CAMPBELLSPORT — Six months after telling Campbellsport residents the village’s landmark St. Joseph Convent faced imminent closure, officials of the School Sisters of The School Sisters of St. Francis announced recently that St. Joseph Convent in Campbellsport will close at the end of 2014. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)St. Francis made it official April 22, announcing the retirement/nursing home facility will shut its doors for good by Dec. 31, 2014.

The 90 sisters living at the convent face transfer to other School Sisters’ facilities in Milwaukee, village and convent officials confirmed.

Most of the remaining sisters have an acceptance of their situation and are placing their faith in God to provide for and protect them, said Sr. Margaret Mary Ryan, who is in her 80s and refers to herself as one of the “gardening sisters” at St. Joseph’s.

Sr. Margaret Mary was out early Monday tending to the convent’s small apple orchard and thriving crop of rhubarb.

“There is a sadness here at the convent because of the closing. But there is also a healthy facing of reality by the sisters,” Sr. Margaret Mary said.

She said about a third of the remaining sisters had hoped to die and be buried in a nearby cemetery containing the graves of 1,200 sisters, including Mother Alfons, one of the convent’s foundresses.

Serving German immigrants part of international ministry

The School Sisters of St. Francis established the order in the United States in 1874 when three sisters traveled from Germany and settled in Campbellsport, then known as New Cassel, to educate the children of Catholic immigrants who fled religious persecution in the Cassel area of Germany.

Campbellsport, located southeast of Fond du Lac, served as the motherhouse for the School Sisters of St. Francis for six years until it was moved to Milwaukee, which is also the international motherhouse for the order.

From three sisters trying to educate poor German immigrants, the order has grown to more than 1,000 sisters working worldwide, including Latin America, Europe, India and the United States.

Lois Batzler, owner of Ty’s Place in downtown Campbellsport, will be sorry to see St. Joseph Convent close as several of the sisters from the convent frequent her restaurant where the main fare is chicken wings, hamburgers and pizza. The restaurant is dedicated to Batzler’s son, Tyler, who was killed in a traffic accident two years ago. (Catholic Herald photo by Steve Wideman)Over the years, the teaching order established Alverno College in Milwaukee, St. Joseph High School in Kenosha and Waupun Memorial Hospital in Waupun among a number of outreach efforts.

The original four-story Campbellsport convent and boarding school was replaced in 1932 by an eight-story structure used in recent decades as a retirement home and nursing facility for the elderly sisters.

Unknown future for building, employees

The future of the existing convent, with four full floors and a center tower rising eight stories above the nearby Milwaukee River, is unknown, said Campbellsport village president Pat Twohig.

Twohig said convent officials have completed studies of the structure and estimate it would cost $1 million per floor to bring the convent up to current building codes in order to make it feasible for commercial use.

Twohig said village business owners have formed a “think tank” to explore possible uses for the convent, which he fears could become a detriment to the community if not properly maintained.

The convent currently has 125 full- and part-time employees, many in skilled nursing positions, said Twohig, who estimates 80 percent of the convent staff live in close proximity to the village.

“The closing will certainly take money out of the community. Their payroll is a substantial part of what is spent in this community,” said Twohig, a retired engineer who served as an altar boy at the convent as a young boy.

Lucille Bassill, who lives near the convent where she worked as a baker for 30 years before retiring in 2010 and still makes frequent visits there, said many of the sisters are not happy with the planned move to Milwaukee.

“A lot of the sisters don’t want to go to Milwaukee. A move will be hard, especially at their age,” said Bassill, 81. “They are pretty well old and said they don’t like it (moving). They would rather stay here in Campbellsport. Going back to the big city, they don’t really like that idea too much. I wouldn’t like it too much either.”

‘Shock, grieving’ among sisters, staff

While convent administrator Cathy Kelling did not make the sisters available for interviews, saying they are working through emotional stress associated with the closure announcement, others from the School Sisters’ administration and from the Campbellsport area spoke about it.

Despite a decade of studies leaning toward the convent’s closure and the open public meeting called six months ago by convent officials to explain the pending closure, “there is a certain amount of shock and grieving the resident sisters and staff are going through,” said School Sisters of St. Francis marketing and communications director Michael O’Loughlin.

Sr. Margaret Mary said the sisters have a choice of seven or eight School Sisters of St. Francis facilities at which to relocate.
“I’ll stay here as long as I can taking care of the gardens. Oh, how I love the country. This is a little piece of God’s heaven around here,” Sr. Margaret Mary said.

Kelling said the sisters will be moved to Milwaukee and receive continued quality care.

“We will not let them hang (without adequate care),” Kelling said.

Twohig also said most of the resident sisters will be relocated to the Milwaukee, more specifically the similarly-named St. Joseph Convent on Layton Boulevard.

The School Sisters of St. Francis have two additional convents in Milwaukee and Greenfield.

Process began in 2007

The process to close the Campbellsport convent began in 2007 when the School Sisters of St. Francis community’s Provincial Assembly endorsed a recommendation from the international congregation’s United States Assembly to close the convent due to high maintenance costs.

The closure decision came during development of the province’s 2013-2014 budget and the availability of resident vacancies in other provincial retirement facilities, O’Loughlin said.

Convent and village officials shared a number of communications regarding the convent closure over the past two years, Twohig said.

“It’s not like it just fell out of the sky. We knew it was going to happen,” said Twohig, who can see the convent from the front window of his home four blocks away.

But that knowledge hasn’t made it easier for the village to cope with financial or employment impacts, he said.

“Obviously there is no property tax money involved, but the convent is the second largest user, behind the school district, of water and sanitary sewer services,” he said.

Twohig said most of the cost of sewer and water operations is tied up in infrastructure, meaning those costs will become a burden to other property owners in this village of just more than 2,000 residents.

The next largest employer in Campbellsport is the local lumberyard which employs 50, leaving few job opportunities for convent workers, Twohig said.

Nuns ‘protected’ community from tornadoes

Lois Batzler, a Catholic and owner of Ty’s Place, a Main Street eatery, said she hates to see the convent close.

“It’s very sad. It’s been here for so many years and employs so many people,” said Batzler, whose has dedicated the restaurant to her late son, Tyler, killed two years ago in a traffic accident at the age of 17.

Prayers in multiple colors and outdoor paintings by local artists line the walls of the restaurant, even the bathrooms, in honor of her son and God.

“It’s always so nice when the nuns come in here. They like the sayings on our walls,” Batzler said, noting the convent brought a special presence of God to Campbellsport. “It’s really going to be sad to see that big building empty. The nuns always brought a goodness to the community.”

Batzler, who employs 10 people, said, “There is nowhere to absorb those lost convent jobs in this community. But we have a good, strong Catholic faith that keeps our faith growing in tough times.”

Fr. Neil Zinthefer is pastor at St. Matthews Catholic Church, located across the street from the convent.

“To tell you the truth, I think the presence of the convent is the reason we haven’t had a tornado go through Campbellsport,” Fr. Zinthefer said. “We are in an area where tornadoes strike, but I think the prayer power of those gals over there have probably protected this community for a long time.”

Students from the adjacent St. Matthews School attend religious education classes at the convent, Fr. Zinthefer said.

The priest periodically celebrates daily Mass and funerals at the convent.

“I had a liturgy for them recently where I talked about our (St. Matthew) sharing relationship with the sisters and the closing of the convent,” he said.

Twohig said the sisters at the convent have always been active in the Campbellsport community.

“They have a float in the annual Fourth of July parade and the parade always goes by the convent so the sisters can see it,” he said.
Bassill, who said as many as 300 sisters lived at the convent when she started working there, agrees with Fr. Zinthefer that the sisters’ presence protects the community.

“We always said nothing serious will happen in Campbellsport because we have the nuns praying for us,” Bassill said. “They wouldn’t let anything happen to us. I’ll really miss them.”