success stories

Posted May 27, 2004

Closing Down Doesn’t Always Mean the End. In the Story Below it Translated into Creativity and New Life. A Success Story that is pertinent to dioceses that are shutting down some of their facilities.

Bed-and-breakfast in former convent
a place for quiet reflection

By Katie Eder
Catholic News Service

St. Anthony Parish in Steinauer faced the same dilemma that many parishes did in the 1970s and 1980s -- what to do with buildings that once housed Catholic schools and convents.

The buildings were too nice to let deteriorate. The brick convent and school were built in 1932 to replace buildings destroyed in a fire. Both buildings featured ornate windows and wood floors.

But through the generosity of an anonymous donor and the elbow grease of several parishioners, the former Catholic school and convent have been transformed into the Convent House Bed and Breakfast, a peaceful getaway and an asset to the town of about 75 inhabitants.

"The school and convent were just sitting idle and not being used for anything," said Marjorie Wenzl. She along with Marilyn Wenzl and Erma Gyhra came up with the idea of a bed-and-breakfast, and the three donated their time to renovate the building and run the business.

Marjorie and Marilyn Wenzl are distantly related through their husbands.

The three women received permission from Bishop Fabian W. Bruskewitz of Lincoln and the parish to convert the buildings into a bed-and-breakfast, but they didn't know where to start. Marjorie Wenzl said they didn't want to use parish funds for the project, so they started without any money.

The convent had five upstairs bedrooms with a shared bathroom. The first floor featured a public sitting room, office, dining room and kitchen.

In an interview with the Southern Nebraska Register, newspaper of the Lincoln Diocese, Marilyn Wenzl said the school closed in 1970, but at one time it was staffed with five Benedictine nuns. The school had three classrooms, a library and a chapel.

An anonymous benefactor donated $5,000 to begin renovations. Then the women held a fund-raiser that included allowing families to sponsor individual rooms for $500. Each donor was recognized with a plaque, which includes photos of their families.

Marilyn Wenzl said they tried to retain as much of the original character of the buildings as possible. The women repaired and decorated the buildings in keeping with the simple character of the convent. They repaired an area that had water damage and made some of the rooms handicapped-accessible. When they pulled up old carpet they found beautiful wood floors throughout the convent that they simply refinished.

The three women have put profits from the bed-and-breakfast back into the building and parish. They used to do all the cleaning of the buildings, but now hire a woman to do that work.

After five years of operation, the women renovated the basement of the convent, which for many years was little more than a cellar. Now it is a large room that has two double beds, one single bed and a private bathroom.

One of the classrooms has been converted into a banquet room which can seat 40 to 50 people. Marjorie Wenzl owns a separate catering business and caters meals there.

Relatives of the Steinauer family in Switzerland, for whom the town is named, donated an arboretum and paid for landscaping of the property.

In the future the women would like to construct a spiritual or nature walk on the land near the convent.

Father Tom Wiedel, pastor of St. Anthony, said the money made at the bed-and-breakfast has allowed the women to fix up the rectory, make a sizable donation to a new high altar recently installed in St. Anthony Church and donate two angels for that altar.

Proceeds are also used to pay for utilities and other expenses for the religious education program.

Marilyn Wenzl said they have had guests from nearly every state and overseas. Visitors come to fish, for weddings or funerals or to enjoy crafting weekends making quilts or scrapbooks.

Gyhra said it is a quiet place to get away. Many people have commented on the quiet atmosphere, the beauty and the peacefulness. At night, people can sit in the back yard and see the stars.

One woman called to ask what there was to do in the area. Gyhra said there was fishing, and long walks through the small town, but not really a lot to do.

"Great," the woman said. "I don't want to do anything."

"It's been very good to our little town to have something like this," Gyhra said.

- - -

Editor's Note: More information about Convent House Bed and Breakfast is available by calling Erma Gyhra at: (402) 869-2276, or by e-mail (marilynwenzl@alltel.net)