ANN ARBOR, MI — The St. Francis of Assisi Parish traces its roots in Ann Arbor back to 1950, and it’s grown to become one of the largest Roman Catholic churches in the region.
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The existing church building at 2250 E. Stadium Blvd., across from Tappan Middle School, was built in the late 1960s and has undergone multiple expansions over the decades.
It’s now a place of worship for nearly 3,000 families, while several hundred students receive education at its Catholic school on the roughly 10-acre campus.
St. Francis received approval from City Council this past week for a two-story ministry center, a roughly 14,600-square-foot addition on the west side of the church.
Council Member Julie Grand, D-3rd Ward, offered some praise for the parish, calling attention to the intent of the expansion.
“Which includes efforts that align with St. Francis’ mission on social justice,” she said, noting that includes hosting homeless people as part of a rotating church shelter program through the Shelter Association of Washtenaw County.
“I really appreciate what they’ve done and look forward to allowing this to move forward,” Grand said.
For over 70 years, St. Francis has been known for its rich liturgical life, vibrant education programs and strong social justice and outreach programs, The Rev. James Conlon said.
The thousands who worship there come from every continent and ethnic background, and that diversity is “part of our great treasure,” Conlon said.
“As we have grown, we simply have needed more space. So the plans to build a new ministry center with up-to-date technology and flexible use of space was launched to meet this need,” he said, adding it will serve the parish and greater community.
It will provide space for a variety of parish activities like school concerts, parish receptions, family gatherings, larger worship activities and wedding and funeral receptions, Conlon said.
“Recently we began to see how we could meet the needs of the growing Hispanic community in our region and to invite them to share their gifts and experiences with us,” Conlon said. “We also have for many years provided a free tax-preparation program that is growing and needs more time and space.”
The parish wants to do more around the issue of homelessness, Conlon said, noting the parish for many years has been one of the venues for the rotating shelter program.
“As these needs have grown, so has our realization that we can and need to do more. The proposed ministry center will allow us the necessary space to meet those needs and to offer more assistance,” Conlon said.
“In many ways, this is our generation’s response to those growing needs and to building on what previous generations began in 1950. I feel so blessed to be the pastor of this large and vibrant community and to be able to see our plans begin to come to fruition. The new ministry center will certainly be a great gift to our community and to the region.”
St. Francis could break ground on the expansion as early as May, said Robert Kehn, parish business manager.
It will bring the total floor area of the church and its school to over 71,000 square feet, according to a city planning report, which notes several parking spaces will be removed, along with 22 trees. Seven replacement trees will be planted.
As part of the building expansion, the church will be required to install 26 electric vehicle chargers in its parking area, which has over 280 spaces, and make 65 spaces ready or capable to add EV chargers in the future, per a new city ordinance.
The building expansion project, funded by a capital fundraising campaign underway for several years, is expected to cost over $5 million, Kehn said.
The parish has worked with Hobbs and Black Architects, and the building is designed to be practical and energy-efficient, he said.
The new ministry center will be able to seat about 600 people in rows for staged presentations or performances, or up to 300 people at tables for meals, with a movable wall to divide the main hall into breakout rooms for small groups.
A commercial kitchen and shower facility are included in the design for when it’s used to shelter the homeless, along with ample restrooms, Kehn said.
The second floor will include new office space for the parish staff. Moving parish offices will eventually allow renovating the parish’s existing office building and turning it over to the school, Conlon said, noting that will provide more space for one-on-one instruction, music and drama programs, and storage.
St. Francis provides Catholic education to about 425 pre-K through eighth-grade students, and additional religious education and sacramental preparation to more than 450 students who attend local public schools.
The parish has an active outreach ministry to provide relief to those needing financial assistance, lacking food and shelter or craving spiritual direction, Kehn said.
Its ministry to the Hispanic community has grown and the parish is working to provide a spiritual home for Spanish-speaking people in the Ann Arbor-Ypsilanti area, he said.
“Whatever we do in terms of Bible study and faith formation and religious education for the English-speaking community, we want to expand that into the Spanish-speaking community as well,” he said, expressing hopes the new space will help with some of those ministry efforts.
An existing parish activity center on the campus, known as “the PAC,” was added in 1980 to provide gathering space and a kitchen, but it’s shared by the school, several church groups and other organizations, Kehn said.
“We do have some things in our own parish life that struggle with space. For example, if the science fair is going on in the parish activity center, there’s no way to host a funeral luncheon after a funeral,” Kehn said.
“Building this additional space would allow the existing parish activity center to be used more by the school, and then we have more dedicated space for other ministry work.”
The expansion comes following a year in which the church and its school have made a lot of changes to adapt amid the pandemic. There have been outdoor classes when the weather is warm, and drive-thru confession outside the church last spring and summer, shifting now to confession in an open space in the church with social distancing, Kehn said.
The school has grown over the last couple years and has remained strong through the pandemic, he said.
It opened for the school year in September with in-person and virtual classes and modifications to classrooms, including plexiglass between work stations. The school converted its library to a teacher lounge and has avoided mixing different student cohorts, which meant no open recess, Kehn said.
St. Francis also has encouraged families to keep their family circles close and tight, and so far it’s worked well, Kehn said. While there have been occasional COVID-19 cases, so far there haven’t been any major outbreaks at St. Francis, he said.
Inside the church, which normally has an 850-person seating capacity, only about a quarter of the pews are open, while the rest are roped off so people are spaced apart during mass.
Hand sanitizer awaits parishioners at the entrance and masks are required to be worn, though parishioners can pull them down to take communion, Kehn said.
“The priest is distributing communion with a mask on,” he said. “There have been no song books in the pews. Our vocalists have been scaled back heavily. There still is mass, we still are worshipping, but it’s different.”
The church is offering an online livestream of its masses for those worried about attending amid the pandemic.
“There’s a lot of folks who are really missing mass,” Kehn said. “There’s a lot of folks really afraid to go to mass because of the risks to their health, so we’re just trying to accommodate everybody as best as possible.”
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