A cancer diagnosis of any type yields a terrific blow, a series of unanswered questions and concerns about the future. Often, comfort and peace can be found while strolling along a wooded, voiceless path – a place where God speaks through gentle waters, chirping birds and flower gardens filled with hues of purple, white, pink and blue.
A place such as this calls visitors to soak in the stillness and listen, feel and experience the goodness of nature. It will be a welcome destination in Franklin once the Conservancy for Healing and Heritage opens.
Located on 36 acres of land just north of Rawson Avenue between South 68th Street and West Loomis Road, this sanctuary of woodland and wetland encompassing the spring-fed Kopmeier Lake aspires to bring healing to the soul.
According to Mike Murry, chairman of the Conservancy for Healing and Heritage, the property was originally purchased by the Kopmeier family in 1889. The family owned Wisconsin Ice and Coal, a company known more recently as Hometown. For 60 years, they used the lake and surrounding forest as their summer home and as a site for company picnics, but in 1955, they donated it to the Archdiocese of Milwaukee where it became a rustic retreat for priests of the archdiocese.
Some Milwaukeeans still refer to the body of water as “Priest’s Lake,” according to a history of the conservancy written by Milwaukee historian John Gurda.
In 1987, Milwaukee’s Polish community, the Polish Heritage Alliance, purchased the property and built a Polish Center on the grounds.
“A year after the center was completed, St. Francis Hospital, a part of Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, opened the Reiman Center for Cancer Care on the southwest corner of the center’s property,” said Murry. “That center was named after Roy and Bobbie Reiman made a donation for this purpose and originally a healing garden was supposed to be attached to the Reiman Center, but didn’t materialize.”
During the ribbon cutting of the Reiman Center, Murry took the couple aside and discussed building a healing garden on some of the Polish Center property.
“We thought we could buy the land and lake with the exception of 10 acres surrounding the Polish Center and put that property into a conservancy,” he said. “Then we could have a conservancy building and a healing garden attached to the Reiman Center. If it weren’t for Judge Michael Skwierawski and John Gurda, both members of the Polish Center who helped me with all the legal aspects of forming a conservancy, none of this would be happening.”
According to Murry, the Conservancy for Healing and Heritage purchased the land in 2003, with three goals in mind: To conserve an exceptional natural resource, to create a system of trails and pathways encircling the lake for the community to enjoy and to turn the land into a place for cancer patients to experience a tranquil oasis during treatment.
“We have had tremendous support from the City of Franklin on our efforts to create this sanctuary,” he said. “People think it is a great idea to preserve the virgin timber, the woods, and the lake itself and everyone is excited. We had an open house (in 2009) where we invited the community to see where we would be placing the trails and they were able to see where it was going and what it looked like around the lake and in the woods. It is going to be beautiful, it is the only glacier natural lake in Milwaukee County and it is a beautiful area. Very few people even knew that this lake was there. The response to his project has been tremendous.”
Efforts are underway to secure a major benefactor for the project, estimated at under $4 million, before implementing additional fundraising efforts. Construction is expected to begin once the major financial sponsor is named.
The second step in fundraising will be to focus on companies, foundations and individuals who have given to these types of projects in the past, and the third phase will be appealing to individuals who wish to leave a legacy.
“We are doing so much prep work for this, that once the sponsor gets on board, we will be shovel ready,” he said, adding, “An undertaking of this magnitude requires funding, not only for the construction of the trials and the healing garden, but the preservation and maintenance of the natural environment for generations to enjoy.”
In a telephone interview in June, Murry noted, the organizers have commitments from WE Energies and Johnson Controls and MillerCoors and are hoping for a commitment from Northwestern Mutual.
Although designated a healing conservancy, the grounds will be open to the public for enjoyment and meditation. As Milwaukee County Executive, Scott Walker voiced support for the plan that promises to help those dealing with difficult situations, improve outdoor experiences and provide a respite for anyone needing a soothing place to visit.
“The Conservancy for Healing and Heritage’s plan to preserve land in Franklin for use by the greater community as well as nearby Reiman Cancer Center patients, caregivers, and families is a wonderful idea,” he said in a press release issued in June 2010 by the Conservancy for Healing and Heritage. “This project will help highlight one of Milwaukee County’s hidden jewels and improve the quality of life for visitors, patients, and residents alike for generations to come.”
Set on the edge of the woods, adjoining the Wheaton Franciscan Reiman Cancer Center, the Healing Garden will merge with paths and trails surrounding the scenic Kopmeier Lake.
For Dr. Francis Cuevas, hematologist/oncologist at Wheaton Franciscan Healthcare, the conservancy will provide rest and calmness for the mind and soul.
“Nature has a way of healing,” he said. “We can provide conventional therapies and the rest is up to nature and the patient.”