Tuesday, April 13th, 2021

Tippmann Foundation restoring St. Felix Friary

Posted: Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Long hallways that were once walked by brown-robed brothers at the former St. Felix Friary at 1280 Hitzfield Street have received a fresh coat of paint and the surrounding building is being completely restored. Last August the vacant property was purchased by a foundation headed by John V. Tippmann Sr., a Catholic businessman and investor from Fort Wayne, and the work began.

Funds of over $2 million dollars from the Mary Cross Tippmann Foundation, chaired by John Tippmann, have been spent thus far on renovations to St. Felix. The Mary Cross Tippmann Foundation invests in real estate and gives money primarily to Catholic churches, educational entities and social causes. It was instrumental in the restoration of Fort Wayne’s Lincoln Tower.

Originally built in 1928, the monastery housed men who lived a consecrated religious life, praying, studying, working, eating and sleeping, wholly devoted to God and service to mankind. St. Felix was built as a novitiate and was designed by Huntington architect, Robert Stevens Sr. It was a place where men who wanted to become priests came to explore that possibility and study towards that end.

The brothers who resided at St. Felix planted 170 apple trees, grape arbors and gardens. They were totally self-sufficient and even preserved their own food supply. The friary is named for St. Felix of Cantalice, Italy, a Capuchin priest who lived from 1515 to 1587, known for his love of nature and youth, and prayers for healing of the sick.

Tippmann’s inspiration for the renovation of the friary, according to Father Ron Rieder of SS. Peter and Paul Catholic Church in Huntington who lived at the friary from 1956 to 1959, was a former resident of the friary. Upon Tippmann’s initial visit to and inquiries about the property, Father Ron gave him a book about former friary resident Father Solanus Casey.

Father Solanus was born in 1870 in Wisconsin and served parishes in New York and Detroit each for 20 years. Father Solanus lived at St. Felix Friary 10 years from 1946 to 1956 and returned to Detroit and passed away at age 87 in 1957. Father Ron got to know and had spent time in Detroit with Father Solanus in 1955 and 1956.

Father Solanus is known for his compassion and consultations with visitors. Thousands of cures have been associated with his prayers for healing, and Pope John Paul II declared him “venerable” in 1995 – a step on the way to “canonization” or sainthood. Father Solanus believed God’s spirit worked in the world through Jesus of Nazareth to heal “all who were afflicted.” When sainthood is achieved, Father Solanus will be the first priest born on American soil to receive the honor.

Both Father Solanus and Father Ron are members of the Roman Catholic Capuchin Franciscans who live a simple life in devotion to their founder, St. Francis of Assisi. The order left St. Felix around 1978 when the property was purchased by the Church of the United Brethren in Christ and it housed the Good Shepherd Church.

The Good Shepherd Church put the property up for sale in late 2009 due to rising utility costs. Father Ron commented that the church had taken “good care” of the property during their time as owners. Father Casey’s former room was kept by the church much as it appeared during his life. Protected by a padlocked door, the brother’s brown robe is draped across the small bed in the room and can be seen through a glass window in the door. Chalk and dry erase boards in the former basement youth rooms of the building still bear the names of former Good Shepherd youth group members and their “farewell comments” to the building.

Possible uses for the building, according to Father Ron and Tippmann’s plans, include some type of a retreat center, a place for youth activities or use as a school or college by a religious order, but plans have not been completed.

In an earlier interview, Tippman said that the foundation didn’t buy it as a piece of for-profit property, but to get it back into Catholic hands. The foundation has already received some inquiries for the 29-acre site.

Tippmann’s pledge to renovate the 62,000-square-foot friary building, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places and is part of a historic district which also includes the nearby Victory Noll Center, home of Our Lady of Victory Missionary Sisters, is coming to fruition. Already 499 windows have been replaced, the exterior brick of the building has been completely tuck-pointed and cleaned, the red tile roof has been completely refurbished and the interior is gleaming with all of the work accomplished and still in progress.

The stone wall surrounding the property has been repaired and a shrine with a statue of the Virgin Mary has been repaired under the direction of Fort Wayne contractor Bob Rowlett. The 600 pound statue was originally moved from SS. Peter and Paul Church to St. Felix by Herb Hoover. Beautiful stone work with flower-dotted landscaping surround the statue which was repainted by Linda Belding of Huntington.

Truckloads of overgrown brush and dead trees have also been removed from the property and the exterior back yard has been completely tilled and reseeded. The work on the grounds was directed by Jim Zahm. A swimming pool on the grounds will most likely be filled-in as the repair costs are estimated at $80,000. An existing ball diamond is currently being refurbished for future use.

According to Father Ron, Bishop Kevin C. Rhoades of the Fort Wayne South Bend Catholic Diocese, is excited about the work being done to the property and is especially anxious for the new grass to grow and kids to come and enjoy it.

Volunteers from Huntington University, local churches, other area schools and the community have aided in the work to the property and the interior. Over 120 rooms in three stories plus the basement were designed in the original floor plans to house the brothers. Some were consolidated by the United Brethren Church for office space, but around 80 of these small “cells” remain. Each small room has a window, and holds a single bed and desk.  According to Father Ron, most historic features have been kept intact during the renovations including the wooden latches in place of doorknobs on each of these rooms. Father Ron said the wood latches can only be found two places in the world, one is St. Felix, the other is in Austria.

Father Ron went on to explain that many features in the building “were architecturally ahead of the time, such as the steel pull-down fire doors, unusual in a building of that era.” Some historic pieces of equipment used by the brothers also remain such as a fire-powered Huebsch Company clothes dryer that still is operable, original kitchen appliances and tools in the woodworking shop. A heavy cord runs down through the building and still rings the bell in the bell tower, which has been completely restored.

Upon entering St. Felix through heavy wood doors, the chapel can be seen just up the stairs. It has new carpet and has been completely repainted in shades of soft gold. Above the altar hangs a heavy wood cross, placed there by the Good Shepherd Church. Jesus, in a nailed position, a piece of sculpture which was found in SS. Peter and Paul’s basement, has been added to the cross during the restoration of the room. Twelve columns striped in gold, beautiful woodwork and 18 stained glass windows, decorated with symbols of the faith, complete the peaceful atmosphere of the sanctuary.

Just outside the sanctuary is the former sacristy. Dark wood cabinets and drawers that were once filled with priestly robes, altar cloths and other items used in Mass line the walls of this room. From there more long hallways, walls fresh with paint and wood floors refinished, follow a pathway through the building. Dark wood doors line these corridors and open to once purpose-filled rooms.

Overhead the original Latin inscriptions line the arches over the walkways. Father Ron explained that the Latin words such as Oportet Semper Orare, are in English, “It is important to pray all the time;” O Beata Solitudo, O Sola Beatitudo, “O Beautiful Solitude, O Only Happiness;”  Silentium, “Silence;” Sanctus, Sanctus, Sanctus, “Holy, Holy, Holy” and many more are reminders of St. Felix’s early residents.

The larger rooms in the building all served a purpose for the brothers. The kitchen is located on the lower level and contains the original cupboards, tile, floor and cooking and baking equipment. A game room is now vacant and was used for pool, ping pong, card games and more.

In the refectory in the basement, communal meals provided one of the times in which all the brothers of the establishment were together. The tables and benches in St. Felix’s refectory were made by the early residents in the woodshop and no bolts or nails were used in their construction. The heavy wood tables are hard for the average person to even lift and are held together by the wood used in the construction. Beautifully lined wood rises three-quarters of the way up the walls and is finished with an artistic edge.

The choir room, according to Father Ron, is the heart of the monastery. All of the brothers living in the monastery would gather for prayer and praise to God in this room. Rows of wooden chairs carved into the wood lining of this room’s walls face each other from each side. An ornate wood altar graces the front of the room. Seated in these rows of chairs, the friars would offer their  praises  to  God  by  reciting  all 150 Psalms back and forth between each other each day.

St. Felix had its own tailor shop where the brothers made their brown robes and leather sandals. The room holds its original furnishings today. While the building was owned by the United Brethren Church, the food pantry of Love INC was begun in a room near the front of the building. Shepherd’s Closet, a clothing ministry, was also housed at St. Felix. Both of these ministries are now combined in the Love INC building at 715 Byron Street in Huntington.

The building also has a library, conference room, classrooms, guest quarters, private quarters for the manager, offices and more. The building’s restrooms have been totally reworked and are covered with elegant ceramic tile, beautiful vanities with sinks, shower stalls and toilets. The electrical upgrade to the building was done by Denny Young. Mann’s Inc. is redoing the plumbing and heating and will install four new boilers. The building was originally heated with coal. The outbuildings and garages on the property have also received a “facelift.”

Rob Mayo and wife Karen live at St Felix and oversee its care. Mayo greets visitors in a friendly way and is happy to explain the work that has been done so far. Mayo finds St. Felix “a place of love and peace,” that he says, “can be felt.”

Father Ron said that “Nothing makes me happier than to know this place is being restored, what they have done is endless.”

A new piece of artwork found at St. Felix says, “Faith is not believing that God can – it is knowing that He will.” Thanks to John Tippmann and his generosity, St. Felix will be completely restored and God will direct the plan and purpose He has for the building.

Note: Books are available about the life of Solanus Casey and his time spent at St. Felix Friary is included. Two of these books are The Porter of Saint Bonaventure’s by James Patrick Derum and Thank God Ahead of Time, The Life and Spirituality of Solanus Casey by Michael H. Crosby.