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A New Day for Monte Alverno: The landmark religious retreat becomes a center for environmental education

IMG_1151_webBy Will Stahl

Tucked away at the end of Ballard Road on Appleton’s east side is one of the most beautiful buildings in the Fox Valley. Built of rough-cut limestone, Monte Alverno stands majestically on a bluff overlooking the river amid park-like grounds, flanked by small stands of woods.

For eighty years the Capuchin order of the Catholic Church operated this facility as a retreat center. Groups met here to confer, study and meditate.

By fall 2013, the order was ready to let the place go, and they hoped to find a buyer who would not simply use the valuable property for development. They found one in the Fox River Environmental Education Alliance (FREEA).

In a meeting at Monte Alverno, Vicki Vogel, president of FREEA, told me her organization grew out of the Fox River Trackers, the adult support group for the Fox River Academy, an Appleton School District charter school focused on study and preservation of the environment.

Formed in 2005, the Trackers’ aim was to fund the environmental activities of the FRA students, such as their project to clean and restore a trashed ravine in Pierce Park. Over the last seven or eight years they have developed partnerships with other community organizations, and out this grew FREEA.

The principle goal of the alliance is, in Vicki’s words, “raising environmental literacy.”

Secondarily, they want to provide recreational opportunities for the community right there in the city and convention and meeting space, especially for groups with an environmental orientation. These goals will be supported by the acquisition of the Monte Alverno property.

Vicki said FREEA heard the property was becoming available before it ever was placed on the market. The Capuchins were delighted to find a buyer who wanted to use the building for a beneficial purpose and pleased they would retain the historic name. The order was an offshoot of the Franciscans, and Monte Alverno was the place in Italy where Francis received the stigmata. A statue of a placid Francis, bird on shoulder, stands near the building’s west end.

As she led me on a tour of the building, Vicki pointed out its features and potential uses.

Two long two-story dormitory wings extend from the central area. The east wing is part of the original 1934 building and has many interesting architectural details. It will be retained mostly as it is for the use of overnight guests. The more prosaic west wing, dating from 1965, will be gutted and remodeled into classroom space to house FREEA’s educational programs. The Fox River Academy Charter School may eventually relocate into some of this space.

The building has a number of existing offices for which FREEA is seeking permanent tenants. The Capuchins will maintain an office on the lower level and will be partners in the endeavor. Other organizations or businesses are welcome.

The central area contains several bright, inviting spaces that will be available for meetings and gatherings. These include the former chapel, which can accommodate larger groups and weddings.

Food service will be available in the lower-level dining hall for some of the regularly scheduled events, banquets, and even wedding receptions. FREEA has developed what they think is a solid business plan, and they believe the facility can eventually become self-supporting, and in time, even support other non-profits. In the meantime they plan to solicit capital donations.

To begin, they received a loan from the Conservation Fund, a “non-traditional lender.” Some of that loan should be paid by a grant from the Knowles-Nelson Stewardship Fund. Lawrence University, another partner, wrote the DNR in support of the effort.

Vicki said they met with other area preserves such as Bubolz and Thousand Islands to be sure FREEA would not “step on their toes.” They want to complement, not compete with, other preserves and environmental educators.

In addition to the great stone building, FREEA received nearly ten acres of land with 870 feet of Fox River frontage. Part of it is in woods, part is treed lawn. They hope to remove invasive species and replant much of the property with native species to support local wildlife.

On the riverfront the Monte Alverno facility will offer canoe and kayak rental and a place for the public to launch their own boats.  “We have a three-mile stretch of river here without dams,” Vicki said.

A mile-long walking path extends west along the riverbank, and it will also be open. The hope is that not only will the community have a new place to recreate, but also exposing people to the river will persuade them of the importance of finishing the Fox River cleanup effort that has made so much progress in recent years.

Scheduled activities will give people a chance to increase their environmental literacy. On June 7 FREEA will host a Carp Fishing Contest and Invasive Species Awareness Day. It will offer awards for the biggest fish and the most fish caught by members of each age group. Volunteers will lead various hands-on activities to increase awareness of plants and aquatic life that have been introduced here and multiplied out of control.

Beginning probably in May, they will have Friday night activities that will alternate between “River Talks,” when adult guests will meet to have a meal and discuss various environmental issues and “Families on the Fox River” when families receive a meal and then do an activity to learn more about the environment.

The benefits to the community of FREEA’s stewardship of the Monte Alverno property are many. An eighty-year-old community landmark is being preserved. Residents get a new access to the river and the value of the area in general will be raised. Paths and picnic areas will be available. Community groups and businesses will have an attractive, inviting place to hold meetings and conventions.

If you wish to learn more about the Fox River Environmental Alliance, its activities or how you can support its efforts, go to their website at foxrivereea.org. FREEA is a 501 (c)(3) organization.

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