Alexian Brothers Novitiate, Gresham, Wisconsin


Mansion 1950

 

 

 


BrotherJohn of God Blackledge, C.F.A., Novicemaster, greeting new arrivals at the Novitiate in 1951 or 1952

 

 

 


The Novitiate in 1960

 

 


Chapel

 


Peters Hall

 


Cloister Walk

 

 

 


Abandoned warrior's lookout on Novitiate roof (1975)

 

 

 


Negotiating on the National Guard bus
January
1975

 

 


Photo taken inside the Novitiate on February 6, 1975 by Lee Lefebre

 

 


Final press conference on November 13, 1975. Brother Maurice Wilson, C.F.A. is at the center.

 

 


Photo of the mansion taken by Scott Czech in May 2005

In 1950 the Alexian Brothers acquired the Gresham, Wisconsin property, some 232 acres of land and several buildings, as a gift. In 1954, a new addition was added at the cost of about $1,500,000. For seventeen years the property was used as a traditional Novitiate. In 1968, the Novitiate program was moved to Chicago, but the Gresham facility was maintained by a resident caretaker.

The home was originally built in 1939 by Mrs. Frank (Jennie) Peters of Mount Kisco, New York, the widow of a former Chicago lawyer and inventor. Mrs. Peters built the home for her invalid daughter, Jane, who died before the residence was completed. Mrs. Peters lived in the house until 1948. Following her late husband's request, she had designed the structure to make it easily convertible into a facility for the Alexian Brothers, to whom Mr. Peters had formed a strong attachment while living as a boy near the hospital on Franklin and Market Streets in Chicago. On October 6, 1948, Brother Julius, Rector of the Alexian Brothers Hospital in Oshkosh, Wisconsin, received a letter to that effect.

The existing Novitiate was named Glennondale and was located in Clayton, Missouri. It was well filled with twenty-nine Novices. With twenty Postulants housed at Signal Mountain, Tennessee, in 1949 the American Province was experiencing a veritable vocation explosion. Pater Anthony Wessel, Rector General, urged the American Provincial Council to move the Novitiate from Glennondale to Gresham.

On June 29, 1950, Brother Nicholas Barteleme arrived at Gresham as the first Rector, but it was not until March 29, 1951, after the mansion had been renovated to accommodate twenty-six Novices and eight professed Brothers, that the first Novice class, numbering fourteen, arrived at the new Novitiate.

Appraisal and deliberation eventually persuaded the Brothers of the prudence of erecting an adequate monastery that would be connected to the original house. Ground was broken in October 1953; by April 1954 work on the proposed monastery had officially commenced; and on October 30, 1955, representatives from the six Alexian houses in America assembled at Peters Hall for the dedication of a building that testified to the deep interest of the Alexians to promoting the sound spiritual training of their future confreres.

Most Reverend Stanislaus V. Bona, Bishop of Green Bay, officiated at the ceremonies, which consisted of the blessing and setting of the cornerstone, the blessing and dedication of the Chapel and Novitiate, and benediction. Open house was held every afternoon of the following week and the public was invited to visit and be taken on a guided tour.

In 1955 a farm of 172 acres adjoining the Gresham Novitiate was purchased. The farm was used to help supply the needs of the Novitiate for meat, milk, vegetables, and eggs.

It was here in Gresham, in the remote Wisconsin wilderness, secluded from the worldly life, that the new recruits came to test their vocation and to prepare themselves for a future of service for others. It was here they received spiritual formation, pursued their studies, and developed a sense of responsibility under the direction of the older members of the Community who, together with the resident chaplain, made up the Novitiate staff. The Novitiate was structured so that the occupants were self-supporting. It provided all the necessary facilities such as a print shop (where the printing for the other Alexian Brothers houses was done,) laundry rooms, butchering area, barber shop, and many others to sustain them.

Then, in the early sixties, the Vatican Council came to a close. Its decrees, promulgated by Pope Paul VI, called for new methods of spiritual formation. The religious orders within the Church were counseled to experiment in the hope of finding improved ways to prepare their members for lives of dedication in the modern world. This meant a change of policy for the Alexian Brothers, and it meant new challenges for them.

After much deliberation, the Alexian Brothers decided to close the Novitiate and move it to Chicago. A few of the Brothers remained at the Gresham site for the next few years. The estate was put up for sale in 1969. In 1972 the remaining Brothers left, and a caretaker was put in charge to oversee the grounds and building.

An attempt was again made to sell the property, which was appraised at $3.5 million, so that the assets could be invested in one of the several Alexian health care facilities throughout the nation. The bids, however, were not forthcoming, and in 1974 negotiations began with an organization of Indians from Green Bay, Wisconsin, to lease the facility at a nominal cost for use as an Indian alcoholic and rehabilitation center. In December of 1974 all the Indians needed to complete the transaction was federal grant approval of funds to convert and maintain the facility.

Early in the morning of January 1, 1975, a dissident group of armed Indians calling themselves the Menominee Warrior Society seized the vacated Gresham property, taking the caretaker and his family hostage, saying they would hold the facility until the Alexian Brothers turned it over to them. The group wanted the property, including the 65-room mansion and two other buildings, returned to the Indians who once owned the land. The property was sealed off by County, State and Federal officers, but a spokesman for the Indians said that they were "prepared to die for what we believe in."

Throughout the initial negotiating sessions with members of the Warrior Society the Alexian Brothers maintained:

  • The Warrior Society must vacate the property peacefully and speedily;
  • The Alexian Brothers would not "give" the property to anyone;
  • The Alexian Brothers would sell the property at a reasonable price to a person or legitimately organized group of persons;
  • The Alexian Brothers would assist by supportive efforts and expertise in establishing quality programs for the persons the facility would serve.

As the Indian occupation of the Novitiate began its second month, the treat of violence increased with each passing day, and it became clear that human life was in grave danger. Vigilante activity had increased to a point where the Commander of the National Guard contingent was uncertain if his men would be able to hold back angry local citizens.

The Alexian Brothers Congregation was aware of precedents already set in similar situations: Kent State, Jackson, and Attica. They did not want Gresham added to the list. Their desire was to set a new precedent, a non-violent and reconciling one. To the Warrior Society's cry of "Deed or Death" the Alexian reply was "Life and Peace."

In the first week of February the Indians evacuated the monastery as part of the agreement signed by the Alexian Brothers and the Warriors, selling the deed to the Menominee Tribe for one dollar. The thirty-nine militants were taken in handcuffs to the Shawano County Jail. Charges brought against them were armed burglary, armed robbery, and false imprisonment. Bonds were set at $50,000 for the five main leaders. As the court proceedings dragged into 1976, the remaining four leaders were sentenced to approximately eight years in prison.

For more than five months following the Menominee takeover the Alexian Brothers in Chicago made repeated attempts to obtain future plans for the Novitiate from the Indians. Due to lack of funds and support, the Menominee Tribe was forced to relinquish all ownership of the estate.

The Alexian Brothers set a deadline of September 15 for other groups to submit proposals for utilizing the facility, and was considering nine of these offers.

On Monday, October 12, 1975, state and local lawmen sifted through blackened rubble inside the Alexian Brothers Novitiate, attempting to determine if it had been arsonists that started the Sunday morning fire that gutted the elegant structure. Flames were generally confined to the unused three-story mansion, and there was relatively little damage to an adjoining dormitory. The Gresham Fire Chief said the blaze in the big stone building was out of control when his department arrived at 9:00 a.m. Sunday. He said that the intensely hot fire had been burning for hours, unnoticed by neighbors because of the dense fog.

On November 13, 1975, the Alexian Brothers gave the Novitiate property to Crossroads Academy of Milwaukee, Wisconsin, an alternative school. Approximately fifty-six acres of the Red River frontage was given to the Town of Richmond in Shawano County for use as a park by all the people.

Over the years, the property changed hands many times, never overcoming the controversy or reaching its full potential. In the summer of 2003, the novitiate addition was torn down and in 2005, the land was divided and offered for sale by real estate developers.

Copyright Alexian Brothers Provincial Archives, 2007