Starting in 2010, the Sisters of St. Francis in Tiffin renovated the original Motherhouse, conducted an auction, razed a vacant dormitory and created a new main entrance to the convent. Now they are to host an open house 2-4:30 p.m. Sunday.
Community minister, Sister Jaqueline Doepker, and project manager, Sister Diane Mueller, spoke about the project that began with the demolition of the sisters' dormitory on the east end of the campus. Many of the sisters live and work away from the campus. As members aged and the size of the community diminished, the sisters found themselves with unneeded residential space to heat and maintain.
"The overall reason we started on this project was because we could no longer afford to keep up space that we didn't need. It was very expensive to heat those buildings. They were not energy-efficient," Doepker said. "It was more economical to take down the space and make a new entrance than it would have been to keep all that we had."
The removal reduced the convent's square footage by about 65 percent, but the main entrance to the convent also was removed in the process. Doepker said that entry was largely unused because most people came in the back door near the parking lot.
Clouse Construction was the contractor for the renovation, and Technicon of Ottawa was the architect. Mueller, who worked with them directly, said the community initially could not agree on a new location for the entrance, so she sought input from a local expert.
"I called John Huss and said, 'Can I pick your brain? Do you see any way we could create this?' So he sat down and gave me a sketch. We liked it. The community liked it. So I said, 'Can we pay you for this so we can use it?' He said, 'Pay me for an hour of labor.' Then it was ours to run with," Mueller said.
Before finalizing the plans, Doepker and Mueller presented three options for placement of the entry. The majority of the sisters liked Huss' design, which relocated the main entrance to the former laundry area on ground level of the original convent building.
A set of exterior steps was removed. Clouse had to cut through the thick brick wall of the Motherhouse to make the opening and add a steel beam for support. On either side, new accessible restrooms for visitors were constructed outside the original walls. A grant paid for the installation of automatic doors.
When the convent was razed, the crew was able to salvage the stone above its entryway and incorporate it into the design for the new entrance. Translated from the Latin "Deus noster refugium et virtus," the stone's message is "God is our refuge and strength."
"Even though it weighed 350 pounds, they were able to take it out, without breaking it, and put it in the new front entrance," Doepker said.
Pat Feindel, now retired, expressed amazement that the laundry where she worked on her first day 10 years ago has been transformed into the new lobby and reception area. Outside, several parking spots have been added. Guests can be dropped off at the door and walk a few steps to the convent's existing elevator to reach the upper floors.
The entire bottom floor has been renovated and updated. Mueller and Sister Jane Schimmoeller chose the carpeting, soft paint colors and furnishings. Framed art and furniture from the old convent were paired with a few new pieces for a fresh look. Decorative glass vessels from the sisters' museum have been placed on an antique stand in a lounge area. Dropped ceilings in the hall conceal the plumbing and heating ducts. A small kitchen was remodeled and updated.
The changes make better use of the bottom floor, which is being renamed the "Garden Floor." The laundry has been moved to a less-central location, and washers and dryers have been added on the second floor, which has 14 bedrooms for the sisters. The library has been consolidated and re-configured for wireless computer stations and three meeting rooms.
The auction of furniture from the convent took place in July 2010. Demolition of the convent began Sept. 1, 2010, and the renovation of the entrance began in September 2011. The exterior scaffolding was removed just before Christmas.
"Originally, we didn't plan to do the roof, but when they saw what shape they were in, they advised us to do those, too," Doepker said.
The third floor is a storage area. Fifteen sisters live in St. Francis Home, four in Elizabeth Schaefer, four in the villas and seven across the street in the former Friedman home. A significant change was having the dining area outside of the convent building. Meals are prepared in the kitchen at St. Francis Spirituality Center.
"It's been two and a half years that we've been in transition," Mueller said.
"The sisters have been very flexible and very cooperative with all this moving around, having to downsize and move their bedrooms and adapt to a new space and new ways of doing things," Doepker added.
Having worked in Toledo for 13 years, Doepker said she observed how parishes with older buildings had to spend money to maintain them at the expense of programs and services for parishioners and needy community members. She did not want St. Francis to travel the same route. Efforts to rent the space were fruitless. Abatement of hazardous materials to make the structure usable for alternate purposes would have been costly, especially with the asbestos floor tile.
"The money we will save from not taking care of the old building, within a few years, will compensate for what we spent on the renovation. We did have a nice grant from the National Religious Retirement Office that covered our demolition as well as part of the renovation," Doepker said. "We were more concerned about being able to use our resources for our ministry and our mission than for just keeping up buildings. That was a motivating factor."
The community agreed that money would be better spent on outreach programs, but sisters who had lived at the convent for a long time found it very emotional to see it demolished. They were invited to participate in farewell rituals before its demise. Mueller said she and the leadership team tried to keep the community informed through the process.
"Most of the time, there weren't too many surprises," Mueller said. "For the first time in our history, we can say we have a handicapped-accessible entrance. We are also pleased that the main entrance can now be seen from the driveway and is very welcoming."
"I think our own Franciscan spirituality of simplicity helped us to see the reasons for downsizing. The buildings are not the important things. We take ourselves with us. We take our Franciscan values and spirituality wherever we go. That's not being destroyed by taking down a building," Doepker said.
The open house is to start with a blessing of the convent at 2 p.m., to be followed by a tour of the renovated areas of the convent. The address is 200 St. Francis Ave., Tiffin. Those with questions may call (419)447-0435.