Cardinal approves demolition of historic monastery


Because of an editing error, some editions yesterday incorrectly identified John Neumann as the first American saint. He was the first American male saint. Elizabeth Ann Seton was the first native-born American saint.

The Sun regrets the error.

Cardinal William H. Keeler, archbishop of Baltimore, has approved plans to tear down a pre-Civil War monastery in Cumberland, despite efforts by preservationists to save it.

The Catholic parish of SS. Peter and Paul informed members Sunday of the cardinal's decision. The parish wants to demolish the decaying, medieval-looking structure next to its church in Cumberland's historic district.

"While this action is regrettable, it seems to be the most prudent action, if not the only alternative left at this time," Cardinal Keeler said in a letter attached to church bulletins.

The 1,200-family parish cannot use the vacant monastery and cannot afford to renovate it, said the Rev. Vance Pastorius, pastor of SS. Peter and Paul Church.

The parish wants to build a church annex and parking lot on parts of the monastery site. It also plans to begin restoring the old church as early as this summer, he said.

Cardinal Keeler's decision is a blow to Allegany County preservationists, who were urging the archdiocese to lease the monastery to a nonprofit group or turn it into a shrine to St. John Neumann.

Neumann, the first American canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, chose the site for the church built in 1848. The first section of the monastery was built in 1852, and Neumann lived there on two occasions, Father Pastorius said.

People have been raising money since last month for a shrine there, said Mary C. Miltenberger, president of the Preservation Society of Allegany County Inc.

Mrs. Miltenberger, who has been trying to preserve the monastery since the 1970s, said she was "shocked" by Cardinal Keeler's decision.

"I feel that he was acting upon the advice of a couple people who do not really understand what's going on in Cumberland with regard to this monastery," she said. "I'm shocked he has not responded to our request for an audience with him.

"There are many opportunities for the building to be used and pay for itself, but [church leaders] don't have the vision for it."

Cardinal Keeler's decision followed an overwhelming vote by parishioners for a construction plan that included demolishing the monastery, said William Blaul, a spokesman for the archdiocese.

Father Pastorius said the parish considered preservation. But officials learned it would cost about $2 million to restore the entire monastery -- more than the parish could afford, he said. The parish also looked into rehabilitating just the oldest section, but even that would cost $800,000 to $900,000, he said.

"The cost was so prohibitive," he said. "The archdiocese said for that amount of money we could tear it down, put in a new building and do the other restorations we have in mind and still be way ahead for the future."

Because the monastery is in a historic district, demolition must be approved by the Historic Preservation Commission and the city, he said.

Father Pastorius said he does not expect any trouble obtaining the commission's approval because local ordinance allows demolitions for good cause. "I think we can make a strong case," he said.

But Thomas F. Conlon, a parishioner and former Cumberland mayor, expressed doubts about whether the commission would approve the demolition.

bTC "It would be the first application they ever had for demolition in the historic district," he said, adding that the monastery is eligible for placement on the National Register of Historic Places.

"This is part of the skyline of Cumberland, and it's going to look like a kid with a tooth knocked out if they tear it down," Mr. Conlon said.

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