The St. Francis house brouhaha

I’ve had several inquiries from parishioners about what’s happening with St. Francis House, the Episcopal Chaplaincy at UW Madison, and decided it was time to offer my perspective. I’ve been a member of the board since early 2010. When I joined, discussions about the future of the chaplaincy were well underway. The chaplaincy had been funded by an endowment that over the last decade or more has been depleted in order to meet expenses. The building itself is in need of several hundred thousand dollars of deferred maintenance. Clearly, we were approaching a crisis.

At the end of its visioning process, the board concluded that the chaplaincy’s physical presence on UW’s campus was of vital importance and that we should do whatever we could to ensure that presence. We are also convinced of the importance of college chaplaincy to the future of the Episcopal Church. Such programs have served as the incubator for the church’s future leadership, and St. Francis House is no exception. We believe Anglicanism is a unique and powerful witness to the Christian faith that resonates with young people in an academic setting.

The chaplaincy’s greatest asset is its property, located on the heart of UW Madison’s campus. A number of options for moving forward were considered, including some sort of joint-venture development with our Lutheran neighbors. After exploring the possibility of an outright sale of the property, the board decided to move forward with a public/private partnership with a private developer. The plan is to demolish the 1964 chapel, move the historic building to the corner of the lot, and build an L-shaped student apartment complex on the remainder of the property. This portion of the property would return to the property tax rolls, and income from the project would place the Episcopal Chaplaincy on firm financial ground.

There has been lively debate on the board about the importance of having a physical presence on campus; in the end, the option to sell the property seemed shortsighted. It is also the case that an outright sale would not generate enough income to pay for the sort of chaplaincy envisioned by the board.

Bishop Miller wrote a letter on May 15 that captures the board’s reasoning and also speaks eloquently to the importance of campus ministry. He wrote:

Strengthening Campus ministry and the funding for it has been one of my priorities as bishop because it was through the Episcopal Ministry at Michigan State University I discovered The Episcopal Church and found a spiritual home. Over the last few years I have worked with our chaplains, the St. Francis House Board, and our diocesan convention to strengthen and restore this ministry. Each week a faithful community gathers for prayer, fellowship, and study at our home at 1001 University Avenue. Over the past eight years the ministry at St. Francis House has produced some great future leaders of our church including one candidate for ordination, and two others who are now exploring the possibility of ordained ministry while serving as missioner of the Episcopal Service Corps.

The full letter is here: bishopsletter.

The City Planning Commission rejected the proposal at its meeting this week. There has been vocal opposition from our neighbors at Luther Memorial Church. It is unfortunate that this conflict has arisen. Bishop Miller, the board, and the developers have worked hard to assuage any concerns our neighbors might have. In the end, however, our primary obligation is  to strengthen the mission and ministry of the Episcopal Chaplaincy at UW.

Who knows what will happen next but the board remains committed to this project and the promise it holds for empowering Episcopal campus ministry in the coming decades.

For background reading here are relevant articles from the Madison State Journal

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