A mostly dark block of buildings in Dubuque could again become a focal point of community life if resources fall into place.
Plans are coalescing for the rebirth of the area known as the St. Mary’s Church Campus, bordered by White and Jackson streets and 15th and 16th streets. Buildings more than a century old would be restored, renovated and repurposed into a mix of living, working, learning and playing spaces.

The Telegraph Herald reports that every week for the past year, a group has met to study how to preserve the history and architecture of the structures and create a social hub for the neighborhood.

The Friends of St. Mary’s includes representatives from the business, financial, civic, religious, arts and social-service sectors.

The group is unveiling plans for three of the campus buildings. The fourth, the former Franciscan convent that houses the

Maria House and offices of Opening Doors, would remain as is.

“A wide range of folks has been studying this, hoping to create a community place that will influence all of Dubuque life,” said Monsignor Tom Toale, vicar general of the Dubuque Archdiocese.

The three buildings are owned by St. Mary’s Church Corp. The St. Mary’s entity no longer offers religious services since the church closed four years ago, but it continues overseeing the “temporal goods” — assets, liabilities, facilities — of the former parish.

Dwarfed by the Gothic Revival church’s vaulted ceilings, archways and columns, some members of the Friends of St. Mary’s laid out their vision:

  • The original St. Mary’s School on Jackson Street (three floors) will have its large, high-ceilinged classrooms renovated into 12 two- and three-bedroom apartments and communal space for gathering and recreation.
  • The former church rectory (three floors) will be redesigned into office spaces for nonprofit groups and for-profit businesses.
  • The former St. Mary’s Church will have its 100,000-square-foot basement (half of which has the original dirt floor) turned into several sizes of multipurpose spaces for uses such as day care, Head Start, culinary classes, a community kitchen, offices, conferences and more. A gallery corridor will border its east side. The main floor could house custom-sized spaces for individual tenants as well as larger public sites for performing arts, a coffee shop/cafe or other uses.

Michelle Brown, executive director of the social services agency Opening Doors, is excited about the proposals on several levels.

“We’ve watched these buildings close one by one, inviting crime and blight. People are reluctant to drive into the neighborhood now. I’d love to see this area people-centered again,” Brown said.

Brown said the school will be renovated into apartments for women with children, especially families that graduate from the Maria House, a transitional shelter.

“There is a great need for affordable housing for women with children. Most are working minimum-wage jobs and can’t keep their apartments, so they cycle in and out of shelters,” she said. “We have identified so many families who would flourish in this setting.”

The families would share staff, support services and a new, large playground with Maria House residents.

Dubuque developer John Gronen is confident that the proposed projects can be completed in a timely manner and that funding for them can be raised from three main sources — grants, tax credits and philanthropy. The group is not ready to estimate project costs until some further prices are pinned down, but there is widespread interest in supporting the proposals, Toale said.

“From the point when the funding is secured, we can finish a project in 16 months,” said Gronen, who has spearheaded numerous historic preservation projects in Dubuque’s downtown.

By Mary Nevans-Pederson, Dubuque Telegraph Herald
As published in Des Moines Register. View article here.