Preservationists seek to save monastery

September 11, 1995|By Greg Tasker | Greg Tasker,Western Maryland Bureau of The Sun

CUMBERLAND -- Preservationists are proposing that a vacant 19th-century monastery -- scheduled to be demolished -- be renovated as a bed-and-breakfast inn and conference center and as a shrine to St. John Neumann, the first American male saint.

Although the Preservation Society of Allegany County Inc. has presented its "vision" for the monastery to the Archdiocese of Baltimore, which owns the medieval-looking structure, church officials are pursuing plans to raze the building.

A hearing on the demolition request is scheduled today before the city's Historic Preservation Commission. The monastery is in Cumberland's historic district and any changes to buildings is subject to the approval of that board and the city.

The parish, Saints Peter and Paul Catholic Church, has proposed demolishing the building for a parking lot and a smaller church addition.

Church officials have said the 1,200-family parish cannot afford to maintain the monastery or to restore the structure, which was built in 1852 and has been vacant since the mid-1980s.

"We think this is a significant building for the City of Cumberland," said Mary E. Miltenberger, president of the preservation group. "If the Archdiocese doesn't want to save it, then give it to someone who has use for it. I have helped renovate at least a half-dozen old properties in this town, so they're not talking to some little do-gooder."

Under her group's proposal, the monastery's chapel would be converted into a shrine honoring St. John Neumann, a priest of the Redemptorist Order who helped found the Cumberland parish and chose the site for the church in 1848. He later became a distinguished bishop of Philadelphia. Other sections of the monastery would be used as a bed-and-breakfast inn and conference center. A basement would be used as a monastic museum. The parish could also use parts of the monastery, Mrs. Miltenberger said.

She said the building could be leased or sold to a nonprofit organization. Renovation costs have been estimated at $1 million to $2 million. "Our plan makes use of the whole building," she said.

The Rev. Vance Pastorius, the parish pastor, called the preservation group's proposal "a nonplan." He said church officials have not changed their stance on the building's demolition, which has been approved by Cardinal William H. Keeler. "Their plan is a vision," he said. "It's a dream. It's a sketch of something that might happen. It's not anything to make a reasonable person think that it's going to work and, therefore, would do it. It's not a plan, and it should not be taken very seriously."

Father Pastorius said the proposal to make the chapel into a shrine for St. John Neumann was a stretch. "What's the sense of having anything there to do with him?" he asked. "He had nothing to do with the chapel. It was built 29 years after he died."

In addition, he said plans for a bed and breakfast wouldn't work either. He said the rooms are too small and narrow. Space, too, is not large enough for a conference center, he said.

And William Blaul, archdiocese spokesman, said, "We need to be talking about dollars to make any kind of a project a reality. Love for buildings is great, but historical importance needs to be addressed."

Mrs. Miltenberger, however, maintained the group's proposal is feasible.

She said the proposal is a "starting point" and cannot be more detailed until the archdiocese is willing to meet with preservationists. "We have a lot of people interested in contributing money but are not going to do so unless we have title to the property," said Mrs. Miltenberger, who has been trying to preserve the monastery since the 1970s. "We have a lot of issues to work out."

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