In the two years Kathy Frassetto-Suhr and Bill Suhr have owned Marian Center International, they have given lots of thought to the business.
For nearly 25 years, Catholics have shopped at the Marian Center for books and gift items or to pray in a small chapel tucked into a back room. It occupies four storefronts at 3712 N. 92nd St., on Milwaukee’s west side.
“The master plan,” said Suhr, “is to take the Center out of the Center.”
Last December, the Marian Center purchased a 4,000-square foot building across the street and established the Marian Community Center. Already, it has hosted author visits and a dedication Mass celebrated by Bishop Donald J. Hying, who has agreed to serve as its spiritual advisor.
The couple and Michael Groark, manager of the Marian Center, have been taking suggestions from customers and fielding calls from potential renters. Passersby have noticed the community center’s new blue sign, which mimics the distinctive blue awning on the Marian Center storefronts; a papal flag flying nearby also attracts attention.
The community center’s main space is big enough for lectures, Bible study groups, first Communion parties or small wedding receptions.
Depending on how a kitchen area eventually is equipped, the community center could attract a catering business or coffee shop. Office space could be rented. And, there’s a vacant one-bedroom apartment at the rear of the building – ideal for a retired priest, according to Groark.
|For more information on the Marian Center or to sign up for regular email notices about center events, visit mariancenter.com. The Marian Center is located at 3712 N. 92nd St., Milwaukee, (414) 464-7288.|
Meanwhile, Suhr noted, the community center also could host drop-in conversations for fallen-away Catholics or a lecture series on the pervasiveness of pornography in society.
“This is more of a neutral ground, but certainly with a Catholic influence,” he explained.
The community center building had been up for sale for several years – “it just kept calling my name,” said Frassetto-Suhr. One day, a customer persuaded her to walk across the street and peer into the windows. Eventually, the woman offered to put up about two-thirds of the money needed to buy the building; Kathy and Bill provided the rest.
They have no intention of moving the Marian Center itself into the community center building. The center rents its storefront space, and the landlord recently installed new carpeting and had the interior painted.
The couple, who live in Brookfield, had stepped in to buy the Marian Center when Miles Jesu, an organization that promotes consecrated life for lay people, decided to sell to focus on its ministries in Chicago.
“It’s growing. We’re getting more traffic,” said Frassetto-Suhr. “We have good, solid customers. People come in in tears and thank us for saving it. I’m glad we were able to take it.”
Groark, manager from 2006-’08, was re-hired to manage the store. He has focused on outreach at events such as parish festivals, Men of Christ and Women of Christ conferences, and gatherings of priests and Catholic educators. The Marian Center also employs three part-timers and relies on some 35 volunteers to keep the shelves stocked and dust-free.
It has taken some time to determine in what type of merchandise the center should invest. For instance, Suhr was taken aback to learn that the center needs to carry lots of inexpensive rosaries as some customers purchase them by the hundreds to distribute in prisons and jails.
“Kathy and Bill’s cash infusion made it so we don’t have to buy just a few of this and few of that,” said Groark. “If there’s something we know is going to be a big seller, like the biographies of our new Holy Father, we can buy 20 copies of each. In years past, when we had to watch every single nickel, we might buy six or seven. This allows us to retain more customers.”
Frassetto-Suhr, Suhr and Groark expressed special appreciation for customers who spend their money locally rather than buying online.
“In 2012, our revenues increased 25 percent over 2011,” said Groark. “In this economic environment, in a niche business – especially books – we felt that was a major win.”
During spring, first Communion and confirmation gifts have been big sellers, naturally.
Year-round, customers can buy Christmas items donated by noted crèche collectors John and Judy Musser of Kenosha. The couple gave 45 nativity sets to the center to sell, with proceeds benefiting Pro-Life Wisconsin, Covenant House (a New York-based agency assisting homeless, throwaway and runaway children) and Star of the Sea (a Chicago organization that fights human and sexual trafficking).
When the Marian Center begins to operate in the black, Frassetto-Suhr and Suhr intend to direct profits to those groups through Marian Charities, a 501(c)(3) organization they established. The couple takes no salary from the Marian Center or Marian Charities.
“All of the organizations are related to children and young people – the unborn to late teenagers,” noted Suhr. “As we all know, the future of our world is its children, so that’s where we think our efforts should be.”
The couple said being involved in the Marian Center has strengthened their faith.
“We’re doing what Jesus wants us to do – spread the word and welcome people when they come in,” explained Frassetto-Suhr. “We are servants of people. It’s very fulfilling to be able to help people.”