A few trees on the long driveway to 4123 Monona Drive are starting to turn orange on what feels like the first day of fall. The friary is a big cream colored house with blue/gray trim, and just past the backyard is Lake Monona.
In 1929 the house was deeded to the St. Norbert Abbey and was used to house students. It earned the name San Damiano Friary when, in 1975, the Capuchin Province of St. Joseph began using the space for retreats and retirement housing. But the San Damiano Friary has sat empty for nearly five years, after the last priest moved out. This year, the Monona city assessor pulled the property’s tax-exempt status after prompting from the Freedom from Religion Foundation, reports the Wisconsin State Journal.
In November 2019, St. Norbert Abbey applied for a demolition permit, but after some public concern about demolishing the historic building, they pulled the application. City of Monona City Administrator Bryan Gadow says after the Abbey pulled the demolition request, they approached the city with the opportunity to sell. Over the past six months, Gadow says the city gathered the input of potential donors which they presented to the city council. “The comments we heard from the philanthropic community, were that it was a once of lifetime opportunity,” he says. “A piece of property like the San Damiano property, does not come along often. And given the fact that it’s got a thousand feet of lake shore and there’s a beautiful wooden edge along the area makes it a really unique parcel of land that has a lot of potential for the community to define how it will be used in the future.”
The council voted unanimously Tuesday night to purchase San Damiano Friary. Gadow says it is too soon to say how the property will be used and whether the house will be preserved. The city council is looking to gain extensive community input and is considering a referendum on the Spring 2021 ballot.
To finalize the sale, the Norbertines still need approval from the Vatican in Rome. If all goes as planned, the city will take ownership next June.