Milwaukee Sewerage District has committed $400,000 and the Doris Duke Charitable Foundation has donated $200,000. The groups are applying for grant money from the state’s Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund and the federal Coastal and Estuarine Land

Conservation Program. Donations from individuals are also welcome, Kohring said.

Pending Sale of the Cousins Center

No matter what happens to Seminary Woods, change is likely coming soon to the Cousins Center, which sits on a parcel of 44 acres located to the south of the woods.

Cardinal Stritch University has offered to buy the land from the cash-strapped archdiocese. But the eventual purchase must be rezoned by St. Francis and be approved by the planning commission and the city council, most likely in January 2009.

Tom Van Himbergen, who until recently worked for the archdiocese, is now a special assistant to the president of Cardinal Stritch and is overseeing the transaction. Van Himbergen said that the university also wants to buy 120 undeveloped acres south of the site, which is owned by We Energies. He said the university needs to upgrade the main building, then eventually expand its facilities on the We Energies property.

“The current plan is an undergraduate campus,” Van Himbergen said. “It’s going to be residential housing, athletic facilities, maybe a soccer field or football field. That’s why you need all 164 acres to make it work, versus just having a building for academics.”

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The Blessing of the Woods

A “Blessing of the Woods” will be held on Sunday, Oct. 5, at 2:30 p.m., to celebrate the Feast Day of St. Francis with a short historical talk and walking tours led by members of Friends of Seminary Woods. This unique event, sponsored by the Sisters of St. Francis of Assisi, is open to the public and will begin east of the St. Ann Center for Intergenerational Care, 2801 E. Morgan Ave.